The enduring relevance of Nehru’s legacy

That each day, Indians govern themselves in a pluralist democracy is testimony to his deeds and words

November 13, 2021 12:02 am | Updated November 14, 2021 09:08 am IST

Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel leaving the Viceregal lodge in Simla after their talks with the British Cabinet Mission in India in 1946.

Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel leaving the Viceregal lodge in Simla after their talks with the British Cabinet Mission in India in 1946.

Four men embodied the vision of free India in the 1940s — Gandhi, Nehru, Patel and Ambedkar. Gandhi’s moral rectitude, allied to Jawaharlal Nehru’s political passion, fashioned both the strategy and tactics for the struggle against British rule. Sardar Patel’s firm hand on the administration integrated the nation and established peace and stability. Ambedkar’s erudition and legal acumen helped translate the dreams of a generation into a working legal document that laid the foundations for an enduring democracy.

Setting the way

While the world was disintegrating into fascism, violence, and war, Gandhi taught the virtues of truth, non-violence, and peace. While the nation reeled from bloodshed and communal carnage, Ambedkar preached the values of constitutionalism and the rule of law. While parochial ambitions threatened national unity, Patel led the nation to a vision of unity and common purpose. While mobs marched the streets baying for revenge, Nehru’s humane and non-sectarian vision inspired India to yearn again for the glory that had once been hers.


Of the four, Gandhi and Nehru stood out. Despite differences over both tactics (Nehru wanted Independence immediately whereas Gandhi believed Indians had to be made ready for their own freedom) and philosophy (the agnostic Nehru had little patience for the Mahatma’s spirituality), the two men proved a formidable combination. Gandhi guided Nehru to his political pinnacle; Nehru in turn proved an inspirational campaigner as President of the Indian National Congress, electrifying the nation with his speeches and tireless travel.

Keeper of the flame

Upon the Mahatma’s assassination in 1948, just five months after Independence, Nehru, the country’s first Prime Minister, became the keeper of the national flame, the most visible embodiment of India’s struggle for freedom. Gandhi’s death could have led Nehru to assume untrammelled power. Instead, he spent a lifetime immersed in the democratic values Ambedkar had codified, trying to instill the habits of democracy in his people — a disdain for dictators, a respect for parliamentary procedures, an abiding faith in the constitutional system. Till the end of the decade, his staunch ally Patel provided the firm hand on the tiller without which India might yet have split asunder.

For the first 17 years of India’s Independence, the paradox-ridden Nehru — a moody, idealist intellectual who felt an almost mystical empathy with the toiling peasant masses; an aristocrat, accustomed to privilege, who had passionate socialist convictions; an Anglicized product of Harrow and Cambridge who spent over 10 years in British jails; an agnostic radical who became an unlikely protégé of the saintly Mahatma Gandhi — was India. Incorruptible, visionary, ecumenical, a politician above politics, Nehru’s stature was so great that the country he led seemed inconceivable without him. A year before his death a leading American journalist, Welles Hangen, published a book entitled After Nehru, Who? the unspoken question around the world was: “after Nehru, what?”

Also read |  A rewriting of Nehru?

Today, looking back on his 132nd birthday and nearly six decades after his death, we have something of an answer to the latter question. As an India still seemingly clad in many of the trappings of Nehruvianism steps out into the 21st century, a good deal of Jawaharlal Nehru’s legacy appears intact — and yet hotly contested. India has moved away from much of Nehru’s beliefs, and so (in different ways) has the rest of the developing world for which Nehruvianism once spoke. As India nears its 75th anniversary of Independence from the British Raj, a transformation — still incomplete — has taken place that, in its essentials, has changed the basic Nehruvian assumptions of postcolonial nationhood. Nehru himself, as a man with an open and questing mind, would have allowed his practical thinking to evolve with the times, even while remaining anchored to his core beliefs.

The pillars of his imprint

In my 2003 biography, Nehru: The Invention of India , I sought to examine this great figure of 20th-century nationalism from the vantage point of the beginning of the 21st. Jawaharlal Nehru’s life is a fascinating story in its own right, and I tried to tell it whole, because the privileged child, the unremarkable youth, the posturing young nationalist, and the heroic fighter for independence are all inextricable from the unchallengeable Prime Minister and peerless global statesman. At the same time, I sought to analyse critically the four principal pillars of Nehru’s legacy to India — democratic institution-building, staunch pan-Indian secularism, socialist economics at home, and a foreign policy of non-alignment — all of which were integral to a vision of Indianness that is fundamentally challenged today.


Of these, it is the edifice of democracy that Nehru constructed that remains the most indispensable pillar of his contributions to India.

It was by no means axiomatic that a country like India, riven by so many internal differences and diversities, beset by acute poverty and torn apart by Partition, would be or remain democratic. Many developing countries found themselves turning in the opposite direction soon after Independence, arguing that a firm hand was necessary to promote national unity and guide development. With Gandhi’s death, Nehru could have very well assumed unlimited power within the county. And yet, he himself was such a convinced democrat, profoundly wary of the risks of autocracy, that, at the crest of his rise, he authored an anonymous article warning Indians of the dangers of giving dictatorial temptations to Jawaharlal Nehru. “He must be checked,” he wrote of himself. “We want no Caesars.” And indeed, his practice when challenged within his own party was to offer his resignation; he usually got his way, but it was hardly the instinct of a Caesar.

A deference to the system

As Prime Minister, Nehru carefully nurtured the country’s infant democratic institutions. He paid deference to the country’s ceremonial presidency and even to its largely otiose vice-presidency; he never let the public forget that these notables outranked him in protocol terms. He wrote regular letters to the Chief Ministers of the States, explaining his policies and seeking their feedback. He subjected himself and his government to cross-examination in Parliament by the small, fractious but undoubtedly talented Opposition, allowing them an importance out of all proportion to their numerical strength, because he was convinced that a strong Opposition was essential for a healthy democracy. He took care not to interfere with the judicial system; on the one occasion that he publicly criticised a judge, he apologised the next day and wrote an abject letter to the Chief Justice, regretting having slighted the judiciary. And he never forgot that he derived his authority from the people of India; not only was he astonishingly accessible for a person in his position, but he started the practice of offering a daily darshan at home for an hour each morning to anyone coming in off the street without an appointment, a practice that continued until the dictates of security finally overcame the populism of his successors.


It was Nehru who, by his scrupulous regard for both the form and the substance of democracy, instilled democratic habits in our country. His respect for Parliament, his regard for the independence of the judiciary, his courtesy to those of different political convictions, his commitment to free elections, and his deference to institutions over individuals, all left us a precious legacy of freedom.

The American editor, Norman Cousins, once asked Nehru what he hoped his legacy to India would be. “Four hundred million people capable of governing themselves,” Nehru replied. The numbers have grown, but the very fact that each day over a billion Indians govern themselves in a pluralist democracy is testimony to the deeds and words of the man whose birthday we commemorate tomorrow.

Shashi Tharoor is a third-term Member of Parliament (Congress Party) representing Thiruvananthapuram and an award-winning author of 22 books, including most recently, T he Battle of Belonging

Top News Today

Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.