Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Jawahar Lal Nehru: Random Thoughts

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.


doubtinggaurav said...


let me play the devil's advocate.

Agreed Jawahar Lal Nehru gave the social institutions, but was that the best way?

For any institution to work, it should be organic in nature, west has instituions which are accumulation of hundreds of years of political ideas.

In contrast Nehru, imported the westminster system. In the process state was centralized and tradition centre of influence at village and city level were given a silent burial.

While judiciary and legislature do exist, can we honsetly say that they work ?

At risk of sounding like cheerleader of Indians, continuity of state is more a testimony of Indians (and Mahatma Gandhi) than resilience of western democracy.

I think The state has failed the citizens.


PS. Considering that you have dared to criticize the Primal God of Indian secularism what are the chances of "mudslinging "rebuttal from your esteemed coblogger ?

Jaffna said...


I hear you. This said, the institutions did provide stability. India is different from all its neighbors. I believe that the institutions and civic culture, how-ever flawed, help explain that. I do not particularly care for Nehru. But he did provide for institutional continuity unlike say Jinnah. And there has been decentralization since then - the power of the state and local government - the panchayats.

As for your postscript, let me take the fifth on that :-)

Best regards

Jaffna said...


I meant :state governments" - like say Tamil Nadu.


history_lover said...

From the point of view of Indian muslims,Nehru was more sympathic to thier concerns,thus adding to the dislike of the hindu rightwing for him.

Anonymous said...

History lover - you are so predictable. Its only Muslims and nothing else that moves you. There's more to life than communal identity.

cynical nerd said...

Jaffna: A neat summary covering all the sides. I agree with your criticism on economics, foreign policy, defense and international issues.

But he could'nt have done otherwise on administrative, democratic structure. India already had inherited a vast administrative machinery from the British - they called it the steel frame of India (some would later derisively call it the 'steal frame'!).

The constitutional committee had a big role in that led by Ambedkar, Rajendra Prasad and a whole lot of them. Perhaps Nehru believed in it, but I don't think he played a big role. He did'nt even finish his law studies in Cambridge right?

On his defense. You said 17 years of Nehruvian rule created a dynasty - but it did give stability, just look at Pakistan during that time - they had a bunch of coup d' etats by then. One cannot hold Nehru responsible for what happened later. It is Indira who brought in Sanjay Gandhi right?

Not that I like the present state of personal laws, but are you yourself comfortable with a state-imposed secularism and UCC (like the French)?

Also I would have liked to known why did Gandhi nominate Nehru over Patel (or even Jinnah ) ?


Anonymous said...

Great piece, Jaffna.

"He established the Indian Institutes of Technology."
I would take a South Korea any day of the week over the IITs.
These institutes have benifitted Silicon Valley more than they have India.

Disclaimer - No sour grapes here.
Received a Bachelors in Economics.

libertarian said...

Jaffna: excellent (if a little harsh) opinion. Nehru's legacy is grand success on democracy and secularism; grand failure on socialism and non-alignment. It's debatable whether Kashmir could have been integrated as easily as Junagadh was had Vallabh Patel has his way.
Folks, do you think Nehru is in the same class as Ashoka, Akbar and Gandhi? Or is he second-tier?

Jaffna said...

Cynical Nerd, Anonymous and Libertarian,

Cynical Nerd: You might have a point that the institutions of India owed more to the colonial inheritance and to the constitutional committee than to Nehru alone.

I had not realized that he had not completed his education in Cambridge. But wasn't he admitted to Inner Temple as a barrister. I might need to check with a lawyer friend :-)

You make an interesting point - that there might be value in the state accepting the autonomy of each religion to decide its own personal laws. This was the Ottomon millet principle.

This said, Hindu law was reformed but Muslim law in India was not - unlike elsewhere in the Muslim world.

The issue of the separation of religion and state would be ok as in the United States provided the state does not selectively interfere in private institutions. This happened in India. In the United States, one has vibrant private religious institutions belonging to all denominations. The state itself has no denomination.

But in India, the state interferes in temple endowments and Hindu denominational schools. Minority religious institutions are more protected. I argue for a level playing field. The state should get out of the private sector, let private initiative sponsor religion, not Government and then it would be Ok a la United States.

