A Man of His Time

What we talk about when we talk about Nehru

Jawaharlal Nehru became India's first prime minister in 1947. Today he is understood to be the architect of independent India. AFP / Getty Images
Elections 2024
30 April, 2023

Jawaharlal Nehru is back in the Lok Sabha. He may have passed away nearly sixty years ago, but his ghost haunts India’s political discourse. The first prime minister and his legacy are often at the centre of today’s political debates. Depending on who he is invoked by, such references are rooted in either pride or derision. This current preoccupation with Nehru requires some explanation.

Today, Nehru is understood, for better and for worse, as the architect of independent India. Rather than taking this moniker for granted, let us ask what it means. Professional architects, even starchitects such as Zaha Hadid or Balkrishna Doshi, have to do a lot of negotiating: they have to reach compromises with clients and neighbours, with regulators and labourers. The end product bears the imprint of the architect’s imagination, but it is born of collaboration. When “architect” is used as a metaphor for Nehru, it implies that the man had a vision for the future of the country—drawn up in his preferred blueprint, the five-year plan—and that he worked to implement that vision, fairly unimpeded, labouring in relative isolation.

From Nehru The Architect, it has been but a short step for some of his critics to imagine Nehru The Authoritarian. Indeed, Nehru has often been accused of fostering a cult of personality. The development of such a personality involves elevating one man above others and imbuing his leadership with a mystical air. The cult requires strict regulation of the production of imagery about the leader, and the ruthless demand for loyalty. A measured evaluation of his premiership reveals that Nehru actively avoided this enterprise. Nehru understood and, for the most part, accepted the limits of his own powers. He could handle a joke about himself and appeared to have little interest in stage-managing how he was represented. He declared he was “allergic” to having things bear his name. He preferred not to set his ideas down in pithy aphorisms because doing so would make them rigid and attract unthinking loyalty. Indeed, in 1957, when he was approached with the idea for a book of extracts from his speeches, titled “Nehru’s Wisdom,” he dismissed the title as “pompous.” Nehru could have had his own “little red book,” several years before Mao Tse-tung, but he declined the proposal.

If Nehru demurred at the unthinking adoration that was often thrust at him, why, then, have we come to regard Nehru as the architect of independent India? It is a title that was bestowed upon him by his party. As he contemplated retirement in 1958, the Congress refused to let him resign, or even take a short sabbatical, telling him that the country could not do without his leadership. During his lifetime, Nehru tried to re-direct the will to iconise towards MK Gandhi. But after Nehru’s death in 1964, the former prime minister’s iconography proliferated. Coins and stamps bearing his image were issued, roads renamed, and an appeal for a fund that would support the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library was launched. In memorial meetings, leaders led crowds in pledging loyalty to Nehru’s ideas—a promise that would have been unthinkable while Nehru was alive. The Congress, first in statements, now in tweets, regularly lauds him as the architect of India, particularly every 14 November and 27 May—his birth and death anniversaries. Over the past six decades, this invocation has seemed strongest when the Congress’s leadership has suffered from self-doubt or from low public approval.