Jawaharlal Nehru has become unfashionable.
That is hardly surprising at a time when even Mahatma Gandhi is despised. After all, Nehru’s reputation is paying the price for the puppeteering and money-grubbing of some of those who claim his legacy — a stain that does not touch Gandhi.
On Nehru’s birth anniversary, though, it is worth remembering the awesome democrat who once ruled India — in fact, set the very democratic foundation that still stands firm.
My father used to describe a visit to Teen Murti House, the prime minister’s residence. He witnessed seeing Nehru sitting on the lawns in his immaculate white achkan and red rose, talking to some men who had come from a village. The prime minister was holding forth like a rabble-rousing demagogue. "We must struggle. We must fight for our rights. We have to fight this sarkar (government)," he told them.
According to my father, the village men sat mesmerised, watching the leader with adoring veneration, probably not registering what he was saying.
Despite such adulation, which was widespread, Nehru nurtured democratic institutions in a land where it would have been very easy to behave as another 'mai-baap' sarkar. When the new republic was still in its early days, perhaps a day or two before a Parliament session, the House proceedings needed to be sorted out. So Nehru sent a peon from his office in Parliament House to ask the Speaker to join him.
The Speaker sent back word that the Speaker does not go to the prime minister; the Leader of the House comes to meet the Speaker. It is said that Nehru went immediately to the Speaker’s office, acknowledged that he was right, and apologised.
Even from well before Independence, Nehru had been conscious of the need to guard constantly against dictatorial tendencies. While he was president of the Indian National Congress in 1937, he wrote an article under the pseudonym Chanakya, warning readers about not just the general possibility of such tendencies in public life but specifically about, yes, himself.
Here’s an excerpt of what the article that was published in Calcutta’s Modern Review, said about Nehru: "What is he aiming at with all his want of aim? What lies behind that mask of his, what will to power, what insatiate longings? His conceit is already formidable. It must be checked. We want no Caesars."
By this time, many already considered him second only to Gandhi in the Congress (and the Mahatma’s favourite). But, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose was arguably a greater mass-leader. Nehru could not take the top job in Independent India for granted. The public criticism in that article could have harmed his career.
Indeed, there was much speculation over which of his covert or overt opponents or wannabe rivals may have written that. It was many years later that the truth emerged.
There is much to be said about Nehru’s qualities, but one stands out in particular. He had the courage to publicly acknowledge that he was an agnostic and wanted no part in religious rituals whatsoever. It would have been far more politically expedient to have harnessed religion for politics in a country in which religion was so powerful, especially when his mentor, Gandhi, insisted that politics was just dirt without religion (which he conceptualised as the essence of all religions).
Rather, while inaugurating the Bhakra-Nangal dam in 1954, Nehru called the dams and factories of the public sector the temples of modern India. Deeply committed to rationalism and what he called a 'scientific temper', he could not stand superstition.
Nehru and his legacy must be interrogated and evaluated with the perspective of distance but, on his birth anniversary, it is well worth recognising his invaluable contribution to establishing democratic institutions and traditions, rationalism and modernity.