The Modern-Day Vilification of Jawaharlal Nehru


The Modern-Day Vilification of Jawaharlal Nehru

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Last year, I came across a beautiful tribute to Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister. That in itself was surprising enough, but the fact that it was a tribute penned by a titan of the BJP made me pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. After all, we live in times when Nehru’s contribution to modern Indian society is often questioned, if not derided outright. Today, Nehru’s 130th birth anniversary, marks the rare occasion where Nehru isn’t roundly criticised whenever his name is brought up.

The BJP leader who penned the tribute was the late Atal Bihari Vajpayee – in the wake of his passing, newspapers republished the speech he delivered in 1964, on the occasion of Nehru being laid to rest. The grace with which Vajpayee broaches his ideological opponent’s legacy, and the respect he affords Nehru is a display of class that seems beyond the ability of today’s crop of BJP leaders to emulate.

“It is unfortunate that this generosity was mistaken for weakness, while some people looked upon his firmness as obstinacy,” Vajpayee had said when Nehru passed. This notion of Nehru as a highly flawed leader is one that has gained more traction, as the BJP’s star rose in 2014 and anti-Congress sentiments in the country reached an all-time high. The scrubbing of Nehru’s name from state-sponsored history textbooks in schools in 2016 felt like the culmination of a motivated smear campaign, but the BJP was far from finished with Nehru’s legacy

It’s this denial of historical facts that characterises contemporary criticism of Nehru, more than half a century after his death.

Don’t be fooled by the positive tweets the ruling party have put out today; the occasion of Nehru’s 130th birth anniversary exempts him from the normal brickbats. The BJP hasn’t gotten tired of unloading on its favourite punching bag, Nehru. As India’s first Prime Minister, charged with the task of helping a fledgling nation find its feet, his impact on modern Indian society cannot be denied. However, as we’ve learned from the right wing’s narrative on Nehru, his legacy can be twisted no end to rob him of his significance.

In November 2018, during rallies being held for the state assembly elections, PM Modi derisively referred to the “leader who wore a rose” as one who had knowledge of gardens, but was ignorant of the plight of farmers. Let’s ignore the fact that with his bespoke, monogrammed suits, the current PM is just as much a fashion victim as Nehru was. Let’s also conveniently forget how he tried to co-opt the Nehru vest by renaming it the Modi vest while gifting it to foreign heads of state. But we can’t ignore how the Green Revolution began in India under Nehru, and how he had fought for farmers’ issues during the independence struggle. It’s this denial of historical facts that characterises contemporary criticism of Nehru, more than half a century after his death.

It’s not just the PM who feels the need to attack a long-dead leader, his party buddies also succumb to the same temptation from time to time. Proving that they truly are the Tim Burton-Johnny Depp combo of Indian politics, attacking Nehru’s legacy is yet another area where the PM has collaborated with his bestie, Amit Shah. Shah has been a long-time critic of Nehru, but this year he added the accusation that Nehru and Gandhi would routinely humiliate BR Ambedkar during their lifetimes. Together, the Modi-Shah twosome have composed the tune, and their tens of thousands of followers have merrily sung along.

Even as they actively try to tear down the legacy of one of India’s greatest sons, Modi and his ilk will be well-served to remember Vajpayee’s thoughts on Nehru.

On social media, particularly the Holy Grail of WhatsApp, along with legitimate historical debates, right-wing influencers and trolls alike present alt-facts and accusations that present Nehru as a Westernised degenerate, who embodied the opposite of what an ideal Indian should be. The claims found online are baffling in their outlandishness. Facts are nowhere to be found in forwards that claim Nehru’s half-brother was Pakistan’s Quaid-i-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah, or in obviously photoshopped images which purport to show Nehru ogling a troupe of showgirls. But this sort of vilification is to be expected from those with majoritarian tendencies; his global education and international outlook placed him in an intellectual minority, not a demographic one.

But far from being un-Indian, Nehru represented an alternative to the idea that India was a land out of time, steeped in hoary traditions and bound to the past. He saw that long and colourful history as being the foundation for a new, modern society, and himself as the facilitator of that change. In his autobiography, he makes this astute self-assessment, writing, “I have become a queer mixture of the East and the West, out of place everywhere, at home nowhere. Perhaps my thoughts and approach to life are more akin to what is called Western than Eastern, but India clings to me, as she does to all her children, in innumerable ways.”

If it is true that history is written by the victors, then the current demonisation of Nehru is to be expected. But fears that his legacy will be completely eradicated might be premature. Because by playing a crucial role in achieving India’s independence, and then going on to help a newly divided country find its feet on the world stage, the victories that Nehru has won will dwarf anything that any government is able to achieve.

Perhaps Vajpayee better understood Nehru’s legacy than any of his successors. Even as they actively try to tear down the legacy of one of India’s greatest sons, Congress rivals will be well-served to remember Vajpayee’s thoughts on Nehru. “In spite of a difference of opinion we have nothing but respect for his great ideals, his integrity, his love for the country and his indomitable courage. With these words, I pay my humble homage to that great soul.”

(This is an updated version of a story published earlier.)