Love to hate Nehru

Another forwarded e-mail. And this one really grinds my gears! The e-mail is titled “Look at this idiot”, which is directed to India’s first prime minister Nehru. And it has the above picture as an attachment. There are also some disparaging remarks about Nehru in the e-mail.

First of all, I don’t see anything wrong with this picture. And I fail to see how this makes him an “idiot”. 

But this is nothing new. It has almost become a fashion to criticize Nehru (and Gandhi) nowadays. Many proclamations are based on mere speculations and allegations (often driven by political motives). But what really boils my blood is when the allegations moves from policies to personalities. You may disagree with Nehru’s ideas and policies, but questioning his integrity as the prime minister of India and doubting his compassion to create a great democratic and secular India is, I think, quite preposterous.

Yes, he made some bad decisions as a prime minister. His under-estimation of the China threat, manhandling of the Kashmir issue and distrusting businessmen as a class, are among his prime failures as a prime minister. If we look into his personal life, there are many things to criticize too. He mistreated his wife, and he was almost an absent father. Apart from that, the allegation that his relationship with Edwina influenced his policies as a prime ministers is, well, allegation at its best and cheap-shot at its worst. [link

But one can hardly argue against his vigorous pursuit for economic and social development in pre and post independent India. When we refer to the biggest democracy in the world, it’s difficult not to give this man some credit  who held the flag of democracy democratically  for 17 years.

But still, we Indians, love to hate Nehru. It’s his failures that interest us more (as they are easy to comprehend), not his achievements (which are difficult to grasp for a common man).

In his fascinating essay Ramachandra Guha calls Nehru and Gandhi “Shock Absorbers”. He points out how we Indians are quite lenient and often eloquent when it comes to criticizing Gandhi and/or Nehru. But for other leaders of the yore, like Ambedkar, Golwarkar, Shivaji, Bose and Tagore, the tolerance bar is set quite low (by specific communal or regional groups). The pride of Ambedkar is protected vehemently by Dalits, the Maharashtrians demand total reverence to Shivaji, Golwarkar (and Savarkar), the Bengalis can not take a slight criticism of their favorite leaders: Bose and Tagore. Most of these protests are on sectarian, communal or regional level.  


Guha asks the question “Why this taboo on criticizing, on the basis of solid historical evidence, Bose in Bengal, Savarkar in front of radical Hindus, Ambedkar in a Dalit meeting, or Indira Gandhi in the vicinity of 10, Janpath? [and why do we have license to say anything we want about Nehru and Gandhi?]”. And his answer (below) makes a lot of sense to me:

One reason we are free to dump on Gandhi and Nehru is that neither is, was or ever will be a sectarian leader. Despite the best efforts of the Muslim League, many Muslims, among them such devout ones as Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, stayed with Gandhi. Despite the criticisms of Ambedkar and company, many Dalits saw Gandhi as being on their side. The portrayal of Gandhi as either a ‘Hindu’ leader or an ‘upper caste’ leader was made with great determination, but with limited success. No one even tried to represent him as a ‘Gujarati’, since his identification with the other parts and provinces of India was as deep and sincere as with his own.

Likewise with Jawaharlal Nehru. As Rajmohan Gandhi has pointed out, the main reason the Mahatma chose Nehru as his heir — above Patel, Rajagopalachari, Azad, Kripalani, or Prasad — was that his personality and political beliefs transcended the divides of religion, region, gender, and language. No one thought of Nehru as a man of the Doab, or as a Hindu, or as a male chauvinist. He was greatly admired by south Indians, by Muslims and Christians, and by women, large sections of whom saw him as working for and on behalf of their own best interests.

Ironically, and tragically, it is the fact that they so effectively transcended sectarian boundaries while they lived, that makes Gandhi and Nehru so vulnerable to criticism and abuse now.

(Emphases mine)

And Guha ends his essay with this wonderful comment:

And so, of all our icons and heroes dead or alive, the two whom we can most fearlessly criticise are the two who did most to build a free and democratic India. This, to be sure, is a land of paradox and contradiction, but of all the paradoxes and contradictions abroad this one must surely count as the most bizarre. That we can treat Gandhi and Nehru as we do testifies to their greatness, and perhaps also to our own meanness.

