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Three aspects of Jawaharlal Nehru’s contribution to the growth of Indian democracy are sought to be examined, not exhaustively though, in this paper. The evolution of the idea in Nehru’s mind during the crucial years of his life when he came under the influence of several streams of thought, mostly foreign, the acceptance of the Gandhian ethic resulting in the enunciation of framework of democracy committed to secula­rism, socialism and social justice and the creation of a sound institutional base for the rapid development of the huge and diverse country constitute the three main themes on which attention is focussed in this paper. The subject of discussion is, therefore, complex and one who attempts to study such a subject has to be cautious, steering clear of vague abstrac­tions and over-simplified generalisations. To attempt to under­stand the mind of a powerful leader who wrote prolifically and spoke all over the world on a variety of subjects for over three decades and a half is indeed a tough intellectual exercise.


            India, wrote Nehru, is a curious mixture of an amazing diversity and abiding unity.1 Nehru was himself a curious and a fascinating mixture of diversity influences and streams of thought from the east and the west. He was influenced by the idealist tradition of the Indian renaissance and the national movement, especially by Gandhi and persistently endeavoured to combine idealism with realism.2 The Buddha and Ashoka were luminous stars for him in the glorious history of India.



Paper presented in a seminar on Nehru; Man, Vision and mission held at Nehru Study Centre, National P.G. College, Lucknow






The influence of Marx and Lenin was powerful on mind. Yet Marxist philosophy did not satisfy him completely nor did not satisfy him completely nor did it answer all the questions in his mind.3 “A vague idealist approach” he explained “would creep into mind, something rather akin to the Vedanta ap­proach”.4 His mind was too independent to submit itself to any kind of doctrinaire approach. “I am very far from being a communist” he conceded adding that he disliked dogmatism.5



History fascinated him. It gave him an insightful command over the past, a keen and immediate sense of the present and a rare foresight to think and plan for the future of all. Himself a historian of repute, Nehru felt that many historical writings were uncritical descriptions of events and people. He was equally drawn to science and firmly believed that scientific temper and scientific approach to problems would liberate India from economic misery and social injustice. Amaz­ing indeed was his intellectual blend – science and history, idealism and realism, literature and politics, the revolution of Marx and the non-violence of Gandhi – were all integrated in his unique personality. As Norman Cousins observed Nehru “was not one man but a procession of men.”


            The first battle was won inside his mind. In his early years Nehru raised several questions against the Gandhian approach and openly disagreed with the Mahatma on many counts. Some letters written by Nehru to Gandhiji reveal the dilemma before Nehru. He sought answers from Gandhiji and found in the Mahatma’s approach and work solutions to the many doubts that had persisted for long.6 As years rolled by Nehru became increasingly convinced by the Gandhian approach though he felt that Gandhiji was ‘an extraordinary paradox.’ He thought that when Gandhiji claimed to be a socialist, some of his followers meant by it “a kind of muddled humani­tarianism.”7 Nehru did not agree with Gandhiji’s approach to certain economic issues.


Nehru’s preference for a mixed economy seemed appropriate under the circumstances. To put it in his own words, “I am no believer in Communist theory – there is much in it which I accept in the economic theory, but basically I think it is out of date today, more especially in this atomic age. I think equally that the opposite theory is out of date in the context of modern world affairs.” But he found in Gandhiji’s conception of democracy something more than the ordinary. “It is based on service and sacrifice, and it uses moral pressure,” observed Nehru.8




 Nehru was amazed how Gandhiji could function on the revolutionary plane keeping his feet firmly planted in the rich traditions of our race and our soil, how Gandhiji could bring about revolution to millions of homes without people fully realising what was happening and how he vitalized millions of people and drove fear out of their minds.9 Nehru’s conversion to Gandhian approach, excluding a few areas, was total. A revolution, he agreed, could be silent and total, if it was based on service and sacrifice. The work left unfinished by Gandhiji had to be completed and about that Nehru spoke thus in the Constituent Assembly on February 2, 1948. “So we have to work, we have to labour, we have to sacrifice and thus prove, to some extent worthy followers of his.”



