Dreamer, Doer

Nehru set the model for prime ministerial leadership: nation's motivator, inspirer, preacher, task-master, chief priest, strategist, foreign policy expert, etc. We have one billion reasons to thank Nehru

Special to Hardnews 

Harish Khare Delhi

More than two generations of Indians, perhaps the majority of all Indian alive, think of Jawaharlal Nehru only as a historical figure - as the correct answer to the question: Who was India's first prime minister, or as someone after whom a famous university or a planetarium is named. This cultivated ignorance reflects badly on us, and perhaps explains the absence of grace and good manners in our current public servants.

Since we are fast becoming a historical in our political and intellectual discourse, Nehruvian ideas and values have come under challenge from Rightwing ideologues; this challenge has acquired a kind of fashionable acceptability because his family insists on retaining its controversial centrality in the political arena.

Jawaharlal Nehru was - and is - much more than the doings of the Nehru-Gandhi family. Let us catalogue a few reasons why. Today we take the Indian unity and a robust democracy as givens. For that we need to say a billion thanks to Nehru. If we survive as a democratic nation it is because, as our first prime minister, he was reasonably successful in undertaking the most arduous and historically unprecedented task of manufacturing the modern Indian State out of a motley collection of principalities, a depleted colonial administration, a highly stratified social order, and a poor and backward economy. Nehru was among the first nationalist leaders to think of India in terms of a modern State, as a governing arrangement in which the relationship between the ruler and the ruled was to be defined not by some divine rights, nor based on the feudal hereditary principle, but was to be firmly anchored in the principles of representation and majority rule. Governance is nothing but authoritative rule-making and rule-enforcement. At the time of Independence, India was relatively stranger to the idea of democratically-sanctioned governance. Nehru conceptualised and then operationalised a State system, responsive to the Indian people and their aspirations.

Nehru was also the first congressman to understand the need to fashion a foreign policy, define the principles of India's relationships with the external world. It was only natural that he should be his own foreign minister, chiseling outa sophisticated foreign service corps. Successive foreign ministers have only tinkered with the diplomatic accoutrements left behind by him.

After independence Jawaharlal Nehru infused in our collective consciousness the notion of national pride and autonomy, the idea that India has its own civilisational uniqueness and that we could not become any foreign power's camp-follower; it is this Nehurvian notion of strategic autonomy that, for example, is now sought to be asserted - differently by the Right and the Left - in the on-going debate about India's nuclear engagement with the United States.

Nehru's most significant achievement was to inspire and produce a body of individuals and ideas that could collectively be called a national elite; among these men and womenhe infused a sense of joy at the prospect of building a new India; he shoe-hornedromantic notions about possibility of progress, prosperity, potential and power of India into this elite's thought processes. His letters to the chief ministers, for example, were wonderful, systemic effort to inform, educate and inspire colleagues, about developments at home and abroad.

The Nehruvian elite consisted mostly of the English-speaking intellectuals, armed forces, bureaucrats, political leadership, trade unions, and a section of businessmen; he could excite this small band with the idea of marshalling the collective resources for collective goals and ambitions; this elite thought process - the Nehruvian consensus - provided the intellectual energy and political ideas on which a new India was forged. And the confusion and friction that we witness today appear so bewildering because that consensus has been allowed to become frayed.


At the core of this Nehruvian consensus was the notion of an Activist State. This Nehruvian imprint is most emphatically evident on constitutional philosophy, summed up in the Directive Principles of State Policy: "The State shall strive to promote the welfare of the people by securing and protecting as effectively as it may a social order in which justice, social, economic and political, shall inform all the institutions of national life."

In this age of corporate greed and market fundamentalism, it is important for everyone to remember this first compact made with the people of India.

Nehru firmly believed in the idea of activist government. He had immense faith in his capacity to mobilise the governmental resources to solve the perennial problems of an ancient land. Though he was a poor administrator, he produced unflagging enthusiasm as if he was the country's district collector, as also its district superintendent of police, its chief engineer, attending to every single breakdown, minor or major. He had views, ideas and solutions on almost every topic and issue. And he was not diffident about speaking up.  

Another principlefor which we need to thank Nehru is thenotion of civilian/political supremacy over the armed forces. Nehru could insist on thisonly because he - and, his mentor, Gandhi, and his political comrades, Sardar Patel, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, etc - had got themselves sanctified in the nobility of a freedom struggle; that espousal of nationalist aspirations enabled Nehru to refuse any policy space to the army. It is sobering to remember that that was the time when in neighboring Pakistan and most of the Afro-Asian world the generals and colonels were getting all sorts of ideas and were getting rid of post-colonial leaders.

Nehru's democratic and competent stewardship settled the matter. The generals were made to understand that they need to maintainneutrality in political disputes; and, that governance was not their cup of tea. This was no mean achievement.The non-Congress political opinion, the Rightwing in particular, which had been in thrall of the soldiers' "authoritarian culture, professional competence"had not been above wanting to inveigle the armed forces in politicians' quarrels. Jayaprakash Narain's famous call, in 1975, to the army not to obey Indira Gandhi's "illegal" orders was a righteous eruptionof this infatuation with the "professional" solder.

It was the durability of this Nehruvian principle of civilian supremacy that came handy to the BJP when the Vajpayee government felt it necessary to sack Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat, the chief of Indian Navy. And, as the political class has over the years lost its reputation for competence and probity, it finds itself having to concede a disproportionate voice to the armed forces. Disconcertingly enough, the Naval Chief, Admiral Suresh Mehta and others have being speaking out of turn, flirting with indiscipline.

Nehru presided over the setting up of our parliamentary institutions, based on the principle that the legitimacy came only from periodic consent of the masses. Therefore, governance was to be an arrangement in accountability; the ruler was open to questioning on a daily basis.

Moreover, those who preside over political institutions need to observe a certain protocol. Institutions are impersonal assignments, above calls of party ties, family connections, or caste or religious affiliations. Somnath Chatterjee has taken a quintessential Nehruvian stand vis-à-vis the CPI (M) comrades: the institution of the Lok Sabha Speaker was not subject to discipline or preferences of a political party.

Above all, Nehru set the model for prime ministerial leadership: nation's motivator, inspirer, preacher, task-master, chief priest, strategist, foreign policy etc.

We have forgotten Nehru but curiously enough continue to apply Nehruvian yardsticks when judginghis successors.

The writer is Senior Associate Editor, The Hindu