Anonymous: I am not competent to speak on IITs - as to whether they have benefited the United States more than India itself.

Libertarian: Welcome back. I had thought that you had abandoned me :-)

While Kashmir posed problems that Junagadh did, Nehru still could have minimized them early on. Patel tackled Hyderabad which was a tricky issue. He sent in the Indian Troops as Acting Prime Minister when Nehru was overseas. It was called Operation Polo.

You suggest a possible comparison between Nehru on one hand and Ashoka, Akbar and Gandhi. Different people will have different responses.

Ashoka and Akbar expanded the realm. Nehru presided over a realm that lost territory. I suppose I am obssessed with real estate.

This said, all three had a negative impact on the economy for different reasons. Ashoka's massive public works campaign exhausted the treasury and led to currency depreciation. Akbar's land laws ensured that land was given to someone for life and reverted back to the state at death (I need to verify - not sure). Therefore, the individual owner had no incentive to invest in the land. All he had to do was to extract maximum from the land since it would revert to the state upon his death. Nehru's socialism had a similar negative impact.

Yet, you are correct. All four presided over and consolidated a multi-denominational, multi-ethnic and multi-linguistic domain. But then so did the British. However, the British did not inspire ownership by the ruled. The four you mentioned did.

Best regards

airrahul said...

Libertarian, I'm of the opinion that Nehru is third tier or worse. Out of the magic hat of dictators/"elected rulers who rule for several terms until their death", India got Nehru while Singapore got lucky and got Lee Kuan Yew. That's simplifying things too much but still, his foreign policy record haunts India to this day and his socialism held India back for so long. Patel could just as easily have cultivated secular institutions and would have been much better at handling dicey situations like Kashmir and China's annexing Tibet given his track record in Hyderabad and Junagadh. Nehru's years were wasted years that India has yet to make up for.

doubtinggaurav said...


I hear you,
More than losing, it was the manner which rankles more in the case of Nehru.


You quoted Atanu, but you quoted well.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for calling it the Nehruvian rate of growth, as opposed to the communist monicker designed to denigrate the fine name of a great religion through guilt-by-association. :-) :-)

Jaffna said...


Thank you. Of course, I choose every word with careful thought :-).

Best regards

Anonymous said...


Well written, but I have to say a great deal of basic indian text book information. Of course India would have been different if Nehru did not rule for 17 years, it is like saying that the world would have been a different place had Hitler win the war or was never born. This is not historical analyses. The basic rule of historical analysis is to place the event in the socio-cultural and political context and draw perspectives. I could not see that in the piece.

None of us can want to repeat history, if so, what we have do is to conduct a prognosis of the past events so that we can chart better course of actions for the future. To me that is the way we should treat history. Nehruvianism is a much wipped cream.......let us not beat this again! Why cannot we accept that the country was blessed with a great mind, has some prejudices, particularly his weakness on "socialism" and "Kashmir' are welknown, but a great intellectual and a poor statesman. That is the Nehru I want to picture. You may not agree. As an Indian I am proud to be aasociated with Nehru.......As an alternative Can we picturize an India either as S Patel or Bose as the PM and conclude it would have better.......we donot know and to me it is equal to stochastic analysis, iff and buts.

Anyway, since your article has provoked me, I would rate this as a good piece.

Regards, Visionary

Anonymous said...

Short of holding a seance, we can only guess/hope how Patel would have handled Kashmir.

In my opinion - Patel would not have gone to the U.N.
And he would not have allowed the perpetuation of article 370.

Minus these two, Kashmir would be an entirely different story by now??

Anonymous said...

You have become so predictable. You look at things not through a kaleidoscope but through a single glass that does not even have refractive powers. China: we know where you stand; Indira Gandhi we know your opinion; Nehru, Muslims, Modi we know where you come out. Come on Jaffna you are better than that.

Jaffna said...

Visionary, Anonymous-6,

Visionary: good point on the need to look ahead and not back. I appreciate your critique. This could well be basic text book information for Indians, but not for all in the neighborhood - where I come from. They were random thoughts, that's all.

Anonymous 6 - you sure know where I stand on Nehru, Indira and China. I have my convictions. But you sure do not know where I stand on Muslims or Modi!! Please do not assume.

Best regards

Tehmina Rehman said...

