In his hometown, Nehru is an outsider who has little relevance beyond the arcana of history
Allahabad is India’s oldest city after Varanasi. Prayag Sharma, a grocer here, is proud that he wears the other name of this ancient holy city, the much older one, as his first name. Prayag means ‘the place of offering’, he explains, invoking the deep association the town has with Hinduism. It is the seat of the Kumbh Mela, the confluence of holy rivers, he goes on. Prayag doesn’t know that the city, which was earlier called Kaushambi, was renamed Prayag by Mughal Emperor Akbar. He is pleasantly surprised to hear this, and expresses pride in its centuries-old heritage and importance to his religion. Then he says, “I have never associated this city with Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru though there are houses and memorials associated with him here. That is alright, but nobody talks about him here anymore. Maybe you should try visiting Srinagar.”
Aakash Kumar, a college student, seated in a bus stop not far from Allahabad’s imposing New Yamuna Bridge, knows from history books that the first Prime Minister’s family has deep roots in this city, and that Nehru himself had lived here for years. “But the city has moved on. He may have been a great leader and a statesman, but I don’t know how relevant he is to us now. He has presided over our destiny through various generations that came after him, but not anymore,” says he, emphasising that his economic policies have “no chance” in today’s India.
Shyampal, a tea vendor who lives near the Allahabad railway station, says he traditionally voted for the Congress. He still admires Nehru. “You can’t blame him just because the Congress did not do good governance after he was gone. He had come here in Allahabad the 1950s and then he looked like God to me, with all his good looks and sophistication,” he says. “Maybe he lost his charisma because they kept using him like a football.” By ‘they’, he is referring to the Congress party and the Nehru-Gandhi family.
Surprisingly, in the leader’s hometown of Allahabad, where he was born in 1889, his memory is not even political football anymore. The last time that the Congress won from here was in 1984, when Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan rode a nationwide sympathy wave following the assassination of Indira Gandhi at the hands of her body guards. The party here has long lost its electoral appeal. It is quite a wonder now that this was where Nehru won his first election, in 1952, and Lal Bahadur Shastri his, in 1957.
Yet, Shyampal, who is in his seventies, isn’t completely off the mark when he describes Nehru as a ‘football’. To be sure, instead of evaluating the historical relevance of the first Prime Minister of India through research and indepth studies, the Congress party, for long, has used his name to justify whatever they did, be it for political or other gains, kicking him around as it were. The National Advisory Council (NAC) headed by Sonia Gandhi to remote control the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), for example, was peddled as a Nehruvian vision of governance. Efforts to cling on to outmoded ideas, portrayed as Nehruvian values or philosophy, were more of the same. Down the decades, demigod status was sought to be bestowed on him, an exercise that went against the principles of democracy.
The Grand Old Party of India has never let go of this obsessive attachment, and continues to invoke Nehru to justify itself. Playing politics with his name, however, only depreciates his worth as a democrat and statesman, leaving him to languish as an over-used political symbol of a dynasty-centric party. Historian Ramachandra Guha has often quoted sociologist André Béteille to explain Nehru’s predicament: In the Bible, it is said that the sins of the father will be visited upon seven successive generations. In Nehru’s case, the sins of the daughter, grandsons, granddaughter-in-law and great-grandson have been retrospectively visited upon him, Béteille had noted.
During his lifetime, Nehru, a liberal democrat whose refinement of manner matched that of the English elite in political discourse, was India’s undisputed leader. His daughter Indira Gandhi, on the other hand, had none of his sophistication. She wanted her socialist slogans and rhetoric against entrepreneurship to be perceived as Nehru’s own. Most of what she did, she did in the name of championing Nehruvian values.
Much of Allahabad may not realise it today, but the Nehru family’s bonds with the city are real. Jawaharlal was born in a rented house in the crowded Mirganj locality of Allahabad. As his father Motilal’s practice as a barrister at the Allahabad High Court began to flourish, the family moved out of that locality to a new residence at 9 Elgin Road in the city’s leafy Civil Lines area. This is the house where all family members, in keeping with an upwardly mobile Westernised lifestyle, were directed to speak only in English. The two buildings—Swaraj Bhawan and Anand Bhawan—associated with three generations of the Nehrus became family residences much later.
Swaraj Bhawan, located at 1 Church Road, was once owned by the first Indian Judge of the Allahabad High Court, Syed Mahmud, who had bought the property for Rs 9,000 back in 1888 and sold it six years later to Raja Jaikishen Das, a close family friend, for Rs 13,250. Das’ son Kunwar Parmanand Pathak, a pleader in the High Court, offered to sell it to his friend Motilal Nehru when the latter was looking to move into a bigger house. After buying it for a princely sum of Rs 20,000, Jawaharlal’s father renamed it Anand Bhawan. This is the house where Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, was born in 1917.
After coming under the spell of Mahatma Gandhi in 1926, Motilal Nehru decided to donate this house to the Congress party, and it came to be known as Swaraj Bhawan. Party workers turned it into a hospital to treat injured freedom fighters that had been thrashed by policemen asked by their British masters to crack down on them. This house is fondly mentioned by Nehru in his memoirs, An Autobiography, as the place where he enjoyed playing as a child; and it was in the swimming pool here that he learnt how to swim.
