India is the world’s largest democracy, and has been so throughout its independent existence, except for the period of emergency in 1970s. The Nehru-Gandhi family or as some may call dynasty, has been an integral part of India’s politics. The history of India’s government has more or less been the history of the ‘dynasty’, except for certain intervals.
Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister ruled the country for nearly 17 years, from 1947 until his death in 1964. The 15 year duration of his daughter Indira Gandhi’s time at the Prime Minister’s office was to be interrupted for 3 years by the Janatha Party regime. When Indira Gandhi was assassinated in 1984, the father-daughter duo had ruled India for 32 out of 37 of its existence as an independent state.
Both the father and the daughter had their own independent ideas. They both had their share of successes and failures. It is interesting to investigate as to who made the more lasting impact on India’s quest for modernization and development.
Cultivating the Indian Identity
Nehru inherited a country of 389 million people with a rising population of around half a dozen million per year. Poverty was widespread and so were social inequalities. Nehru faced the challenge of converting a colonial society into a modern society while preserving the unity of the country after the partition and immediate war over Kashmir.
India, as Ramanujan wrote, is both singular at the top but plural at the bottom, similar to an Irishman’s description of trousers (Khilnani, 1997, p. 6). In 1947, Indian people had a sense of identity, mainly due to the long struggle for independence. However, the Indian society has many ethnic, religious and other social divisions. Caste and class divisions were major issues in the still backward society. All these could have polarized the Indian society to such an extent that the Union could have disintegrated.
However, Nehru’s long reign was instrumental in holding the Union together. Despite all the differences, during his time, secessionist movements did not rise to dangerous levels. At times, Nehru was late in recognizing the linguistic demands of different people. Perhaps it was because he feared that the linguistically based states would increase secessionism. However, when he was certain that not granting them will lead to secession nevertheless, he created various such states, starting from Andhra. The holding together of the new nation and giving it the political stability which is vital for its development was a major contribution of Jawaharlal Nehru.
Democracy, Secularism and Development
Nehru had every reason to disregard democracy. His country was poor, the people were largely illiterate and the society was extremely backward. Despite the partition, India still had a Muslim population bigger than either side of Pakistan. The ‘Untouchables’ were another large and largely marginalized community.
Unlike many other leaders of post colonial countries, Nehru attempted to solve these problems and transform the Indian society through a democratic path. It does not mean that he was always mild on every issue. He made the discrimination of ‘untouchables’ a criminal act and changed the status of the women in India by legislation passed in mid-1950s. But he did so only after ascertaining his power within the Congress Party. There was a time, when Patel was alive, that Nehru was shackled by the conservative majority of his own party. Although the Congress Party dominated India and Nehru was the leader of the nation, there was a brief period of history when Nehru did not control the majority in his own party. However, he understood the importance of holding the Congress together to hold India together. During Nehru’s era, except for a few parties in the left, all secular forces were under the Congress banner. Therefore, religious extremism was largely curbed. Nehru remained open to forces of both left and right while following a safe path until the time was ripe for the implementation of his ideals.
The preservation of democracy let the people have the power of the vote. Therefore, the marginalized populace had a mean to express their views at least during elections. The ‘untouchables’ have come a long way from the years of discrimination. They are now playing an important role in Indian politics.
However, as Ambedkar was to point out, the vote was not enough if people have no proper source of livelihood (Khilnani, 1997, p. 15). Nehru understood this well. He implemented three five year plans. While he wanted to industrialize the country, his first aim was to develop agriculture and irrigation. New dams were built for the dual purposes of irrigation and power generation, the latter being a prerequisite for industrialization. For Nehru, these dams were the temples, mosques and gurudwaras of secular and developing India (Khilnani, p. 61).
Another important feature of Nehru’s leadership was the promotion of science and technology. He formed the IITs and other scientific institutions to propagate scientific knowhow. These institutes are one of his main long lasting legacies for India.
Shortcomings of Nehru’s Premiership
Unlike many leaders of the developing nations of contemporary world, Nehru abhorred the notion of a personality cult. However, in practice, Nehru was involved in too much of state duties. He was almost omnipresent in domestic affairs and was the sole director of the foreign relations. This meant he had to be on the alert of ‘anything and everything’, deliver numerous speeches and carry a heavy workload. Despite being in very good health until the last few years, this was never an easy task.
Nehru’s domestic policies did not achieve the goals he outlined. His five year plans did not achieve all their goals, despite a number of successes. Illiteracy remained high despite all the institutions he formed, and the gap between the rich and the poor increased. The Companies Act, introduced to curb monopolies helped them on the contrary. It gave rise to corruption-although not as high as his daughter’s reign-and the ‘License Raj’.
There was no real effort to curb the population growth which undermined the efforts of Nehru. The so called ‘Hindu rate of economic development’ and the increase in agricultural production was no match for the increasing mouths to feed. India was not destined to achieve self-sufficiency in food under Nehru.
