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Is India democratic only because of Nehru?

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Chacha Nehru is in news again. The critics of the present NDA government have been vociferous in their condemnation that this government not only refuses to acknowledge the contribution that Nehru made to this country but also wants to undermine his legacy. According to them, the biggest Nehruvian legacy has been the survival of India as a democracy. Critics of Nehru, on the other hand, argue that Nehru’s contribution to democracy in this country has been overemphasised.

Speaking recently in parliament, the Prime Minister stated, ‘Loktantra Congress ya Nehru ji ki den nahi hai, Loktantra hamari ragon mein hai, hamari parampara mein hai.’ (Democracy is not a gift (to this country) by Nehru or the Congress. Democracy is in our blood, our traditions). So where does the truth lie?

I would argue that while Nehru significantly contributed to strengthening Indian democracy and that that his tendencies were basically democratic, yet attributing the survival of democracy in this country only to his legacy would qualify as hyperbole. Lest we forget, Nehru also betrayed significant anti-democratic or authoritarian tendencies.

Here are a few examples:

First, let us have a look as to how he forced his way to become the PM of the country, post-Independence. Nehru was not the unanimous choice for the job of the President of the Congress in 1946. The President of the Congress who was to be elected by the Pradesh Congress Committees (PCCs) would have subsequently become PM of India after independence. 12 of the 15 PCCs wanted Patel as President while 3 PCCs abstained from naming anyone. It was only at the insistence of Mahatma Gandhi that Patel backed out from the race, paving the way for Nehru to become President of the Congress and subsequently the PM of India. Not only had Nehru made it clear to the Mahatma that he coveted the post but had also made it clear that he would not serve as deputy to anyone. In his book “Nehru: A political biography”, Michael Brecher wrote, ‘If Gandhi had not intervened, Patel would have been the first Premier of India, in 1946-47’.  Is it democratic to get popular opinion overturned by bringing Mahatma’s moral pressure to bear on one’s opponents?

Second, while there is no denying the fact that Nehru attended Parliament regularly and took active part in parliamentary debates, he also used constitutional provisions to, at times, bypass parliament. One such provision was ruling through Ordinances. Article 123 of the constitution allows the executive to issue ordinances when either house of parliament is not in session but it should be resorted to only when circumstances dictate that immediate action is warranted. Promulgation of ordinance as a matter of routine to avoid seeking timely parliamentary approval is neither good governance nor a very democratic practice. Lately, President Pranab Mukherji had voiced his concern about the repeated promulgation of the Land Acquisition Ordinance by the present Government. Shubhankar Dam in his book ‘Presidential Legislation in India: The Law and Practice of Ordinances’ writes that the practice of promulgating Ordinances had become so commonplace under Nehru that the first speaker of India G.V. Mavalankar had written to Nehru warning that ‘the house carries a sense of being ignored and the Central Secretariat, perhaps, gets into the habit of slackness,’ neither of which ‘was conducive to the development of the best parliamentary traditions.’ Nehru, however dismissed his warning. Three ordinances were issued by his government on the very first day of the promulgation of the Constitution i.e. 26 January 1950. During his tenure (till 1964), Nehru government issued 102 ordinances, thus setting the tone for and providing justifications for future governments. Dam’s research shows that during the period 1952 to 2009, different governments brought 177 ordinances either 15 days before the commencement of a legislative session or within 15 days of the end of the legislative session. Not a very great democratic legacy to leave behind!

Third, the undemocratic practice of misusing Article 356 by the Central Government to destabilize governments not to their liking started during Nehru’s term. In his tenure as PM, Nehru used Article 356 eight times to dismiss elected state governments. Nehru dismissed the Gopi Chanda Bhargav government in Punjab even though he enjoyed the majority in the house. In 1954, he dismissed the Andhra Pradesh Government on the specious plea that the AP government was about to be taken over by the Communists. Similarly, in 1959, the first elected non-congress government in Kerala was dismissed by the Centre even though it enjoyed the majority in the legislature. The Governors had become instruments in the hands of the Centre with Granville Austin writing that the Congress had “blended its interests with questionable national needs to take over a state government”. This abominable tradition was carried on by the future governments with his daughter Mrs Gandhi, imposing President’s rule 50 times, Rajiv Gandhi imposing it 6 times, PV Narsimha Rao 11 times and Dr. Manmohan Singh 12 times.