Addendum: Shrek proposes an alternate explanation (here) of our love-hate relationship with Nehru/Gandhi. He believes that the reason is psychology, not sociology. The text-book depictions of the freedom fighters are such that we grow up thinking that they were flawless. And when we eventually learn that they were after all flawed, we focus on the negative and revolt. Couple of my friends also opined that “[I]t is indeed a part of human nature that we do sometimes get drawn into biased thinking regarding certain issues or people, conveniently forgetting or bypassing some alarmingly positive facts in the process.” – referring to the blunder Nehru made regarding Kashmir issue. We, Indians, have huge emotional investments in the Kashmir issue and we are extremely sensitive about it, that “the man who made the wrong call on Kashmir” became such a hate-figure. (And not to mention how the right-wing politicians and activists honed our discontent for their own benefits.)

The answer to the question “Why do we love to hate Nehru/Gandhi?” is, probably, multi-faceted. But whatever the explanations are, the roots are in our (society’s) faulty/biased interpretations & thinking. 


19 responses to “Love to hate Nehru

  1. bombay dosti

    True!For me, i have personally gone through the phase of criticizing Gandhi for sure and then came back to realise that they were great. Nehru’s Discovery of India,shines with Nehru’s liberal, and democratic thought. Very insightful post!!

  2. Vishal

    Thanks for your comments!

    Democracy with Diversity is Nehru’s legacy to India. It’s a shame that we (society) always held extreme (black and white) opinions about Nehru — when we used to like him (roughly pre 1989) we adored him with utmost sincerity and assumed him to be flawless. And nowadays majority of the junta seem to have a general opinion that lives on the other side of the spectrum (i.e. revolt).

  3. MyViews

    I don’t hate Gandhiji but I would continue my feelings towards Nehru. Well you have already mentioned few of his failures as a person and as a Prime Minister.Well, He was the one who has introduced reservation in Government and reservation and do I have to say this wasn’t a political gamble that he played and is still affecting India. What kind of Insight and Leadeship has he shown in this. How did quota help bring backward class to normal social standards.Also, He was not in favor of Privatization. He wanted government to control every part of life and he wanted monopoly in the government business.

    His lack of insight towards China and his personal problem with Vallabhbhai Patel has lead to Kashmir. His own love towards Kashmir (Even though he was casting himself as Secular and National Leader not attached to any part of India) and his inability to handle and take a decision for kashmir on time and convience Ruler of kashmir on time lead to Kashmir. His inability to stop violance during partition that has left millions dead as a Prime Minister.

    Before Independance, Nehru was heading the interim government who has the power be handed over by British Government. His failed nagotiations with Muslim league lead to Pakistan. Well I am not opposing Pakistan’c creation but what I didn’t like was how the situation was handled. Can’t it be planned and little better way. Millions of lives during partition was not the best option.

    Also how do you describe a leader who did not consider his parties view to make Vallabhbhai a Prime Minister for his own ambition. 80% of Congress Party wanted Vallabhbhai Patel to be a leader while he with the backing of Gandhiji became the Prime Minister.

    Well, apart from his steps for education and social freedom of women, I would prefer to stay away from supporting any of his decision that he has made.

    Thought I agree with you on posted photo. I don’t see any problem or any idiocity in this.

  4. vishal12


    I can reasonably argue with almost all of your allegations/proclamations/polemic views about Nehru. But let’s not go down that path. The purpose of my post was not to change someone’s opinion, it was just a small collection of my personal thoughts on our love-hate relationship with Nehru. Look out for my future posts, I might try to address some of the points you’ve raised here.

    By the way, regarding Nehru’s views on Reservation, please refer to his letter written to all Chief Ministers in 1961. [Source: Nehru, J, Letters to Chief Ministers 1947-1964, Vol V, Oxford University Press, 1989]

    “I have referred above to efficiency and to our getting out of our traditional ruts. This necessitates our getting out of the old habit of reservations and particular privileges being given to this caste or that group. The recent meeting we held here, at which the chief ministers were present, to consider national integration, laid down that help should be given on economic considerations and not on caste.

    It is true that we are tied up with certain rules and conventions about helping Scheduled Castes and Tribes. They deserve help but, even so, I dislike any kind of reservation, more particularly in service. I react strongly against anything which leads to inefficiency and second-rate standards. I want my country to be a first class country in everything. The moment we encourage the second-rate, we are lost.

