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Insights into Editorial: The enduring relevance of Nehru’s legacy



Four men embodied the vision of free India in the 1940s — Gandhi, Nehru, Patel and Ambedkar.

Gandhi’s moral rectitude, allied to Jawaharlal Nehru’s political passion, fashioned both the strategy and tactics for the struggle against British rule.

Sardar Patel’s firm hand on the administration integrated the nation and established peace and stability.

Ambedkar’s erudition and legal acumen helped translate the dreams of a generation into a working legal document that laid the foundations for an enduring democracy.


Setting the way by Tactics and Philosophy:

  1. When the world was disintegrating into fascism, violence, and war, Gandhi taught the virtues of truth, non-violence, and peace.
  2. While the nation reeled from bloodshed and communal carnage, Ambedkar preached the values of constitutionalism and the rule of law.
  3. While parochial ambitions threatened national unity, Patel led the nation to a vision of unity and common purpose.
  4. While mobs marched the streets baying for revenge, Nehru’s humane and non-sectarian vision inspired India to yearn again for the glory that had once been hers.
  5. Of the four, Gandhi and Nehru stood out. Despite differences over both tactics (Nehru wanted Independence immediately whereas Gandhi believed Indians had to be made ready for their own freedom) and philosophy (the agnostic Nehru had little patience for the Mahatma’s spirituality), the two men proved a formidable combination.
  6. Gandhi guided Nehru to his political pinnacle; Nehru in turn proved an inspirational campaigner as President of the Indian National Congress, electrifying the nation with his speeches and tireless travel.


Four principal pillars of Nehru’s legacy to India:

1.Democratic institution-building,

2.Staunch pan-Indian secularism,

3.Socialist economics at home, and

4.A foreign policy of non-alignment,

all of which were integral to a vision of Indianness that is fundamentally challenged today.

  • Of these, it is the edifice of democracy that Nehru constructed that remains the most indispensable pillar of his contributions to India.
  • It was by no means axiomatic that a country like India, riven by so many internal differences and diversities, beset by acute poverty and torn apart by Partition, would be or remain democratic.
  • Many developing countries found themselves turning in the opposite direction soon after Independence, arguing that a firm hand was necessary to promote national unity and guide development.
  • With Gandhi’s death, Nehru could have very well assumed unlimited power within the county. And yet, he himself was such a convinced democrat, profoundly wary of the risks of autocracy, that, at the crest of his rise, he authored an anonymous article warning Indians of the dangers of giving dictatorial temptations to Jawaharlal Nehru.


Nehru’s Democratic methods: A deference to the system:

  1. As Prime Minister, Nehru carefully nurtured the country’s infant democratic institutions.
  2. Nehru wrote regular letters to the Chief Ministers of the States, explaining his policies and seeking their feedback.
  3. He subjected himself and his government to cross-examination in Parliament by the small, fractious but undoubtedly talented Opposition, allowing them an importance out of all proportion to their numerical strength, because he was convinced that a strong Opposition was essential for a healthy democracy.
  4. Nehru took care not to interfere with the judicial system; on the one occasion that he publicly criticised a judge, he apologised the next day and wrote an abject letter to the Chief Justice, regretting having slighted the judiciary.
  5. Nehru never forgot that he derived his authority from the people of India; not only was he astonishingly accessible for a person in his position, but he started the practice of offering a daily darshan at home for an hour each morning to anyone coming in off the street without an appointment, a practice that continued until the dictates of security finally overcame the populism of his successors.
  6. The five principal pillars of Nehru’s legacy to IndiaNation-building, Democratic institution-building, Secularism, Democratic Socialist economics, and a Novel foreign policy (Non-alignment, Panchsheel) still form the cardinal values of India.


As India nears its 75th anniversary of Independence from the British Raj, a transformation still incomplete, has taken place that, in its essentials, has changed the basic Nehruvian assumptions of postcolonial nationhood.

Nehru himself, as a man with an open and questing mind, would have allowed his practical thinking to evolve with the times, even while remaining anchored to his core beliefs.



A plural society has much to learn from Nehru’s record. Critical engagement with his record is a must. An India sans Nehru’s legacy of democratic values stands to lose far more than it will gain.

It was Nehru who, by his scrupulous regard for both the form and the substance of democracy, instilled democratic habits in our country.

His respect for Parliament, his regard for the independence of the judiciary, his courtesy to those of different political convictions, his commitment to free elections, and his deference to institutions over individuals, all left us a precious legacy of freedom.

The American editor, Norman Cousins, once asked Nehru what he hoped his legacy to India would be.

“Four hundred million people capable of governing themselves,” Nehru replied.

The numbers have grown, but the very fact that each day over a billion Indians govern themselves in a pluralist democracy is testimony to the deeds and words of the man whose birthday we commemorate tomorrow.