Fourth, nothing surprises me more than the ambivalence that Pandit ji displayed in controlling corruption in public life. It is indeed a paradox that while he was a person of absolutely unimpeachable personal integrity, he condoned and tolerated financial impropriety amongst his colleagues. V.K Krishna Menon, then the High Commission of UK was indicted in the Jeep scam of 1948 but ended up becoming Defence Minister in Nehru’s cabinet. Similarly, TTK Krishnamachary was indicted in the LIC Mundra scam (exposed by his son in law Firoze Gandhi) by the Chagla Commission of Inquiry, but Nehru took him back in his cabinet as Finance Minister in 1963. Despite serious charges of corruption against him, Nehru always had high praise for Pratap Singh Kairon, the Chief Minister of Punjab, whom he considered to be ‘a man of the people, simple in his life’. Incidentally, this simple man was indicted by the Das Commission of Inquiry for corruption in 1964, thereby forcing Lal Bahadur Shashtri to seek his resignation.

Fifth, one cannot but feel bemused when the critics of the present government lament the supposed curtailment of free speech by this government. It would be worthwhile to remind them that the first amendment which curtailed the right of free speech, as enshrined in the Constitution was brought in 1951 by the Nehru government. Interestingly, Nehru was even opposed to incorporating the term ‘reasonable’ before restrictions for he thought the word reasonable was ambiguous and gave the courts too much leeway in deciding the cases as per their interpretation. The Press (Objectionable Matter) Act, placing restrictions on what could be published was also promulgated by his government in 1951. In his interview with Michael Brecher, Nehru justified the promulgation of this Act stating that the press here was doing terrible things, was no good and so had to be restrained.

The left liberals of this country who never tire of calling this government a fascist incarnate and go the ridiculous extent of calling the PM a Hitler need to be reminded of the democratic tolerance of their liberal hero, Pandit Nehru.  When India joined the Commonwealth post-independence, Majrooh Sultanpuri, the leftist poet composed and read out the following poem in a worker’s rally;

Aman kaa jhandaa is dharti pe
kisney kahaa lahraane na paae
ye bhii koii Hitler kaa hai chelaa,
maar le saathii, jaane na paae!
Commonwealth ka daas hai Nehru
maar le saathii jaane na paae!’

अमन का झंडा इस धरती पे
किसने कहा लहराने न पाए
ये भी है हिटलर का कोई चेला
मार ले साथी जाने न पाए !
कामनवेल्थ का दास है नेहरू
मार ले साथी जाने न पाए।’

The democrat that was Nehru was so agitated by these lines that a warrant of arrest was issued against Sultanpuri and he was put behind bars in Arthur Road Jail for two years. Similarly, the Times of India was forced to discontinue the column that civil servant A.D Gorwala wrote under the pseudonym ‘Vivek’ as Nehru found those pieces too critical of him. So much for the present government and the PM being a fascist!

In the final analysis, while uninterrupted Nehruvian leadership of 17 years’ post-independence did allow democracy to take roots, institutions to entrench and their capabilities to enhance, equal credit is also due to all the other players in the democratic game as well as the capable personnel who manned many important institutions of the state. If Nehru played by the rules of the book, so did the opposition who never questioned their democratic defeat at the hands of the ruling Congress party. Thankfully, we did not have an opposition like in Pakistan where the losing party never accepted/accepts the democratic verdict. India was indeed lucky to have as its founding fathers, both in the government and the opposition, leaders who were seeped in the tradition of constitutionalism and rule of law (most of them lawyers), be it rightists or leftists. Thankfully this great tradition continues till date.

Let us not forget that democracy cannot be a gift to a country by any one person how so ever great he or she might be. It needs constant nurturing and reaffirmation to its core values. If Nehruvian tradition was all that the country needed to continue as a democracy for ever, how come Emergency happened in 1975? How was it that all democratic rights were curtailed and all institutions muzzled? God alone knows what would have been the future of democracy in this country had Mrs. Gandhi not been misled by the false reports of her impending victory and called for elections in 1977? If the Nehruvian democratic tradition was so strong then what was the need for the further checks and balances on the authoritarian power of the executive by the 44th amendment?

So while we must respect and celebrate Nehru, let us not delude ourselves that democracy was only his ‘gift’ to this country and continues to survive only because we were fortunate to have him as our leader in the early years of our Republic.

(The views expressed by the author are personal)

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