The idea of Nehru
The builder of modern India and her first Prime Minister delivers the epoch-marking “Tryst with destiny” speech at the Parliament house, New Delhi on August 14, 1947; worthy of history in the making on the eve of our independence
It is a recurring funeral rite in the rhetoric of our times: the death of the Nehruvian era. The Right portrays the “timely demise” as liberation from the falsities that stifled the idea of the nation. In the wail of the Centrists, it marks the last gasps of everything that sustained India as a secular state where gods didn’t choreograph our political acts. Both sides are prone to exaggeration, though it must be said that the Nehruvian New Man, made of the finest genes of secular ideals and scientific temper, is fast vanishing from the political arena. And in his place we see a kinetic figure rediscovering his identity as Indian, an exclusivist rearmed by angry gods and aggrieved nationalists. Nehru would have fainted.
And what would have India been like if he were not there in the first place, as Gandhi’s chosen one, as our first prime minister, as our designated nation builder? We can only venture into that imagination with dread.
To begin with, we would have missed that midnight invocation of freedom, perhaps the most evocative dedication of a liberated people to history. There would have been no idealist to remind India that “all of us, whatever religion we may belong, are equally the children of India with equal rights, privileges and obligations.”
“The light has gone out of our lives...” Henri Cartier-Bresson’s iconic framing of the tragic moment in the history of a young nation matches the plangent prose of Nehru announcing to a disbelieving world the martyrdom of the Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi, at the hands of a Hindu fanatic
We would have missed the poetry—and the prose that followed the day after.
Had there been no Nehru as our first prime minister, the art of nation building would have had a different beginning. India, the jewel that finally escaped the crown, would not have been built with raw material mined from socialism. We would have been spared the Soviet model of development, and all the inevitable side effects of the so-called mixed economy: the licence raj and crony capitalism. And New India’s “temples” would not have been the monoliths of the public sector. The state would not have been the sole arbiter of our destiny.
We would have missed the internationalist at play. Non-alignment was a misnomer; in practical terms, it meant anti-Americanism and latent Soviet devotion. If India’s first prime minister were not an ideologically driven globalist, “Third Worldism” would have lost a patron saint. And India would not have wasted its time on an overwhelming irrelevance called NAM.
And China would not have taken us for granted. It was as if he believed in the goodness of Maoist China as much as the Chinese believed in the naivety of its democratic neighbour. India would not have seen 1962 as a Chinese betrayal. Instead, India would have seen the extra-territorial terror as the natural instinct of the communist beast. Maybe there would have been no war at all. Maybe India could have lived without a permanent tormentor at Galwan Valley.
That said, the idea of Nehru is larger than the Nehruvian errors we return to while seeking explanations for our maladies. His civility and intellectual sophistication set the behavioural code of a democracy at a time when, in Africa and elsewhere, post-colonial liberators were turning into tyrants.
Had there been no Prime Minister Nehru, I’m not sure whether India could have taken homecoming gods and their real estate managers in its stride and moved on. Thanks to him, this country is not exclusively God’s own.
(The English original version of the Malayalam article published in the Mathrubhumi weekend edition on August 15, 2020)
(The writer is the editor of Open magazine)