Anonymous said: "You have become so predictable. You look at things not through a kaleidoscope but through a single glass that does not even have refractive powers. China: we know where you stand; Indira Gandhi we know your opinion; Nehru, Muslims, Modi we know where you come out. Come on Jaffna you are better than that."

really!!! this is such a convenient way to deflect valid issues that Jaffna raises and the nice discussion that ensued. you attack him without substantiating. be specific - raise questions on the post - keep the discussion to the subject matter - no vicious personal attacks to deflect from the uncomfortable issues raised. you hide behind the veil of anonymity. many of you men are simply cowards! learn from us for a change, will ya.

doubtinggaurav said...


I beg to differ, even to Indians the failures of Nehru-Gandhi dynasty is hardly a textbook knowledge. When I grew up (and that was not a long time ago), we were indoctrinated (and I do not speak of the word in frivolous manner) by state and by left leaning chatterati class, that Nehru and his family were post- British addition to Hindu pantheons of deities.

Even to the present day this charade continues and the criticism is mostly unheard and ignored (blogs hardly represent the India)

That is why I am so much against Nehru-Gandhi family and Congress,
and will remain so until this indoctrination stops.
(Channeling ParashuRam at this moment)

Visionary is free to worship Nehru, but he shouldn't act hurt when other question Nehru.

Regarding you being against muslims, this is a cross everyone who questions Indian secularism has to bear :-)


To quote Douglas Adams "Discretion is the better part of valour and Cowardice is the better part of discretion"


Jaffna said...

Tehmina, Gaurav,


With regards to anonymous' point, let me clarify since it is scary.

I read the Arabic script - unlike many Indian Muslims. I know the texts more than most Indian Marxists. And I was born (and thus entitled to citizenship) in an Arab country.

No reader here can presume to know what my views on Islam are!! How presumptious and audacious on his part! I only made observations on Nehru, not Islam.

I do appreciate Visionary's feedback though. Useful.

Best regards

Suresh said...

{{In my opinion - Patel would not have gone to the U.N.
And he would not have allowed the perpetuation of article 370.

Minus these two, Kashmir would be an entirely different story by now??}} - True, what Jaffna and most others usually propose (about Nehru) is a counterfactual argument. Usually CF arguments are assigned a weak position, but considering the perspectice that "things could not have gone worse", this case offers more validity for a CF argument.

{{The basic rule of historical analysis is to place the event in the socio-cultural and political context and draw perspectives.}} - Though absent in post, suffice it to say that the socio-historic view of the events don't save Nehru from being held for what could only be called as his blunders.
The fact that Patel was able to foresee China's threat and Nehru did not, only further validates the claim that India would have been better off with Patel. He probably did "ruin" the economy, I wouldn't be too sure about it though. Because another economic model which supposedly might have brought prosperity to India is actually a typical weak CF argument.
As time has shown, we were able to get out of the economic predicament (for the most part), but, as someone else has mentioned, the strategic failures are still haunting us.

To answer Anoynymous' question: Yes! We are talking about "historic" decisions here.


It's a good post, simple, straightforward and well summarised.

Kaunteya said...

This Kashmiri barrister educated at Harrow

For a moment i thought you said - "This Kashmiri bastard" ...

Anonymous said...


Your snide remark is very unfortunate and indecent. I thought some of you who claims to be intellectuals are decent and has the capacity to fight an argument without loosing your cool. We are loosing class here. Freedom of speech is a much discussed topic and we can start another debate on that, if required.

Nehru had his weakness on Kashmir and sadly he found to be utterly wrong on Kashmir. True that this oversight, call it even blunder, still bleeds India. However, this could have been corrected by others, if they had the courage to face the political consequences. The fact is that Politics is a number game which the intellectuals do not understand, even though they claim to know it all.

Jaffna, my remark on the blog is not personal, but only tried to get more out of your predictable mind.

Best, Visionary

doubtinggaurav said...

"Jaffna, my remark on the blog is not personal, but only tried to get more out of your predictable mind."

Right !

Anonymous said...

Nifty and cool, Jaffna. Keep it coming. Nehru stands exposed.

brokid said...

have been lurkin in this blog but ould'nt resist this one, Anonymous-6 is indeed Visionary!!

Good catch, Gaurav.

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