Jawaharlal Nehru once remarked that wealth shouts, but knowledge whispers. That whisper about Nehru’s life and work has weakened in recent years in our country, drowned out by misrepresentation and distortion. Yet, the ideas that he promoted and the values for which he stood remain relevant. It is in that spirit that this conference has been convened to commemorate his 125th birth anniversary and to reflect on some aspects of his legacy.
Nehru was one of the towering figures of the twentieth century, who left his mark on India and the world. He was a man of many parts, a synthesis of the best of East and West: a man of ideas and a man of action; a man of letters who interpreted India both to itself and to the world, and interpreted the world to India; an ardent nationalist who was also a fervent internationalist, a visionary who decisively altered India’s trajectory. He was once compared to a sculptor, called upon to work on a massive block of granite encompassing one sixth of the human race. Out of that block of granite Nehru built a state, a nation and a democracy.
He did so against the most daunting odds. In 1947, India was a new-born state in turmoil after experiencing the bloodbath of partition and the violent passion that had been unleashed, which culminated in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. Nehru brought reassurance, stability and hope to a country in crisis and put it firmly on the path of progress and modernity. Nehru viewed politics as a vehicle for transformation. Within him was the burning flame of anger at injustice, as well as the burning flame of hope for a better world. These two flames were the guiding beacons of his life.
His ultimate objective was not merely India’s freedom, but human freedom, and the longer term, the end of exploitation by any country or class. He threw India’s full weight behind freedom movements throughout the colonised world, hastening the end of empires. He gave eloquent voice to the rise of the Asia in world affairs. He was a firm advocate of the rights of the Palestinians. By his words and deeds, Nehru became the hero to the developing world, as well as lodestar of hope to freedom-seeking people everywhere during the worst years of the Cold war. Long after his death, many leaders like Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi sought inspiration from his example.
Although a socialist by conviction, dedicated to building a nation, a more equal society, Nehru was an individualist by temperament. He valued individual liberty above all else. The struggle for India’s independence was not only about freedom for the country, but freedom for the individual. India’s democracy, which we take for granted today, was Nehru’s greatest achievement.
Long before independence, Nehru had articulated adult suffrage, fundamental rights and a secular state as the bedrock of the democracy he would go on to build in a free India, defying conventional wisdom that democracy would not succeed in conditions of mass poverty and illiteracy. Nehru’s inspiring leadership nourished India’s democracy in its crucial formative years and helped it to take deep root. Democracy was for him a value to be cherished in itself.
Throughout his 17 years as prime minister, Nehru devoted himself to embedding democracy into India’s consciousness. He exhorted parliamentarians to live up to their responsibilities, tirelessly educated the masses to value their franchise and to use their judgement before voting. He insisted on fair play in the electoral process. The flavour of the man and his thinking were vividly expressed in his address to the people on the eve of our first general election in 1951. He said: “In a democracy, we have to know how to win and how to lose with grace. Those who win should not allow this to go to their heads; those who lose should not feel dejected. The manner of winning or losing is even more important than the result. It is better to lose in the right way than to win in the wrong way.”
India’s democracy has evolved over the last 50 years, sometimes in ways that would have surprised Nehru. Nevertheless, in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-linguistic, multi-regional society, Nehru’s brief that only parliamentary democracy and a secular state could hold the country together, has been proved right. Nehru was prescient about the consequences of allowing religion into politics. The truth of his conviction can be seen in the conflicts raging in various parts of the world in the name of religion.
Secularism – a state neutral in matters of religion, respecting all faiths equally – was an article of faith with Nehru. He once warned, I quote: “If any person raises his hand to strike down another on the ground of religion, I shall fight him to the last breath of my life as head of the government and from outside”. There could be no Indianness, no India, without secularism.
Recognising that independent India needed the rapid creation of infrastructure and industry, he built a strong public sector to lead the country’s economic emergence. The major projects launched in the 1950s were the centrepiece of his thinking.
Nehru’s achievements are not all in the past. They continue to bear fruit. He moulded a new intellectual outlook, a new social sensibility, a new sense of Indianness, a new belief in India’s possibilities. He put the country on the path of modernisation, industrialisation, social reform and planned economic development with a strong emphasis on science and technology.
This is, then, an appropriate moment in time to revisit the life, thought and contribution of one of the greatest Indians that has ever lived. Not only is it a commemoration of his 125th Birth anniversary, it is an opportunity to reassert the relevance, durability and indispensability of his legacy.
Abridged version of a speech by Congress President Sonia Gandhi at the 125th birth anniversary celebrations of Jawaharlal Nehru, November 17, 2014, in New Delhi