In defence of Nehru
He was simultaneously nation builder, liberal democrat and strategic visionary
It is fashionable these days to denigrate Jawaharlal Nehru. Although he had his weaknesses, those who followed him, regardless of party or ideology, have been intellectual and political pygmies by comparison.
Nehru had a vision of India as a modern, secular state that would be inclusive and liberal. When advised to outlaw communal parties as they flouted the spirit of the Constitution, he declared that communalism had to be defeated politically and not by the use of legal instruments. When asked why he was so strident in attacking Hindu communalism while soft-peddaling Muslim communalism, he replied that it was because majority communalism was far more dangerous since it could easily pass off as Indian nationalism. A prescient comment indeed!
Unlike Gandhi who believed in the idea of an India constituted of autonomous village communities with all the caste and economic inequities they harboured, Nehru was committed to the establishment of a strong Indian state where the concept of equal rights of citizens would override all societal divisions. It was he who established the robust tradition of civilian supremacy over the military that prevented India from becoming another junta-ruled Third World autocracy. Nehru laid the foundations of a dual-track nuclear programme without which India would never have achieved nuclear capable status. His economic policies of investing in heavy industries and protecting the nascent manufacturing sector saved India from becoming a mere cash crop economy dependent on the vagaries of the global market for its economic survival.
India gained independence at a very difficult juncture in international politics. Global alliance groups were all the rage. Nehru’s response was to advocate a policy of nonalignment to maintain India’s strategic autonomy in the face of pressure, especially from the U.S., to choose sides. Nonalignment may not have been the answer to all of India’s foreign policy problems, but it helped insulate the country from the worst effects of superpower rivalry. Unlike Pakistan’s subservient relationship with the U.S., non-alignment set the stage for a fruitful arms supply relationship with the Soviet Union without compromising India’s strategic goals.
The 1962 India-China war, forced upon Nehru by an ill-informed and jingoistic opposition and public opinion, posed a major challenge to his foreign policy. Nonetheless, coinciding as it did with the Sino-Soviet rift, it helped cement New Delhi’s relations with the Soviet Union. This relationship stood India in good stead during the Bangladesh war when Moscow provided cover for the Indian military intervention in the UN Security Council and the Indo-Soviet Treaty neutralised U.S. and Chinese support for Pakistan.
Nehru was simultaneously nation builder, liberal democrat, and strategic visionary, qualities in short supply today. Mohammed Ayoob is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations, Michigan State University