Jawaharlal Nehru’s enduring legacy etched in India’s history

Despite the numerous challenges India faces today, its democracy is still vibrant. That owes much to Nehru’s legacy, says Benedict Lopez.

Great leaders are recognised by their wisdom, good deeds and often for taking the road less travelled.

They bucked the trend when the occasion warranted it irrespective of the consequences and displayed the mettle and valour of their leadership.

India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, stands among this group of the world’s eminent leaders. History bears testimony to this. The son of Motilal Nehru, a prominent lawyer and nationalist statesman, Jawaharlal Nehru was born on 14 November 1889, in Allahabad, India, and graduated from Trinity College, Cambridge and the Inner Temple Inn, where he trained as a barrister.

Descending from aristocracy towards self-dispossession, Nehru was an influential leader in India’s independence movement alongside Mahatma Gandhi. He was incarcerated for his convictions and struggles for his country’s independence. He subsequently became India’s first prime minister when the country attained independence in 1947.

Nehru’s poignant Independence Day speech on 14 August 1947 is still regarded as one of the best speeches ever delivered by a head of government. He asserted: “We cannot encourage communalism or narrow-mindedness, for no nation can be great whose people are narrow in thought and action.”

Despite facing mammoth challenges in a country with a vast population and diverse ethnicity, religions, cultures and languages, Nehru managed to put forward his economic, social and educational agenda which earned him the respect and admiration of millions of Indians. Despite the numerous challenges India faces today, its democracy is still vibrant.

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Some may ask what was so special about Nehru. For one thing, he rose to the occasion and often took unpopular decisions. He did not mortgage his moral convictions for political expediency or mileage. Instead, he was simply dictated by his moral conscience to do what he thought was the right thing for his people and country.

In the aftermath of India’s independence, after the partition with Pakistan, when religious riots broke out, Nehru did not sit back. Instead, he ensured that the minority was protected against the majority. It was a tall order for any leader to take the stand that he did when when faced with such a tense situation.

Again, in 1950, when tension simmered between India and Pakistan, Nehru embarked upon a peaceful approach. On 8 April 1950, after nearly a week of talks, a treaty was signed in New Delhi between Prime Minister Nehru and Pakistani Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan. Under the Nehru-Liaquat pact, both countries agreed to protect and respect the rights of their minorities and to avert war.

When this pact was vehemently opposed by Congress MPs, Nehru immediately submitted his resignation. Congress Party stalwart Sardar Patel then took it upon himself to unite all dissidents and bring them back into the fold, and they forced Nehru to withdraw his resignation.

Nehru carved his mark as a statesman when he was one of five founding members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in Belgrade in 1961, together with other globally renowned leaders like Sukarno of Indonesia, Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia, Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana.

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These five heads of government advocated a middle course for developing countries during the era of the Cold War between the Western Bloc and Eastern Bloc countries. By the time, the movement’s summit was held in New Delhi in 1983, two thirds of the world had embraced its ideals and ethos.

Nehru continued to make his imprint on global politics till his death in 1964. So much was the measure of his statesmanship and the respect he earned globally that when he died The Economist ran a cover story of him with the background immersed in black and only his solemn face visible. The words read, “World without Nehru”.

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Benedict Lopez was director of the Malaysian Investment Development Authority in Stockholm and economics counsellor at the Malaysian embassy there in 2010-2014. He covered all five Nordic countries in the course of his work. A pragmatic optimist and now an Aliran member, he believes Malaysia can provide its people with the same benefits and privileges found in the Nordic countries - not a far-fetched dream but one that he hopes will be realised in his lifetime