It was after turning that house over to the Congress that Motilal built a new one on the same estate—1927— and named it Anand Bhawan, as Swaraj Bhawan was once called. In 1970, Indira Gandhi turned this family home—which had hosted a galaxy of leaders during the freedom movement—into a museum dedicated to the nation.
After winning Allahabad’s Lok Sabha seat in 1952, India’s first Prime Minister was re-elected to the House in 1957 and 1962 from the nearby Phulpur constituency, which comprises several Assembly constituencies of Allahabad district.
The Allahabadi disconnect with Nehru mirrors how policymakers of today view the first premier of Independent India. Thanks to the sins of his followers, the word ‘Nehruvian’ has acquired undertones that he would not be proud of.
Of the 50-plus years since Nehru’s death, his party has been in power for 37, but his legacy and values do not find much favour with the non-Congress Government that has came to power by unseating the Congress in a landmark election earlier this year. Indeed, popular disaffection with prolonged Congress rule has translated into distrust of anything Nehruvian. For the new dispensation, led by the indomitable Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Nehruvian thought is of academic interest alone, if at all. And not without reason.
Nehru’s influence has diminished considerably. This is expected of any historical figure, but a look at this phenomenon field by field is quite revealing.
His influence persists in parliamentary democracy, one of his key contributions and the bedrock of his style of governance. Indian democracy is now so secure that those who think it can be undone or diluted are likely to be dismissed as lunatics. His example as a committed democrat is now emulated by every Indian party, much to his credit. Even if some of these parties harbour authoritarian instincts, there is little they can do about it. The only leader who tried to challenge this aspect of Nehru’s legacy was his daughter Indira, who, apart from creating an air of suspicion, dread and fear throughout her time in power as India’s Prime Minister, also imposed the draconian Emergency in 1975, a rank subversion of the democratic values that he stood for. About a decade later, Nehru’s grandson Rajiv bowed to Muslim extremists (by backing Islamic clerics in the Shah Bano case), and indeed, rightwing sentiment of all hues while he was in power until 1989, abandoning Nehru’s secular values.
As for Nehru’s socialist economic policies, they have been jettisoned almost entirely, most dramatically in 1991 by the Congress under PV Narasimha Rao, although earlier governments had already made some shifts away. Liberalisation kicked off in the 1990s and changed all that. Only the ‘NAC crowd’ wants to go back to that age of Nehruvian socialism now. Ironically, the result of NAC-directed governance during the Manmohan Singh years—which highlighted the ease with which Nehru’s descendants could misuse his name—was a severe right-wing backlash at the hustings.
Modi, for his part, wants to make up for lost time by fast-tracking economic reforms and creating a favourable environment for entrepreneurs. The UPA Government led by Manmohan Singh had come under criticism from several quarters, with corporate leaders complaining that the Environment Ministry had become a thorn in their flesh. Many big-ticket projects were denied green clearances by ministers like Jairam Ramesh and Jayanthi Natarajan, often with no clear reason cited. In Delhi’s corridors of power, there was this saying that you had to pay “Jayanthi tax” to get work done, indicating at an alleged to bribe to manage licences. Defence contractors from the United States and elsewhere began speaking of an ‘India fatigue’ after the Defence Ministry, led by AK Antony, hobbled the country’s armed forces, neglecting their need of modernisation and thus forcing them to rely on Soviet-era weaponry and endanger the lives of Indian soldiers. The Congress regime was also known for promoting cronyism, awarding licences to favourites among India Inc. Unfortunately, all that cronyism was conducted under the garb of Nehruvian values.
Where India is expected to make a big departure from Nehru’s time is on the foreign policy front. While it is well known that non-alignment has no significance in this day and age, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to dismantle the framework of foreign relations espoused by Nehru. Like India’s first Prime Minister of India, Modi too has managed to win accolades abroad in the short period he has been in power. He has also taken apart the ideological fixations that underpin the Nehruvian framework.
In doing so, Modi has begun to reorient India’s foreign policy to meet the demands of current geo- political realities. Modi is interested in pursuing economic diplomacy and ridding India of its Non- Aligned Movement mindset and associated anti-US postures. His efforts are to hardsell India to the world as an investment destination so as to expand the economy. In the meantime, Modi also wants to ensure peaceful conditions suitable for investment in the Subcontinent. In what foreign policy wonks call a ‘pragmatic nationalist approach’, he is focusing on countries like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Myanmar. The Prime Minister was clear that India will do well not to follow China in quarrelling with its numerous neighbours. His cordiality was on full display at his swearing-in ceremony on 26 May this year, to which he invited the likes of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan and Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka despite protests.
Leaders of most members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) turned up for the grand ceremony. While Modi laid emphasis on the importance of trade within the region in his talks with Sharif and others, his first visit to a foreign country was to India’s northeastern neighbour Bhutan. He has also built a good rapport with Japanese leader Shinzo Abe, a nationalist like Modi, while strengthening commercial ties with China. Nehru’s aims were far less pragmatic, and most of his successors followed suit. Modi has changed all that, making the country’s emergence as a modern economy the aim of his foreign policy.
As the country pushes ahead with neo-realism in foreign policy and rings out non-alignment, it is not surprising to see why even Allahabadis feel that Nehruvian ideas are out of place in the modern world. Nehru is so near by history, yet so far by appeal.