Given the popularity he enjoyed, Nehru may have done better in changing the Indian society with measures such as family planning established firmly. However, there is another side of the story. Nehru, the arch-democrat of his time, enjoyed that much popularity because he did not try to force radical measures on the backward society. He understood that the transformation of such a society by democratic means is a slow process.
But, in the long run, his policy of consensus building and gradual democratic change can be steadier. They can be justified by observing the resurgence of fundamentalism in former Soviet Central Asia and Afghanistan where at a certain time atheism was forced upon the populace.
Despite everything, Nehru himself may have felt that his mission was incomplete. After he died in May 1964, a piece of paper was found among his papers, with a stanza of a Robert Frost poem scribbled on it:
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep
Indira Gandhi: Different from her Father
Indira Gandhi became India’s third Prime Minister in 1966 after the death of Lal Bahadur Shastri. She was elevated to that position by Congress Party leaders known as “the syndicate”, who hoped to control her. However, she was to display her mettle and become the sole leader of the nation.
Mrs. Gandhi was much more authoritarian than her father. While her father was able to preserve the unity of the left, right and center groups within the Congress Party, the divisions were to break the party asunder under Indira’s leadership. The challenge for her leadership came from the conservative faction of the party, which led her to adopt more socialist type policies than even her father.
More a Politician than an Economist
She nationalized many privately owned banks and some heavy industries. This bolstered the public sector but on the other hand, encouraged corruption at various levels. This was a growing problem in “Indira Raj” as she had to increasingly rely on civil servants to carry out her policies.
Indira Gandhi continued some earlier projects and initiated some new ones. Her land reforms were criticized by opposition members and chief ministers of some states. Her move to abolish privileges of the Maha Rajas also attracted much criticism. These were proposed when India’s rich and poor gap was increasing and economic situation was deteriorating.
The subsequent elections, where Indira rallied her faction of the Congress Party on the slogan “Garibi Hatao” (remove poverty) while the opposition wanted to “Indira Hatao”, was a huge success for Indira. It was a public endorsement of her policies. However, many of her policies were directed by political and not economic needs.
There were some success stories of great importance. They were the two revolutions, the Green Revolution and the White Revolution, officially known as “Operation Flood”. The former was started during Shastri’s era in 1965, but Indira continued it and reaped its results. India, for the first time in her modern history, could achieve self-sufficiency in food.
The White Revolution, aimed at increasing the milk production in India, was a success story of Indira Gandhi. It can be seen as an instance of utilizing the untapped resources in the country skillfully for the improvement of the people’s livelihoods by a grass-root movement.
However, Indira’s economic policies had a strong political backing and not a strong management. The Prime Minister herself was not entirely conversant with economic issues. While politically driven movements suited her, hard-core economic issues remained unattained. Corruption was growing. So were inflation, unemployment and mal-distribution of wealth.
She was also being accused, quite fairly, of nepotism. Her backing of Sanjay, her son, was seen by some as grooming a successor. His own economic aptitude was in question. Appointed as the top manager of India’s new automobile industry, he took a rather long period of five years to produce the first car (Wolpert, p. 384).
Emergency and Beyond
The emergency was the first and only time when India’s democratic tradition was neglected by the central government. Brought about by a political crisis, this gave Indira the opportunity to run the country as she wished. Within two weeks of the emergency, she published a 20 point program of economic reform, a radical document. The main benefactors were to be the rural poor. Indira’s measures were once more successful to a greater extent. Inflation dropped, tax evaders were frightened, government offices worked punctually and suddenly, and surprisingly, “trains were running on time” (Wolpert, 1993, p.399).
However, the political opposition was towards denial of democracy was very strong. Ultimately, Mrs. Gandhi had to relent, but given her achievements, she was quite certain of victory in the 1977 election. But, the Indian people rejected her and the ‘dynasty’ outright, by defeating both Indira and Sanjay, a reminder of what could have happened to Nehru if he had forced his ideas on the Indians.
Indira’s second term in office was once more totally engulfed in politics. She cultivated dangerous people for her requirements, such as the Punjabis like Bhindranwale and Tamil militants of Sri Lanka. Ultimately, two Sikhs killed her and later, Tamil militants were to claim her son Rajiv’s life.
Nehru and Indira in Retrospect
Nehru’s challenges were immense as the Indians were so backward in 1947. His progress was slow, but steady. Despite achieving only a “Hindu rate of growth”, the educational, scientific and technological knowhow gained by the Indians in that period is hard to evaluate.
Indira Gandhi, mainly focused on populism and ‘people power’ making things happen, except for the emergency years. While, some things were done, it did not help India in many matters. Her consensus building ability was much less than that of father and in the long run it undermined her efforts.
In retrospect, it can be said that Nehru laid the foundation for an exciting future for India and his daughter developed some aspects of it. But, observing India in 1964 and 1984, one may say that both of them could have done more.
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