As a child I memorised Jawaharlal Nehru’s spectacular Tryst with Destiny speech and found inspiration in his letter from Ahmadnagar jail that said, “Whether we were foolish or not, the historians of the future will judge. But we aimed high and looked far.” But one of many prices of growing up is the realisation that all humans are a bundle of contradictions or what philosopher Immanuel Kant called “cracked vessels”. I was born and brought up in Kashmir. People often blamed Nehru for the Pakistan occupation of part of Kashmir but reluctantly agreed that there are many reasons that India and Pakistan born on the same night have had very different destinies but Nehru is one of them.
I work in India’s broken people supply chain; Nehru’s blind spot about primary education is a baffling blunder but his creation of IITs was masterful. I began my career in the Licence Raj; the socialist and big state vision articulated by the Planning Commission’s second plan was nutty but Nehru’s vision of self-reliance has created an economy driven by strong domestic consumption that other BRIC countries envy.
He balanced thinking and doing. The wonderful depth and reflectiveness of his prolific writing – facing the canes of mounted policemen in a protest against the Simon Commission Nehru wrote in his autobiography that “in those seconds I realised the line between cowardice and courage was a thin one and I might as well been on the other side” – is complemented by his action bias and letters from jail lamenting about being “denied the artistry of action”.
Nehru admired democracy; he chided his friends in the Soviet Union for their refusal to allow Boris Pasternak to receive the Nobel Prize, yet set an unfortunate precedent by unfairly dismissing the Kerala state government in 1959. He struggled to reconcile his admiration of science and his Indian identity; for him “the atomic reactor at Trombay facing the Trimurthi statue at Elephanta caves symbolised the need for both physical and spiritual power working together since neither by itself was enough”. He knew when to change his mind but also how much; he ferociously opposed linguistic states till he accepted that it was the will of his party but insisted on the important compromise around Hindi that allowed India to avoid the corrosive emotions around language that ravaged Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
Nehru had a bitter-sweet relationship with elitism; he had a wealthy upbringing in a huge house with a swimming pool and tennis court and even though he developed a wonderful vision of neutering old elites like the Talukdars and maharajas, he backed down from aggressive land reforms. He didn’t always agree with the strong team of rivals that got us independence – Gandhiji, Patel, Azad, Rajaji, Bose and so on – but he always worked with them. He was clear about the role of the Army; he had the Army Chief move out of Teen Murti Bhavan because the prime minister should live in the best house in Delhi and did not allow serving officers working in the defence ministry to wear uniform. He picked his battles; Nehru reluctantly obeyed his father by not sitting for the Indian civil services exam and returning to India in 1912 because he was the only son, but stood up to him firmly in 1928 when Motilal wanted to accept Dominion Status and Jawaharlal was unwilling for anything other than complete independence.
The fantastic three-volume biography by S Gopal shows how Nehru was a child of his times in his economics but ahead of his times politically. His economics of socialism, flirting with communism, public sector, planning and so on were the intellectual weather of the moment. But he did see industrialisation as the only way to combat poverty and, unlike Gandhiji, believed khadi and village industries were only “temporary expedients of transition rather than solutions”. His politics of universal franchise, free press, independent judiciary, respect for institutions and foreign policy were far ahead of any of his peers and India has benefited from his view of science as the natural agent of progress.
The Congress party of today should take inspiration from Nehru’s 1936 party president speech that said “the Congress party has largely lost touch with the masses and, deprived of the life-giving energy that flows from them, we dry up and weaken and our organisation shrinks and loses the power it had”. But it must also remember that Nehru does not belong to any political party. In fact, as historian Ramachandra Guha magnificently points out, Nehru’s legacy will rise once it is unpacked from the performance of his family and party since 1968. And those of us who believed that his economic thought was flawed must dig deeper because he often quoted George Bernard Shaw’s definition of socialism as the “the economist’s hate of waste and disorder, the aesthete’s hatred of ugliness and dirt, the lawyer’s hatred of injustice, the doctor’s hatred of disease, the saint’s hatred of the seven deadly sins”. This is a definition to which we must aspire. India missed its tryst with destiny but she has made a new appointment and this is one she will keep. The second appointment owes more to the first than many of us believe.
The writer is Chairman, Teamlease Services