It might seem ironical that on the eve of the 50th death anniversary of Jawaharlal Nehru, BJP’s Narendra Modi has become the Prime Minister of the country. The old timers are sure to say that times have indeed changed. But on second look, it might not be as ironical as the admirers of Nehru make it out to be. To be sure, Nehru was a liberal, and in his early days, especially in the 1930s, he was a leftist in the Congress along with Subhas Chandra Bose. In his 1936 presidential address at the Lucknow session of Congress he spoke unambiguously that the choice is between Communism and Fascism, and it was clear that he rejected Fascism and preferred Communism.
By the time he became Prime Minister in 1946 at the age of 57, he was a mellower man, and this mellowness was much more pronounced in the 1950s, when he passionately argued that the “socialist pattern of society” that the Congress had adopted at the Avadi session was a far cry from doctrinaire Marxism. The gentle rebel of the 1930s had truly turned into a bourgeois liberal of the 1950s. And in the late 1950s, impressed with then young Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s parliamentary interventions and rhetorical flourishes saw a future prime minister in him. There were two things about Nehru despite his passionate dislike of reactionary politics of any kind, including in the guise of Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s liberalism and constitutionality, which he retained till the end. He ardently believed in democracy and in individual liberties.
Many of Nehru’s admirers showed un-Nehruvian intolerance for right-wing and reactionary politics. It is not hard to imagine that Nehru would have gracefully accepted the emergence of a right-wing party like the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its electoral successes, including its impressive victory in the Lok Sabha elections 11 days ago. But he would not have given up his arguments for a democratic India which respected individual freedoms. Many of his contemporaries found him a temperamental man to deal with, a man who would brook no opposition. But they too could recognise, including stalwarts like Minoo Masani, a socialist of the 1930s who had become one of the founding members of the pro-free enterprise Swatantra Party in 1959 along with the true-blue conservative like C Rajagopalachari, who was close to Nehru before they drifted apart on the question of public sector dominating the economy, that Nehru was both a gentleman and a democrat, that he bowed to the will of the people even when he did not like it as in the case of the formation of linguistic states in 1956.
Is it then right to mourn for the passing away of the socialist Nehruvian era? It would be quite off the mark to do so. Nehru was a progressive who saw into the future. He revelled in the revolutionary changes wrought by technology. That is why, he rejected Marxism as interpreted by Marxists and moved towards political liberalism which accepted pluralism and clash of ideas. He would have rejoiced the changes that have happened due to economic liberalisation and reforms in India since the 1980s and 1990s. Nehruvians see their hero with socialist blinkers and they distort his views. Similarly, there are the extremely ignorant and puerile right-wingers who rant against Nehruvian socialist India as though it symbolised the dark, middle ages. It was the industrial and educational foundations laid in the Nehruvian India of the 1950s and 1960s that served as the lift-off stage for today’s India.