The 125th birth anniversary of Jawahar Lal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India, is being celebrated during the current month. Born on 14th November 1889, he served as prime minister of the country for 17 long years. Those were the formative years of the infant democracy and he led it through several vicissitudes, inheriting from the British an undeveloped economy with excruciatingly oppressive poverty. And, yet he navigated the country through all its problems, including two avoidable wars, with patience and fortitude.

On occasions such as birth or death anniversaries, perhaps it is always fruitful to make an assessment or reassessment of the legacies left behind by a leader. Hindsight does not really give a true perspective, yet it is always useful to analyse and dissect what a leader left behind for the succeeding generations of the country to cope with and avoid the pitfalls, if any.

Looking back on those seventeen years of Nehru’s rule one finds that he made the country, at least during its initial post-independence years, cynosure of all eyes in the international arena. The struggle for India’s freedom that was largely non-violent under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi somehow had caught the imagination of the world even as the most violent and deadly of international conflicts, the World War II, taking as many 60 million lives, was being waged. World leaders were apparently amazed at the sustained non-violent effort of India to free itself from the brutal British oppression that eventually did culminate in its freedom two years after the Great War came to an end in 1945. Indian leadership around that time was one of the most intellectually and ethically well-equipped, imbued with an acute sense of patriotism. Shiv Vishwanathan, an intellectual and social scientist of repute, has said that during those years India had such a “surplus of leaders” that it was like a “festival of leadership”. No wonder, the country was seen occupying a high ethical ground and, hence, soon after independence world leaders came rushing in to have a firsthand impression of India, its ethical ethos, and what made it tick despite its obtrusive poverty.

Having seen through two Great Wars, Nehru, one way or the other, had to be a pacifist and as he became the head of the Indian government he took no time in evolving as a statesman championing the idea of world peace. He shunned post-War alliances of Eastern or Western Blocs and instead launched the Non-aligned Movement in which most of the “Third World” countries enthusiastically participated. Many of these countries in Asia, Oceania, Africa and Latin America obtained freedom from their colonial masters by movements generally triggered by India’s own independence.

Being an idealist, Nehru was also a firm believer in an international order overseen by the newly-created United Nations and was its true and faithful supporter. Unfortunately, his belief in conflict-resolving capabilities of the United Nations was severely shaken when he saw the organisation falling victim of the then ongoing Cold War. Much against the advice of his colleagues he referred the Indo-Pak conflict to the UN when the Indian Army was poised to throw out the raiders who had launched an unprovoked aggression in Kashmir in 1947 with active complicity of Pakistan. He had done so because of his faith in the United Nations but was sorely disappointed when he witnessed the Western Powers’ machinations against India for reasons of their own strategic self-interest, supporting the aggressor against its victim and converting the Indian complaint into a dispute where there was none. But for the Soviet veto in the Security Council, India could well have been at the receiving end. Thanks to the UN, the so-called “dispute” still continues and Jammu & Kashmir remains divided with a border that generally is hot, sizzling with cross-border shells.

Nehru’s charisma in the international arena lost a bit of a sheen when India used the Army to drive out the Portuguese from the tiny territories of Goa, Daman and Diu. While the French left their small Indian territories by organising plebiscites in French India in the early 1950s, the Portuguese somehow stuck on until 1961. Goans had become restive but the Portuguese dictator Antonio Salazar just wouldn’t give up. Enter the Indian Army and it was, virtually, like using a howitzer to squash a mosquito. The US and other Western powers, always somewhat anti-India for its close friendship with the now-defunct Soviet Union, were appalled. President Kennedy was quoted as saying that the apostle of non-violence was “caught in a brothel with his pants down”.

