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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 28

Do We Need Nehru Today?

Monday 30 June 2008, by Nikhil Chakravartty


Twelve years ago Jawaharlal Nehru died in harness on May 27. Inevitably, much has changed in these twelve years among his people and in the humanity at large. He was not the man who would have preferred the status quo to change; and if the landscape and the skyline of this country have changed—at places beyond recognition—Nehru, had he been alive, would have tried to understand them, accelerate the process of change.

What we who belong to the generations after him have to ponder over is whether the legacy left behind by Jawaharlal Nehru is of any relevance at all for the Indian people, or, can we afford to disown it with impunity?

There are many edifices in India’s political, economic and social life that are indissolubly linked with the name of Nehru. From the unfettered functioning of parliamentary democracy to the building of the public sector, from the rearing of nonalignment in world affairs to solidarity with the progressive forces abroad, from the strengthening of a free press to social reforms by consent—there are many aspects of Nehru’s India which today claim our serious attention. And it would be legitimate to pose the question to ourselves if these are mere luxuries which we can ill-afford to maintain in the fast-changing world of today.

In times of emergency, extraordinary measures are naturally sanctioned. They are, however, taken as temporary arrangements and are not expected to be dovetailed into the system as facets of a permanent structure. Because, new habits tend to grow and new theories propounded which may run counter to the time-tested democratic norms.

Jawaharlal Nehru personally never claimed to be a revolutionary. But by his precepts and practice he tried to instil into the unlettered millions of this great country the democratic temper of a modern parliamentary system, and with it also he tried, in his own way, to bestir them with the vision of building a new India of hope and promise.

Forty years ago when he urged upon a subject nation the need to commit itself to socialism, Jawaharlal Nehru was not indulging in airy-fairy do-goodism. From the platform of the Lucknow session of the Congress he, as its President, enunciated his understanding of socialism which has became classic for every democrat in this country:

“I see no way of ending the poverty, the vast unemployment, the degradation and the subjection of the Indian people except through socialism. That involves vast and revolutionary changes in our political and social structure, the ending of vested interests in land and industry, as well as the feudal and autocratic Indian states system. That means the ending of private property, except in a restricted sense, and the replacement of the present profit system by a higher ideal of cooperative service. It means ultimately a change in our instincts and habits and desires. In short, it means a new civilisation, radically different from the present capitalist order.”

Nehru was no doctrinaire but he was no opportunist either. Socialism, for him, was not just a case of “serving the poor” as is being made out by a lot of infantile sermonising today. It is worth recalling how he berated such vulgarisation:

“A strange way of dealing with the subject of socialism is to use the word, which has a clearly defined meaning in the English language, in a totally different sense. For individuals to use words in a sense peculiar to themselves is not helpful in the commerce of ideas. A person who declares himself to be an engine-driver and then adds that his engine is of wood and is drawn by bullocks is misusing the word, engine-driver”.

The realities of present-day politics, Nehru never ceased to attempt analysing them. It was he, more than anybody else in position of authority, who educated the political workers as also the masses at large, the inevitability of ideological divergence between the status-quoist Right and the forward-looking Left. In a report to the AICC at Haripura in 1938, Nehru warned: “An attempt to drive out the Left, if successful, would be fatal, for it represents a vital part of the movement without which it would lose much of its flair and become increasingly wedded to petty reformist activities. It would spread confusion in the mass mind, more especially among the peasantry, and thus weaken the Congress. I feel that some such attempt has been made during recent months and it has created considerable bitterness.”

Thirtyeight years later, as the members of the AICC meet this week, they need to be reminded of this warning born of wisdom because of the emerging phenomenon of mod-politics which denies this reality—a politics that can only undermine the fibre of the national will for building a new social order.

Many of the institutions that have come up in our country during the nearly three decades of independence need to be thoroughly examined so that we may assess how they, each one of them, help or hinder the process of democracy and social change. Side by side, new ventures have to be boldly undertaken so that the downtrodden may not only get a better deal but also have a sense of belonging, and with it our independence can be strengthened.

In this context we cannot help remembering a noble son of India who also gave his life while in harness this week three years ago. To Mohan Kumaramangalam, the need to translate the behest of Nehru in terms of social advance was the highest form of patriotism, and it was this conviction that inspired him to undertake, even during his brief span in office, such courageous measures as the nationalisation of coal-mines, liberating thereby from virtually bonded labour over five lakhs of miners. It is a matter of shame that such a measure of far-reaching national benefit is not defended by Congressmen today from attacks by juvenile politicos, prodded by ignorance or misled by propaganda of the vested interests.

It is no truism to say that this nation faces today the most formidable challenge from political philistinism since the one that faced Jawaharlal Nehru before Lucknow forty years ago. As we pay our humble homage to his undying memory, we are tempted to use the words that one poet wrote two hundred years ago, about another, a fearless crusader: Thou shouldst be living at this hour: India hath need of thee.

(Editor’s Notebook by N.C., Mainstream, May 27, 1976)

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