    The only real way to help a backward group is to give opportunities for good education. This includes technical education, which is becoming more and more important. Everything else is provision of some kind of crutches which do not add to the strength or health of the body.

    We have made recently two decisions which are very important: One is, universal free elementary education, that is the base; and the second is scholarships on a very wide scale at every grade of education to bright boys and girls, and this applies not merely to literary education, but, much more so, to technical, scientific and medical training. I lay stress on bright and able boys and girls. I have no doubt that there is a vast reservoir of potential talent in this country if only we can give it opportunity.

    But if we go in for reservations on communal and caste basis, we swamp the bright and able people and remain second-rate or third-rate. I am grieved to learn of how far this business of reservation has gone based on communal consideration.

    It has amazed me to learn that even promotions are based sometimes on communal and caste considerations. This way lies not only folly, but disaster. Let’s help the backward groups by all means, but never at the cost of efficiency. How are we going to build our public sector or indeed any sector with second-rate people?”

  5. MyViews

    I agree with you view on Reservation.

    I have been researching around from last few months on Kashmir and it root causes. My views are totally based on the articles that I read over the net while I was researching Kashmir. It may sound polemic or you call it allegations but that may sound true to me. Nehru was a first Leader of independant India and he was at the root. If roots aren’t good, how good a tree gonna be. One mistakes can be tolerable but lack of sight at multiple times and self ambitions can not be appreciated at any cost for a leader.

    Looking forward to your future posts.

    I love anything and everything about India.

  6. vishal12

    I appreciate that you’re doing your research and forming your opinions based on that. I wish more people did that rather than making judgements and concluding remarks just based on the things that they heard from others.

    Doing research on the net has a big caveat though. You can find all kinds of information on the web nowadays (if you google “Nehru A Great Leader” you’ll get a myriad of results — and if you look for “Nehru An Idiot” you will probably get as many results!). It’s really critical to assess the reliability of information you’re reading on internet. I am not implying that you’re not doing that – I just wanted to mention that.

    Books, on the other side, tend to me more reliable and have more robust information. [Although the inherent bias of author’s own beliefs is almost inescapable]. If you’re interested, I would recommend a wonderful, very well researched book “Demystifying Kashmir” written by a political science teacher Navnita Behera.

  7. rk

    Nice post. Balanced, analytical and full of wisdom. This is true that its very easy to criticise Nehru and Gandhi because they are above the vote bank circle. and its good also as they belong to whole nation and not to any party. They are our history. and very important people represented India of their time and emerged as huge figures, who greatly influenced the era of their time and somewhere who are still live through their ideas.

  8. Arjun

    he made some bad decisions as a prime minister

    Some? Are high on secular weed? Let’s start with your own acceptances of Nehru’s ill-wills.

    a) Kashmir: Billions of $ go into gutter and we get no solution. Minorities in Kashmir are thrown out of their ancestral homeland and not even a sound made by the ‘secular liberals’. Our Army treated like slaves and it loses its young and bright officers and men in “counter-insurgency” operations since last 20 years! Referring the matter of Kashmir to UN; even when the Army top brass requested a mere two months to throw the Pakistani’s out!

    b) China: Biggest Blunder – The Himalayan Blunder(read the book by the same name); Gifting the UNSC permanent seat to China. Instead of listening to the CAOS on military strategy, demonizing him and ridiculing him in the parliament!

    c) Seeds of communalism: Making a mockery of Indian constitution by NOT adhering to Article 44. Bringing the Hajj bill in Parliament and wasting tax payers money, while at the same time, ridiculing Article 27. Bringing the Hindu Code Bill but NEVER bothering about reforms in the Muslim Society.

    d) Betrayal of Hindus and Sikhs: Signing — and sealing the fate of minorities in Pakistan — Liaquat-Nehru Pact of 1950. The borders of the two countries sealed and result: Hindus and Sikhs have almost diminished after Genocides after Genocides. Rape of Hindu women and girls, probably, making sure, that the “evil Hindus” are subjected to every kind of humiliation that can occur!

    e) Mis-management of Economic Policies: Socialism which led to Ruination of Indian Masses. Tolerance to corruption.

    f) Hypocrisy: Crying in the Parliament on the death of a dic(k)tator while the rest of the world was taking a sigh of relief!