Against such a background enriched by thought and action Nehru rose to power. Change is essential, he wrote, but conti­nuity is also necessary. “The future has to be built on the foundations laid in the past and the present,” he declared.10 Undaunted by the task ahead Nehru went about preparing plans for changes in every field. India having chosen the path of ‘rapid evolution’ instead of ‘violent revolution’ Nehru launched ambitious plans in several fields which Rajni Kothari described as the challenge of simultaneous change. “No revolution can be complete,” Nehru said, “if it is only political.” The op­pressed and the exploited sections of the society deserved special consideration and Nehru felt that economic planning could go a long way in alleviating their hardship. The setting ­up of the Planning Commission and the launching of the com­munity development were landmarks in national development. He established other major institutions like the University Grants Commission, the Atomic Energy Commission and the Defence Science Organisation.



The Avadi Congress Session of 1955 saw Nehru giving India a clear direction in achieving the economic and social objectives. Speaking on the Scientific Policy Resolution in Parliament Nehru said that the aim was “to make Indian people and even Government of India con­scious of scientific work and the necessity for it.” Building heavy industries and accelerating the pace of development on the farm and in the factory received top priority. He felt that “it is on the basis of steel and power that countries are industrialised and advanced.” Simultaneously he worked for ‘trained personnel’ to effectively implement the policy. The growth of the public sector was vital though the acceptance of mixed economy underlined the importance of the private sector. Nehru did realise the utility of promoting small scale and cottage industries, though the dice was loaded heavily in favour of the public sector. All industries of basic and strategic importance in the nature of public utility services



should be in the public sector as per the industrial policy resolution. Nehru was opposed to factories concentrating on mere con­sumer goods. “You must go to the root and build up the structure of industrial growth” he exhorted. Iron, steel, coal, electricity, heavy chemicals, etc., therefore received top priority for investment. Nehru was convinced that modern technology should come in a big way to help India solve many of her chronic problems.



 Nehru’s democratic socialism was ‘a growing, dynamic conception’ something which he felt would not be rigid. It should be something that would suit the genius and require­ments of the Indian people. In the year of his death he explained the meaning of socialism in the modern world with its dynamism and its tremendous technological progress. There was a philosophical note of caution too when he said “we must not forget that the essential objective to be aimed at is the quality of the individual and the concept of a Dharma underlying i1”.11 He stated that India’s progress since independence was sub­stantial ‘considering the background of India and her people and the necessity of changing the social structure of the country.’ All that was achieved on a democratic basis, he pointed out.


            The launching of Panchayati Raj was without doubt a great step forward in taking democracy meaningfully to the people in the rural areas. The process of institution - building received further fillip when it was launched. That people should be actively involved in the process of nation - building and that India’s diversity and vastness required a wide institu­tional framework for developmental work were stressed by Nehru right from the dawn of Independence. Thanks to Nehru’s vision India not only adopted and operated successfully the Westminster type of parliamentary democracy but created new institutions to meet the challenging demands of speedy deve­lopment. In this regard Nehru’s leadership was dynamic and innovative. Most of the institutions established by him struck roots despite lack of adequate resources and lack of a large number of trained personnel. India became a shining example of a smooth transition from traditions to modernity combining the strength of the former and the confidence of the latter.


Nehru’s commitment to democracy was borne out by the respect he showed to the opposition, the Press and those with whom he disagreed. Two of his speeches made during the last months of his life referred to the threats to national solidarity and unity. He pointed out that variety should not affect unity nor should religion, caste and language disrupt national unity. From the Buddha to Gandhi, he observed, India’s heritage conveyed to the world the lesson of living harmoniously together.



