These thoughts on Jawahar Lal Nehru are based on personal reflection. I do not refer to any one publication. Many would disagree with me. Moreover, I am not a historian. Let me begin by mentioning that I am not awe-struck by Nehru. India would have been a stronger, more prosperous and enlightened country had he not governed for so long. And yet, Jawahar had his strengths and leadership.
The unstinted support of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi on two crucial occasions explains Nehru's rise in the political firmament. The Indian National Congress had three leaders of towering national stature in 1920 - Sardar Vallabhai Patel, Mohamed Ali Jinnah and Subhas Chandra Bose. Gandhi sponsored Jawahar due to the close links he had with Jawahar's father. Jinnah left the Indian National Congress although he retained ties with the party until 1929. Subhas Chandra Bose veered in his direction. Gandhi nominated the 40 year old Jawahar as President of the Indian National Congress in 1929. The Indian National Congress had its presidential elections once again in 1946. Several state units nominated Patel for the position. Gandhi asked Patel to withdraw from the race to allow Nehru to run uncontested. This paved the way for Jawahar to become independent India's first Prime Minister in 1947.
Nehru's legacy of constitutionalism and the rule of law was profound. This Kashmiri barrister educated at Harrow, Cambridge and Inner Temple nurtured the institutions of liberal democracy in India. He ensured the resilience of the judiciary, the legislature, the federal structure, the cabinet and the civil service. India today is one of three countries in the Asian continent to have had such institutional continuity - the other two being Israel and Japan.
Nehru had a contradictory persona which makes one grudgingly respect him. Highly westernized, he made the transition to a Gandhian nationalist. An authentic liberal, he supported socialism. He opposed his father in demanding a complete break with Britain. His nationalism compelled the colonial authorities to imprison him several times in contrast to Ambedkar and Jinnah. Nehru's international outlook in the pre-independence era revealed a cosmopolitan world view. The support for the Irish Freedom Struggle, the passionate endorsement of the republican cause in the Spanish civil war and support for Iraqi nationalism in light of the incessant aerial bombing by the Royal Air Force was noteworthy.
And yet, Jawahar was a flawed leader. While Sardar Vallabhai Patel successfully integrated the multitude of problematic princely states (such as Hyderabad, Junagadh, Manipur and Travancore) into the Indian Union, Nehru messed up the Kashmir issue. He dithered when action was called for. He imposed conditions on the Kashmir Maharajah when Pakistani irregulars were ready to invade in 1947. Pakistan captured large tracts of land. Indian troops fought back and were poised to retake the strategic terrain of Baltistan and Gilgit when Pakistan called for a cease-fire. Nehru accepted the offer when his military was on the winning streak. He referred the matter to the United Nations unnecessarily internationalizing it. The issue remains unresolved to date. Indira Gandhi did her bit to recapture lost ground by retaking Kargil and Siachen in 1971 but was stopped on threat of United States intervention.
Nehru's China policy was tarnished for similar reasons. The Chinese People's Liberation Army captured Beijing in October, 1949. It moved into Tibet in 1950 and occupied Lhasa in 1951. The Tibetan administration tabled a motion at the United Nations appealing for international assistance. Nehru's delegation prevented its inclusion in the UN agenda. He withdrew the Indian garrison from Lhasa in 1950 and accepted Chinese suzerainty over 471,700 square miles of Tibet without extracting commensurate Chinese recognition of Indian claims on Kashmir.
China was not a member of the United Nations at that point. Nehru defended China in international fora while Beijing stealthily annexed 15,000 square miles of territory in Aksai Chin in 1957. India was caught unprepared. China invaded India's 32,000 square mile North East Frontier Agency in 1962 and crushed Indian resistance. Nehru helped establish the Nonaligned Movement with much ado. However, not one Non Aligned Country supported India's case vis-a-vis China. It was left to the Kennedy administration to do so.
Much has been written on Nehru's policy of socialism, centralized planning and the stifling of private initiative. India had the proverbial 2 to 3% Nehruvian rate of growth in the 1950s and 1960s. The fact that 40% of India's population continues to live on less than US$ 1 a day is an indictment on the Nehruvian vision for economic progress.
Jawahar focused on heavy industry, engineering and technology. He established the Indian Institutes of Technology. And yet he failed to build primary schools, health clinics and rural roads to educate the poor and provide decent health care in India's poverty stricken hinterland. India's record vis-a-vis literacy, infant mortality and maternal mortality was amongst the worst in the developing world. These human indicators demonstrated the failure of Nehruvian social policy. His administration had conceptualized the policy of reservations to help integrate India's scheduled castes and tribes into the national mainstream. But he did little in way of substantive investment on the ground to raise the competitiveness of the Dalit youth.
India's agricultural sector fared poorly under Nehru. Despite the anti-American rhetoric, he was dependent on American food aid. It was Mrs. Gandhi who ushered in the Green Revolution, achieved self-sufficiency in food production and turned down PL 480.
Nehru failed to introduce the uniform civil code - that ultimate test of modernity. An Indian woman's right to divorce, inherit and sue on marital grounds is constrained by the religion she is born into. Nehru fell short of the imperative of gender equity and national integration. There needs to be a level playing field applied to all Indians regardless of religion.
Jawahar alienated the likes of Ambedkar, Jayaprakash Narayan, Purushottam Das Tandon, Rajagopala Chari (rugger playing charlie) and Shyama Prasad Mookerjee. India would have had a different history had Nehru not been in power for 17 years. Term limits on the lines of the United States have their value. But alas India had been introduced to the politics of dynasty! And a controversial one at that too.
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