    You want some more of the statesman of India? As someone already pointed out in this comment section, “Roots” are what really matter. By the way, cricket-commentator-turned-pseudo Historian, Ramachandra Guha? Sure! 😀

    • Vishal


      There’s a huge difference between ‘mistakes’ and ‘ill-wills’, and that’s one of the main points I was trying to make in this post. One can argue that Nehru made some bad decisions that did not help India in the long (and sometimes short) run, but questioning his integrity and doubting his compassion is quite a stretch in my opinion.

      I agree with you that his allusion regarding China is his *biggest* blunder. But others are not that black and white. Take Kashmir, for example. We know what happened because of the way he handled the Kashmir issue, but we can only speculate what could have happened otherwise. Same thing with socialism. I am a believer of free-markets and capitalism, but opening up our country for free-for-all competition could have had huge negative impacts on local (home-grown) businesses. Remember, in what’s called the “Bombay Plan”, the industry leaders and businessmen themselves felt the need for and asked for an enlargement of state’s role in the industry sector.

      >> cricket-commentator-turned-pseudo Historian, Ramachandra Guha?

      How about the prolific Minister of State for External Affairs Shashi Tharoor?

      Not good enough?

      Then how about the Nobel prize winner renowned economist Amartya Sen? 🙂

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  9. Arjun

    Darn man. You endorse the “Bombay Plan” and call you’re self a Free-Market-Capitalist? Paradoxical! 😀

    Anyway, History tells us that adhering to Bombay Plan has helped its propagators more than anyone else. While the License Raj ensured that it wasimpossible for anyone to start a new venture. Its propagators got away with it. The Cold-Blooded Communist that Nehru was had the final say on weather to “actually” adhere to it or not. His pseudo-Economist mindset has shown its result for a mess in which India today is.

    Shashi Tharoor? Sure, read his books where he lambastes the Gandhi family.

    Amartya Sen? Argumentative Indian? Sure! Next time, you should come with Yoginder Sikand, I believe. 😀

    Post Script: See for your love for Nehru:

    Post Post Script: There is no one above criticism, not even God. Nehru was just a mortal. 😉

    • Vishal

      Again, I agree with you that there’s no one above criticism. No one. Sure.

      Criticism is fine. But my whole point is WHAT are we criticizing: Nehru’s policies, or his intentions? Are we calling them mistakes or ill-wills?

      And I can NOT make this any more clear than that, so I will stop right there.

      I am, by the way, puzzled how Yoginder Sikand could be a logical extension of Shashi Tharoor and Amartay Sen. [Oh, and how is Tharoor’s Gandhi-bashing relevant here?]

      Thanks for that link (The Kerala Dismissal), I will check it out.

      P.S. I merely mentioned “Bombay Plan”, did not endorse it man! There’s a difference between an EXPLANATION and a JUSTIFICATION.

      The idea was to shed some more light on the situation in which the government opted for an enlarged state-intervention in the industry sector. It’s not like Nehru dreamed about this one night, woke up in the morning and declared his decision. A lot of people don’t consider the fact (while berating Nehru) that there was a wide consensus, in the government and outside the government.

  10. Pingback: Blaming Nehru « A Blank Slate

  11. Gorki

    I think you may be way too harsh in your assessment. First of all, Vishal did concede Nehru’s tactical mistakes on foreign policy and economic issues; and he has a point in that Nehru’s commitment to India, his inherent honesty and dedication to uplifting the poor of his country makes him an icon to which future generation of leaders should aspire to. I would venture even further and say that he will in time be counted in the same breath with two of his own heroes of India’s past; Emperor Ashoka and Emperor Akbar but I will come back to that point later.

    First of all; let us take his immediate legacy. I admit the record is mixed. Nehru’s inexperience and a naïve belief in solidarity among the former victims of western imperialism; China India and Pakistan led him to make mistakes such as taking the Kashmir issue to the UN but Nehru or no Nehru; the seeds of conflict were sown the moment Pakistani irregulars crossed into the Kingdom of Kashmir. The only solution would have been to let Pakistan have a larger part of a mutually divided Jammu and Kashmir. In the atmosphere that existed with many hawks on both sides, I doubt it would have been possible even if Nehru had agreed to it.

    China no doubt was a colossal mistake.

