In one of those coincidences that can define a nation, the 50th anniversary of the death of India’s first and longest-serving prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, will be commemorated on Tuesday, a day after Narendra Modi is sworn in as the first non-Congress prime minister to enjoy a commanding and stable parliamentary majority without a coalition. Even the previous prime minister from Mr Modi’s party, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, was widely seen as being something of a Nehruvian. Mr Modi is, thus, the first man to lead India who is definitely not part of Nehru’s legacy. Which, given the solemn anniversary, leads naturally to the question: what is that legacy?
Perhaps Jawaharlal Nehru’s greatest achievement remains the fact that India still exists as a united and democratic country. The post-colonial experience is littered with examples of countries that didn’t manage that. In fact, India stands almost unique, and a large part of that is due to the efforts of its first prime minister, who was a giant of his time and for close to 17 long years made his mark on the people with his magnetic personality and magnificent oratory. Yet Nehru’s legacy is far from unmixed. In the post-liberalisation era, the socialistic decisions he made in the first decade after independence have rightly come under attack, since his policies failed to rid the economy of shortages of both food and foreign exchange. Instead of creating a competitive economy geared towards exports, Nehru decided to go with import substitution and a public sector that occupied the “commanding heights”. This error was gravely costly for those who had to live with it, till 1991. Yet it is also important to remember that the fatal excesses of the dirigiste state were reached only under Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi. Indeed, his tenure also saw rapid industrialisation and an overall economic growth rate of four per cent, compared to one per cent before him and less than three per cent in the crisis-ridden decade that followed under Indira Gandhi. Nehru’s role in creating the public sector should be seen essentially as nation-building through the creation of new companies and capacity, as opposed to nationalisation under Indira Gandhi.
Under Nehru, India certainly achieved a level of international prestige it has struggled to replicate since. Yet his idealism in foreign policy had its costs. The festering border dispute with China could have been solved in 1959, if India had not been unrealistic in its claims on all of Aksai Chin. Instead, the long shadow of the 1962 loss continues to darken bilateral relations. On Kashmir, Nehru allowed the issue to be handled by the defence committee (chaired by Louis Mountbatten) instead of by the Cabinet, which he chaired. So he perhaps lost a lot of the initiative – Kashmir need never, for example, have become a United Nations issue.
India has, of course, turned away from a Nehruvian vision in many ways. In 1991, openness replaced import substitution. The economic growth this kicked off meant that great-power ambitions inevitably replaced the internationalist, third-world vision of the 1950s foreign policy. Yet perhaps the most contested of Nehru’s legacies today is the one that is also, in a way, most responsible for the continued survival of India as a united, democratic and largely peaceful nation. The “idea of India”, to use the phrase popularised by the political scientist Sunil Khilnani, is of a state that is tolerant of various group identities and seeks to right historical wrongs. India’s state secularism is part of this idea; and, as the continued lack of opportunities for India’s Muslim citizens shows, it has severe limitations. Mr Modi’s government is the first that will have the opportunity to attempt to dismantle the idea of India, if it chooses. Much depends on its actions.