Features | Politics | South Asia

Nehru: Revisiting a Legacy

Jawaharlal Nehru, born 130 years ago, continues to leave his mark on India’s politics and society.

By Kiran Mohandas Menon for
Nehru: Revisiting a Legacy

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru of India addresses huge throng at the Ramlila grounds in New Delhi Feb. 1, 1948, the day following Mohandas K. Gandhi’s funeral. Standing beside a half-staffed flag of India, Nehru pledged his government will crush violence and organizations such as the one blamed for Gandhi’s death. (AP Photo/Max Desfor)

Credit: AP Photo

Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s founding statesman, was a colossus whose legacy transcended national boundaries. Even 130 years after his birth, his towering heritage remains relevant, contentious, and multilayered.

Nehru, who was born on November 14, 1889, was at the forefront of the Indian independence movement. Along with Vallabhbhai Patel, he was primarily responsible for translating Mohandas Gandhi’s ideals into realpolitik. However, today, it is Nehru’s vision that defines many of the essential characteristics of the Indian state and the contours of its principal institutions.

In its current form, the Indian state and modern identity can never fully obscure traces of Nehru’s impact on it. This has made amplifying, deconstructing, debating, and misrepresenting even minutiae of his life the norm in Indian private and political life. It is this stature, along with the political deeds and misdeeds of his descendants, that keeps Nehru uniquely alive and present in Indian politics today.

Yet, such was the breadth and magnitude of what Nehru lived through that to truly understand his thinking would require him to be assessed separately on the various hats he adorned in his lifetime. These encompassed his standing as a leader of the Indian independence movement, a writer who tried to articulate the values of that movement most intimately, an internationally respected statesman whose voice was sought after both in the East and the West, and as a lonely Indian prime minister, who perhaps leaned too much on the stature he earned in these previous roles, and failed to realize the extent of the threats that the nascent Indian state faced from its neighbors.

Nehru’s writings reveal a man of extraordinary contradictions, deeply introspective, and willing to accept and even magnify his own flaws and insecurities. In his Autobiography, written in prison and published in 1936, soon after the death of his wife Kamala, he writes of a “spiritual loneliness, not only in public activities, but in life itself.” This book, along with the much acclaimed The Discovery of India, paint the portrait of a man who was deeply immersed in the rich past of Indian civilization and conscious of the evolving identity of his soon-to-be-free nation, yet fearful of its delicateness and potential to spiral into violence.

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Those fears would soon become reality. The fires enforced by the partition of India raged even as Nehru was declaring its independence with the iconic “Tryst with Destiny” speech. In this speech, which entered and has lingered within the national memory, Nehru can be seen at his most eloquent, stating that “at the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.” He continues on to express how “a moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.”

Abroad, as the principal architect of the nonalignment movement and the organizer of the Bandung conference, Nehru’s voice was strongly representative of the newly emerging and developing nations of his time. The conference in Bandung was the first time that such a meeting of most newly independent Asian and African states, which then represented 54 percent of the world’s population, had taken place.

Nehru was a valued mentor for those who came and led anti-colonial movements after him.  In 1964, speaking shortly after his death, Lee Kuan Yew, founding father of Singapore, termed Nehru the “first of the Afro-Asians.” Nehru, according to Lee, “started on the anti-colonial struggle 50 years ago… when this meant the grim prospect of interminable hardship and repression”  and “….gave his unceasing support to all the anti-colonial revolutions elsewhere in Asia and Africa.”

Nehru’s appeal extended far and wide and was absorbed strongly into the milieu of that era. The U.S. the civil rights movement, for instance, adapted the principles of Satyagraha, with its ability to “reject violence, but maintain resistance.” Famed civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. would later state, “In the struggles of mankind to rise to a true state of civilization, the towering figure of Nehru sits unseen but felt at all council tables.”

As a mediator between the great powers of the East and the West, according to King, “Nehru had the prestige, the wisdom and the daring to play that role.”

Despite the triumphs and the stature he enjoyed, it is clear that Nehru made some serious mistakes. Most notably, he grossly underestimated the Chinese threat to India, especially after he had granted asylum to the 14th Dalai Lama. This would leave a militarily underprepared India unable to stave off Chinese offensives in the Himalayan border region shared by the two nations in 1962. These events shook Nehru significantly and historians speculate the debacle of 1962 may have hastened the decline of his health, leading to his death in two years’ time.

A.B Vajpayee, then a young parliamentarian and later the first prime minister from the Bharatiya Janata Party that currently governs India, delivered a memorable speech in which he referred to Nehru’s death as  a “dream being shattered, a song silenced and a flame vanished in the infinite.” Vajpayee went on to warn that Indian democracy, which Nehru “established” and “made a success,” now faced a “doubtful future.”

How much of the “Tryst With Destiny” Nehru referred to on that midnight hour in 1947 has been redeemed remains open to discussion. India still remains young and confident — and most importantly democratic – but stark inequalities also exist. How much of that progress or the lack of it remains to the credit or fault of its first prime minister, described by Vallabhbhai Patel as the “leading light, in the twilight preceding the dawn of independence,” is also a relevant question. That debate will continue. And such is Nehru’s contribution to setting up the institutions that allow and further this debate that it cannot continue without him being invoked and reassessed time and again.

Kiran Mohandas Menon has written on international politics, law, and sport, with a focus on the Asia- Pacific and southern Europe, for various international publications, including The Diplomat. He is currently working at the International Nuremberg Principles Academy. The views expressed in this piece are his own.