Nehru’s reputation got a fresh spell of beating at the hands of Communist China when it marched into India’s North and North-East in October 1962. Nehru had developed bonhomie with the Chinese leadership and he probably dreamt of Asian Power as the two of its giants got together. However, that was not to be. There had been skirmishes here and there on the long unmarked boundary between the two countries but in 1962 Nehru seemed to have been misguided into acting on what is known as the “Forward Policy” under which Indian Army was to establish pickets near or on the border. The Chinese, forgetting their “brotherly” relations with India, marched into Ladakh in Jammu & Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh in the North-East. As the Chinese advanced across the Himalayas into the plains of Assam Nehru almost gave up on the state. The Chinese, however, unilaterally withdrew, keeping in occupation till this day some territories in Ladakh. Mao tse Tung was later reported to have said that the Chinese operation was undertaken only “to teach a lesson to India” – probably, he meant Nehru. Perhaps it was uncharitable as, economically not better than India then, Nehru’s unrelenting efforts gave the Chinese some respectability. Otherwise they were generally hyphenated with the Soviet Union. It was his ceaseless efforts that contributed to the Chinese entry into the UN. Nevertheless, the relationship with the Chinese continues to be uneasy even after half a century of the 1962 conflict.

He thus left behind two sore disputes that continue to fester even today and may do so indefinitely. The international relations among nations are more complicated today as the world itself has become far more complex. One needs to have all the wits that one can muster around him to survive in the dangerous cauldron the world has become with powerful nations armed to the teeth. Nehru, with his innocence, idealism and intellectual integrity would not have survived for long in such a volatile environment.

Domestically, however, Nehru’s era was one of nation building. From building democratic and other political institutions to dam building, Nehru covered every aspect of human activity. Speaking extempore with his Harrow-Cambridge accent, he went about giving free vent to his liberated mind, trashing religion and associated rituals, exposing a mental level that was far above average. Having unstinted belief in science, he was for cultivation of a scientific temper in the country. A firm believer in the Mahatma’s edict which said, “I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible…” he sought, wherever possible, expertise from abroad and took the recommendations to their logical conclusions. The Ford Foundation, National Council of Applied Economic Research and, of course, the Green Revolution were among the few of several benefits derived from the invited foreign expertise. His gifts of the Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian Institutes of Management have not only brought laurels to the country, many of their graduates have distinguished themselves in the industrially advanced countries. Slowly and surely, the alumni of these institutes settled abroad have raised the image of their mother country. Several of them are now found at high levels, leave alone the corporate world, even in administrations like those of the US, UK, Canada, Australia etc.

However, Nehru miserably faltered in building up a functional and productive economy. Deeply influenced by Harold Laski, a British political theorist and a Fabian Socialist, Nehru desired to build a socialistic economy in India. He felt democratic socialism was going to be the best model for the country. The state control of all the “commanding heights” of the economy became the catchword. Eventually, the exercise proved neither to be democratic nor socialistic – the poor becoming poorer and rich becoming richer. The country remained imprisoned in the chains of this suffocating concept for a few decades. Despite two decades of liberalisation, some traces of it can still be seen and is somewhat disparagingly called remnants of Nehruvian socialism.

Another Nehruvian concept was “secularism”, which Nehru reckoned as one of the building blocks of a nation. He had keenly observed the Western religious conflicts and, even closer home, his own country was partitioned on the basis of religion. Nehru, in any case, found religion and its ritualistic practices abhorrent. His fond desire was that his countrymen should, unlike their new neighbour, rise above the prevailing narrow religious bigotry. A guiding principle of the Indian National Congress, “secularism” was later included in the Preamble of the Indian Constitution by his daughter, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. She, curiously, had scant regard for the concept. She would unfailingly light a lamp at conferences and break a coconut on a submarine to be launched observing typical Hindu religious traditions and even woe Muslims for votes. She and her successors muddied the concept even though the Congress shouts from the housetops day in and day out claiming to be “secular”. No wonder, one of its intellectually well-regarded members Dr. Karan Singh, the former Maharaja of Jammu & Kashmir, has gone on record saying that the concept is progressively becoming more and more “dodgy”.

Regardless of his numerous slips, Nehru is largely considered as the maker of modern India. His contributions are many but the most significant and abiding legacy is the Indian democratic tradition that has endured, despite a few hiccups, for more than sixty years. His 17-year rule in the democratic framework firmed up the belief of the people in democratic processes. With passage of time Indian democracy has only become increasingly vibrant. Governments have come and governments have gone without so much as a rumour of a coup d’état. Looking at the neighbourhood where countries went under dictatorships sooner or later, this appears to have been a remarkable achievement.