Pragmatic | On Nehru’s 47th death anniversary

Understand him better.

K.P.S. Menon, who served as Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs under Nehru, wrote in his autobiography Many Worlds (Oxford; page 271):

“A Foreign Office is essentially a custodian of precedents. We had no precedents to fall back upon, because India had no foreign policy of her own until she became independent. We did not even have a section for historical research until I created one… Our policy therefore necessarily rested on the intuition of one man, who was Foreign Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Fortunately his intuition was based on knowledge….”

The late K Subrahmanyam, in conversation with Shivanand Kanavi on Nehru’s nuclear policy:

If you go back to Nehru’s writings in the 40s he recognized that it may be used (as a weapon) and then India also must have it. But at the same time he was a man of peace he wanted international peace so he was essentially he was for development of technology. But he did not overlook the fact that it had a strategic dimension. It comes out very clearly that at one point in time in 1954-55, Homi Bhabha after presiding over the Geneva conference on the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, came back with great enthusiasm and proposed to Nehru that India should amend the constitution and say that it would never go nuclear. Nehru wrote back to Bhabha that he should look after physics and leave the international relations to Nehru. We will think about these things when we reach that stage.

A fairer assessment of India’s first prime minister though comes from Late JN Dixit’s essay on Nehru (2000). An extract:

As an international statesman and foreign minister, there is a questioning of his founding the Non-Aligned Movement and its relevance today. It is true that the movement has not been very effective in safeguarding the interests of its member countries, particularly India. Two facts have to be kept in mind while evaluating Nehru’s adherence to the movement. First, he made a distinction between being “non-aligned” and being part of “the Non-Aligned Movement”.

He believed in non-alignment as a guiding principle of India’s foreign policy so that India is assured of having the freedom of choice in making decisions responsive to its national interests without being subject to external influences. He articulated apprehensions about being part of a movement which in itself could become a bloc of countries. It was Krishna Menon who ultimately persuaded him to make India join the movement, arguing that the parallel interests of the countries of the movement would increase their influence in international transactions.

He did not believe in the non-aligned movement as a dogma. He rightly believed in non-alignment (as distinct from neutrality) as a guiding principle of India’s foreign and security policies. Nehru can certainly be faulted for his idealism and belief in the sanctity of international law and agreements, in the light of his decision to go to the United Nations on the Kashmir issue and his faith in morality and goodwill as effective principles in inter-state relations. It was only at the end of 1962 after the military debacle against China that he acknowledged this reality, but it was too late. He can be blamed with Vallabhbhai Patel for the impatience which led to Partition about which Maulana Azad has written. In retrospect, Partition was good. It is preferable to India facing more profound centrifugal alienations than it is facing now.

For those who heap “the cheap condescension of posterity” over Nehru (and other leaders of that era), here is something from India’s foremost political commentator, Pratap Bhanu Mehta:

The third sensibility so many leaders of the Constituent Assembly carried was a creative form of self-doubt. They were all far more self-conscious that they were taking decisions under conditions of great uncertainty. Was it that easy to know what the consequences of a particular position were going to be? They also understood their mutual vulnerabilities. Nehru’s answer to Patel’s worry that Nehru was losing confidence in him was that he was losing confidence in himself. And anyone who has read the tortured last pages of The Discovery of India will understand how much Nehru meant it. Much of the cheap condescension of posterity heaped upon these figures would vanish if we could show as much self-awareness and a sense of vulnerability as our founding generation did. Many of them made mistakes of judgment. But one has the confidence that they were more likely to acknowledge their mistakes than most of those who comment upon them. They embodied the central element of a constitutional morality: to treat each other as citizens deserving equal regard, despite serious differences.

In conclusion, this blogger can only invoke the pithy explanation put forth by Ram Chandra Guha on a television programme a few years ago, explaining the harsh criticism that Nehru is often subjected to nowadays. It emanates from clubbing generations of Nehru-Gandhi clan together when talking about Nehru. To recall Ram Guha’s words, if memory serves me right: “In a Biblical inverse, the sins of the daughter (Indira Gandhi) have been made to revisit the father (Nehru) in this case.”

When it comes to modern India, Jawahar Lal Nehru certainly deserves a better understanding than the one seen solely through the prism of the Nehru-Gandhi family.

DISCLAIMER: This is an archived post from the Indian National Interest blogroll. Views expressed are those of the blogger's and do not represent The Takshashila Institution’s view.