 Democracy required the spirit of tolerance and co­operation and he firmly believed in India’s capacity for sustain­ing the democratic spirit. Nehru’s faith in the Indian spirit remained throughout unshaken. We are, he explained, not only industrializing the country through democratic processes but also at the same time trying to maintain the unique features in Indian philosophy and way of life and individuality of India.


   Underlying the strong institutional base Nehru laid for the growth of Indian democracy was the value system shaped under Gandhiji’s leadership, The relevance of those highly cherished values – communal harmony, non-violence and eman­cipation of the oppressed sections of the society – has not decreased with the passage of time. Even today they occupy a high place in our system though euphemistically we may describe them as national integration and social justice. Nehru’s commitment to democracy stemmed from that value system nurtured by Gandhiji. In a way Nehru’s failures too might have resulted from the difficulty of reconciling the spirit of the earlier times with the modern institutions operated by a new class of leaders. Nobody was more aware of the shortcomings and failures of the Nehru era than its maker himself.


The true democrat that he was Nehru accepted responsibility for his failures without putting the blame one others around him. His biographer described Nehru as a ‘prophet frustrated’. S. Gopalsummed up that Nehru failed to follow the adult suffrage with a speedy enforcement of land distribution and tenancy reform, a proper emphasis on education, a revision of the administrative system and control of population. “Had these steps” wrote Gopal, “been taken democracy would have been accompanied by basic changes in society and the 1950s would not now appear more and more of a faded golden age,” Nehru has also been criticised for his tolerance of corruption and his occasional fondness for flamboyant buccaneers. Probably Nehru was aware of the burden he was carrying on his shoulders when he could not throw out certain friends who were his liabilities. One can get a hint of Nehru’s problem from a state­ment he once made: “The most difficult thing in life is what to do with one’s friends”. 12


 With all its faults the Indian democracy under Nehru’s leadership grew to be the most enduring system in the third world. The uniqueness of Nehru’s democracy which was hailed as the Hellas of Asia lay in the fact that it could survive severe tests both from within and outside. Disproving some western critics who had prophesied the collapse of Indian democracy after Nehru, the Indian democracy not only survived Nehru but came out with flying colours from the most trying years that followed.





 The sudden death of Nehru and Shastri (whose succession was described as Two Successions by a Western scholar) and later of Indira Gandhi and the un-precedented drought and economic misery of the mid-sixties besides the three wars that were forced on India in 1962, 1965 and 1971 were the most severe tests faced by free India. And Indian democracy proved worthy of Nehru’s faith in it. Yet, the last two decades have witnessed a steep erosion of the value-system underlying the Indian democracy. Some of the trends that set in the Indian system would have greatly distressed Jawaharlal Nehru.



The fact is unassailable that there is no alternative to the Gandhi-Nehru framework of Indian democracy. Discarding it would be most harmful to India’s social and political life. It is only by recalling that ethos and reviving the Nehruvian spirit that we can stem the ominous drift that has set in and put the Indian democracy back on the rails. A strong and stable democracy on the lines drawn by the great architect, Jawaharlal Nehru, would ensure world peace and better future for mankind. How aptly he once asked “Who dies if India lives? Who lives if India dies?”




1 S. Gopal (ed.), Jawaharlal Nehru - An Anthology Oxford University Press, 1983, p. 238.

2 B.R. Nanda (ed.), India’s Foreign Policy - The Nehru Years, Vikas, New Delhi, 1976, p. 182.

3 Jawaharlal Nehru - The Discovery of India, Signet Press, Calcutta, 1947, p. 12.

4 Ibid.

5 Quoted in A Centenary History of the Indian National Congress, B.N. Pande (ed.), AICC (I) and Vikas Publishers, Delhi, p. 816.

6 S. Gopal (ed.), An Anthology, pp. 99-100.

7 Ibid., p. 102.

8 Ibid., p. 103.

9 Ibid., p. 114.

10 Ibid., p. 115.

11 Ibid., p. 319.

12 S. Gopal, Jawaharlal Nehru - A Biography, Vol. III, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1976, p. 118.