New Delhi: In his lifetime, Jawaharlal Nehru enjoyed an iconic status in India and was widely admired across the world for his idealism and statesmanship.
Nehru’s stance as an unfailing nationalist led him to implement policies which stressed commonality among Indians while still appreciating regional diversities. This proved particularly important as post-Independence differences surfaced, since British withdrawal from the subcontinent prompted regional leaders to no longer relate to one another as allies against a common adversary.
As India’s first Prime Minister and External Affairs Minister, Nehru played a major role in shaping modern India’s government and political culture along with sound foreign policy. He is praised for creating a system providing universal primary education, reaching children in the farthest corners of rural India.
Nehru’s education policy is also credited for the development of world-class educational institutions such as the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Indian Institutes of Technology, and the Indian Institutes of Management.
According to former foreign secretary J.N. Dixit, “It is fashionable now to criticise Nehru’s economic policies. He is castigated for making the public sector occupy the commanding heights of Indian economy. He is criticised for not linking up with western market economies.
“It has to be remembered that the Indian private sector did not have the resources and motivation to invest in infrastructural sectors of the economy which required long-term investments and gestation periods. More importantly, between 1947 and 1955, all his efforts to get the major western powers involved in infrastructural development did not get a positive response.
“It was in consequence of this predicament that he entrusted the responsibility of mobilising resources and channelling them to fundamental sectors of the Indian economy to the government and the public sector.”
While differences of culture and especially language threatened the unity of the new nation, Nehru established programmes such as the National Book Trust and the National Literary Academy which promoted the translation of regional literatures between languages and also organised the transfer of materials between regions. In pursuit of a single, unified India, Nehru warned, “Integrate or perish.”
He was a prolific writer in English and wrote a number of books, such as The Discovery of India, Glimpses of World History, and his autobiography, Towards Freedom.
He wrote 30 letters to his daughter Indira Gandhi when she was 10 years’ old and in a boarding school in Mussoorie, teaching her about natural history and the story of civilisations.
The collection of these letters was later published as a book ‘Letters from a Father to His Daughter.’
Nehru’s health began declining steadily after 1962, and he spent months recuperating in Kashmir through 1963.
Some historians attribute this dramatic decline to his surprise and chagrin over the Sino-Indian War, which he perceived as a betrayal of trust. Nehru, the man and politician made such a powerful imprint on India that his death on May 27, 1964, left India with no clear political heir to his leadership, though his daughter was widely expected to succeed him before she turned it down in favour of Lal Bahadur Shastri.
According to Congress leader Tom Vadakkan, “under Nehru’s leadership, the Congress emerged as a catch-all party, dominating national and state-level politics and winning consecutive elections in 1951, 1957 and 1962. He remained immensely popular with the people of India in spite of political troubles in his final years and a politically sad period during the 1962 Sino-Indian War.”
Historian Ramachandra Guha says, “had Nehru retired in 1958, he would have been remembered as not just India’s best prime minister, but as one of the great statesmen of the modern world.”
Nehru thus left behind a disputed legacy, being either adored or reviled for India’s progress or lack of it.
Indian newspapers repeated Nehru’s own words of the time of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination: “The light has gone out of our lives and there is darkness everywhere.”
Numerous public institutions and memorials across India are dedicated to Nehru’s memory. The Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi is among the most prestigious universities in India. The Jawaharlal Nehru Port near the city of Mumbai is a modern port and dock designed to handle a huge cargo and traffic load. Nehru’s residence in Delhi, preserved as the Teen Murti House now, has Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, and one of five Nehru Planetariums that were set in Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru, Allahabad and Pune.
The complex also houses the offices of the ‘Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund’, established in 1964 under the Chairmanship of then President of India Dr S Radhakrishnan. The Foundation also gives away the prestigious ‘Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fellowship’, established in 1968. The Nehru family homes at Anand Bhavan and Swaraj Bhavan are also preserved to commemorate Nehru and his family’s legacy.