A spate of articles extolling the virtues of Nehru and castigatingng those criticizing him have appeared in the past few days. On the other hand, social media is flooded with posts deriding him and trashing his legacy. My take on the issue is that his contributions can’t be denied. Unlike his great grandson, he put advantage of birth in a leading political family to good use, working with intelligence and a vision. But the reasons behind questions being raised about him now are-
1. Dynastic rule with sycophantic followers resulted in his deification. So his greatness was tom tommed at the expense of ignoring or even downplaying the contributions of other, equally great men. It also resulted in any narrative of his contributions and legacy being completely subjective, without scope for any criticism of shortcomings that can’t but accompany anyone’s strengths.
2. Systemic repitition of this sanitized narrative of greatness in curricula and government communications resulted in it being implanted in the minds of successive generations.
3. Now, when there is an attempt to balance the scorecard by talking about the contributions of others, and also daring to attempt a critical evaluation of Nehru’s tenure as Prime Minister to mention shortcomings, it appears blasphemous to those conditioned to the sanitized, deified image of Nehru.
As a result, people at either ends of the ideological spectrum are taking extreme stances. So, depending on which side you are, Nehru was the cause of all that ails India today or a messiah above criticism. A dispassionate look, however, reveals that he was undoubtedly a tall leader of his generation. He had a definite vision for the country, and while his intentions can’t be faulted, a lot of his decisions were ill judged or ill timed. Also, there is no denying that there was no leadership vaccum at the time he took centre stage. There were quite a few of equivalent stature and competence who, given an opportunity, would have done an equal or better job. And quite a few of them did contribute immensely in their own capacity. The critical role played by Sardar Patel in unifying the country, and Lal Bahadur Shastri’s performance during his short tenure as PM, including his handling of the 1965 war, are just two examples.
To be true to our history, and for future generations to be able to derive the right lessons from it, its important to acknowledge the others and give them their rightful place in its pages. Alongside, it is also important to be cognizant of Nehru’s shortcomings and failures, without either taking away from or overly exaggerating his greatness. Thus people at either ends of the argument need to adjust and accomodate, moving towards a more realistic understanding.