    Regarding the communal question; India was partitioned on the basis of a Two Nation Theory yet India was left with close to a 100 million Muslims. Its leadership had one of the two options available to it; either a complete ethnic cleansing; a morally and ethically reprehensible option or else do its level best to provide a home to all its sons and daughters whose ancestors had contributed to make the syncretic culture of our land.
    I am proud as an Indian and as a human being that Indian leaders under the firm hand of Nehru, opted for the second way. A thousand years from now, Indians will look back on this decision with pride and relief. Indian Muslims are a valuable segment of our society and could have easily become embittered if a Modi like leader had been running India then.

    Although I personally have mixed feelings about reservations, India was not the only country with such policies; men like Collin Powell in the US are a testimony to the effects of affirmative action in the US which had a similar policy. Similarly with a 20/20 hindsight we can all agree that Nehru’s socialistic policies slowed economic progress by a generation but remember it was the conventional wisdom in the 50-60s as the surest way for a nation to pull itself from poverty. Today people are falling over themselves applauding the rise of China to superpower-dom but forget that Nehru’s contemporary; Mao too was following similar policies across the Himalayas. The real economic ball was dropped by Indira Gandhi but that is another story.

    If Nehru made tactical mistakes, then there were tactical successes too. He had an immense faith in science and technology and the IITs he inspired have become a success story that is legendary; ask any Microsoft team leader or the 50 or so richest Indians in the silicon valley. It is estimated that the IIT graduate among themselves today control companies that generate $180 billion revenue annually! In the Nehru years India focused aggressively on food self sufficiency, set up universities like the PAU and dams like the Bhakhra and through the Green revolution achieved something that neither China or even USSR could boast of; it became self sufficient in producing food for all its people.

    Yet the above are only a minor footnote to Nehru’s true legacy. IMHO his greatness lies in creating something out of nothing; the idea of India. India’s detractors are never tired of pointing out that the lands that constitute the Republic of India were only intermittently ruled by a central authority in the past; roughly a quarter of the time in the last 5000 years of its history. Unlike China we never had a single language or a single faith; even its culture is a composite of several layers of subcultures. That we are today optimistic about our land and nation and did not break up like the Soviet Union or a Yugoslavia is due to three factors.

    First is our shared pride in the heroes of our freedom struggle who fought and died for an idea bigger than themselves; an idea of India the nation; a common homeland.
    The second is our truly secular constitution that although ignored at times, circumvented sometimes still holds a promise that is lily pure; to treat all its sons and daughters as equals.
    The third thing that holds us together as a proud nation is the notion that India does not belong to any dominant group nor is it the Hindu version of Pakistan; a state inspired by majorities’ faith. The majority of Indians today truly believe that India is a culture that is a composite of a 5000 years of history with contribution from its Aryan, Greek, Kushan, White Hun, Afghan, Pathan, Turkic, Dravidian and other ancestors; a vision so eloquently and dare I say so poetically put forward by a certain prisoner in the Ahmednagar fort in his book called ‘Discovery of India.’

    Thus in all these three articles of faith of our nationhood; the freedom struggle, the secular constitution and the narrative of a composite culture, Nehru looms large. It is my fond hope that the Indian Republic goes from strength to strength and thrives over the coming centuries. If that happens, our unborn generations will look upon one of its main architects with reverence and awe that is often reserved for men who hold the title of “The Greats’. That man is Jawahar Lal Nehru. It is for this reason that I believe that Nehru will some day be counted among Akbar and Ashoka.

    And Arjun, one last thing; Ramachandra Guha may not mean much to you but that is your own opinion. However in the opinion of the respected bipartisan US think tank journal called ‘Foreign Affairs’ he was counted among the 100 most influential thinkers alive. He was at number 44 to be precise. 😉


    • Vishal

      Well said, Gorki! Well said! Couldn’t agree with you more.

      Do you write a blog? Let me know if you do, I would become an avid follower!

  12. Gorki

    Thanks for the compliment.
    I do not write a regular blog since I do not have time on most days. However I do sometimes contribute to discussion on other blogs, mostly a Pakistani one called Pakistan tea house, (mostly on issues common to both India and Pakistan.)

    Your own blog is not bad either and I will visit is when ever I can; carry on the good work.


  13. Pingback: Indian Summer « A Blank Slate

  14. Hetul

    Totally agree with “my view”

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