In this, the week of the fortieth death anniversary of Jawaharlal Nehru, let us consider some of the myths that have gathered around his name and his legacy:

Myth 1: Nehru promoted a ‘dynasty’

This myth draws support from the fact that Nehru’s daughter and grandson also served as Prime Minister, that his granddaughter-in-law has sought that post too, and, most recently, that her son, Nehru’s great-grandson, has joined politics as the heir-apparent of the Congress party.

In truth, Nehru had nothing to do with the ‘dynasty’. He had no idea, nor desire, that his daughter would become Prime Minister of India. It was Mrs Indira Gandhi who converted the Indian National Congress into a family business. She first brought in her son Sanjay and, after his death, his brother Rajiv. In each case, it was made clear that the son would succeed Mrs Gandhi as head of Congress and head of Government. Thus, the ‘Nehru-Gandhi dynasty’ should properly be known as the ‘(Indira) Gandhi’ dynasty.

Myth 2: Nehru was an unworthy successor to Gandhi—in fact, he ‘betrayed’ the Master, while the Master made a ‘mistake’ in choosing him

This myth is comprehensively demolished by Rajmohan Gandhi in his book The Good Boatman. There, he shows that Gandhi preferred Nehru to the alternatives because he most reliably reflected the pluralist, inclusive idea of India that the Mahatma stood for. The alternatives—Patel, Rajaji, Azad, Kripalani, Rajendra Prasad—had, by contrast, somewhat sectional interests and affiliations. But Nehru was a Hindu who could be trusted by Muslims, a UP wallah who was respected in the South, a man who was admired by women—like Gandhi, and like no one else, he was a genuinely all-India leader.

Myth 3: Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel were opponents and adversaries

This myth is promoted by advocates of a ‘strong’ India, by those who believe that Nehru was soft on Pakistan, soft on China, and soft on the minorities. It is usually accompanied by a subsidiary myth, namely, that Patel would have made a ‘better’ Prime Minister than Nehru.

In truth, Nehru and Patel worked superbly as a team—they were the duumvirate who, in the first, formative years of independence, effectively united and strengthened India. Of course, they differed by temperament and ideology. But these differences were subsumed and transcended by commitment to a common ideal: namely, a free, united, secular and democratic India. There were some things Nehru could do better than Patel—communing with the masses, relating to the world, assuring vulnerable groups (such as Muslims, tribals, and Dalits) that they enjoyed equal rights with other Indians. There were some things Patel could do better than Nehru—dealing with the princes, nurturing the Congress party, carrying along dissidents in the Constituent Assembly. Each knew the other’s gifts, each took care not to tresspass on the other person’s turf. That is how, together, they built India anew out of the ruins of Partition.

The myth of their rivalry is best answered in their own words. After Gandhi died, Nehru wrote to Patel of how ‘the old controversies have ceased to have much significance and it seems to me that the urgent need of the hour is for all of us to function as closely and co-operatively as possible’. In all the years they had worked together, said Nehru, ‘my affection and regard for you has grown, and I do not think anything can happen to lessen this. … Anyway, in this crisis that we have to face now after Bapu’s death I think it is my duty and, if I may venture to say, yours also for us to face it together as friends and colleagues.’

Patel, in reply, spoke of how he was ‘deeply touched, indeed overwhelmed, by the affection and warmth of your letter…’. He went on: ‘We have both been lifelong comrades in a common cause. The paramount interests of our country and our mutual love and regard, transcending such differences of outlook and temperament as existed, have held us together’. And Gandhi’s death had only awakened ‘a fresh realisation of how much we have achieved together and the need for further joint efforts in our grief-stricken country’s interests’.

Myth 4: Nehru was ‘autocratic’

This myth is given credence by Nehru’s not having close friends, and by his failure to name a successor.

It is true that Nehru could appear superior, not least to his colleagues in party and government. They did not share his cosmopolitan outlook, nor his interest in art, music, literature, or science. But no one did more than Nehru to nurture the values and institutions of democracy in India. It was he who first advocated adult suffrage, he who welcomed a constructive Opposition, he who scrupulously maintained the independence of the bureaucracy and the judiciary. Vincent Sheean once pointed to ‘one overwhelming difference between Mahatma Gandhi and Mr. Nehru: the Mahatma would rather retire, fast, pray, take care of lepers and educate children, than go along with a majority opinion in which he could not concur’. Nehru, on the other hand, had in many instances ‘yielded to the majority of his party and of the country…’. Thus Congress Chief Ministers were always elected by the legislators of the concerned state, regardless of Nehru’s opinion in the matter. And once he saw that both party and country wanted it, Nehru yielded to the formation of linguistic states—a policy he was personally opposed to.

Nehru chose not to nominate a successor because he felt that was the prerogative of the people and their representatives. After his death, an otherwise bitter critic, D. F. Karaka, saluted this determination ‘not to indicate any preference with regard to his successor. This, [Nehru] maintained, was the privilege of those who were left behind. He himself was not concerned with that issue’—thus, incidentally, giving the lie to the idea that he ever wanted his daughter to succeed him.

Myth 5: Nehru imposed a centralized, ‘Stalinist’ model of economic development on India, thus setting us back by decades.

This is a myth promoted by those who favour quicker and greater liberalization of the economy. In truth, there was a widespread consensus on the import-substituting model of economic development followed by India after independence. Not just Russia, but Japan and Germany were held up as examples in this regard. For one thing, the experience of colonization had made Indians wary of the excessive and sometimes pernicious influence of foreign capital. For another, Indian industry itself demanded protection as well as state support and subsidy. Indeed, the Bombay Plan of 1944, signed by all the major capitalists of the time, called for active state intervention in sectors such as power, water, transport, mines, and the like—pleading that since the capitalists did not have the resources to develop these sectors, the state was duty-bound to do so.

This is not an argument about the respective merits of free versus closed trade and capital regimes. It is an argument about why we chose the path of industrialization that we did. And the answer is this—because industralists, scientists, economists and politicians, of all stripes and ideologies, by-and-large concurred with Nehru. Or rather, Nehru concurred with them.

No man was more adored in his lifetime than Jawaharlal Nehru; no man more villified since his death. The villification rests, in good part, on myths spread by the motivated and swallowed by the credulous. And the adoration? What did it rest on? I shall provide the answer, or at any rate my answer, in a future column.

Published in The Hindu, 23/5/2004