Rediscovering Nehru

Published Nov 16, 2014, 6:57 am IST
Updated Mar 30, 2019, 2:10 pm IST
Jawaharlal Nehru (Photo PTI)
 Jawaharlal Nehru (Photo PTI)

If Mahatma Gandhi’s legacy to India is liberal Hinduism, B.R. Ambedkar’s legacy is Navayana Buddhism, what is Nehru’s legacy in terms of socio-religious ideas and thought? Atheism and rationalism.

In The Discovery of India, Nehru said, “Religion, as I saw it practised, and accepted even by thinking minds, whether it was Hinduism or Islam or Buddhism or Christianity, did not attract me.


It seemed to be closely associated with superstitious practices and dogmatic beliefs, and behind it lay a method of approach to life’s problems which was certainly not that of science.

There was an element of magic about it, an uncritical credulousness, a reliance on the supernatural.” For the Bharatiya Janata Party, which has jingoist Hindutva leaders and cadres, Nehru is an ideological enemy. It can negotiate with Gandhi and Ambedkar, but it cannot negotiate with Nehru.

Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel was a believer in Hinduism. This was the core difference between him and Nehru. Patel and Narendra Modi being shudra leaders, with a similar belief system and from the same state, Mr Modi wants to own his legacy. The BJP can accept Patel for his beliefs and actions based on his Hindu ideology.


The other tall leader in the Congress of that time was Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, a one-time atheist who turned to liberal Islamism.

The BJP will not touch him with barge poll. When the anti-Pakistan Azad is not acceptable to the BJP, no Muslim is basically acceptable unless s/he wants to stay with it for the sake of power and prominence.

Nehru’s personal and political notion of secularism was formulated and executed from the fundamental belief of atheism, and liberal, democratic and Fabian socialist values which he encountered in England where he lived and was educated.


Nehru maintained an equidistance in his personal, political and administrative approach to all religions. A section of the Congress even in his time was not comfortable with his belief system because many of them were feudal and communal in their day to day life.

Nehru struggled to negotiate democracy and adult franchise in a feudal country, as that is what was necessary to create a nation out of British colonial legacy. His notions of democratic socialism, mixed and planned economy somehow made India sustain its democratic institutions and constitutional governance.


Though Nehru wrote about some aspects of caste system, he did not take an abolitionist position as Ambedkar did. But he agreed to hand over the key task of drafting the Constitution to Ambedkar, who had already written his main thesis, Annihilation of Caste. It is well known that Gandhi opposed that thesis, but Nehru did not voice any disagreement with it.

Assume that Patel or Atal Behari Vajpayee were in Nehru’s position. Would they have agreed to Ambedkar becoming the chairman of the drafting committee? No. This rational approach of Nehru is the one that the Congress and Indian democracy need to cultivate.


Nehru was a thinker, writer, politician and administrator. His family members, including Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, were not thinkers and writers like him. They were politicians and administrators without any definite views about religion, Indian social system, caste, etc.

The Congress during their period and later did not adopt the core values of Nehru’s rationalism. Naturally, over time, that created a crisis in the party’s political and administrative practice of secularism.

Since 1990, in the face of the Mandal and Mandir movements, the Congress started slipping into a soft Hindutva position.


Congress karyakartas, who hardly knew anything about Nehru’s philosophy, were competing with the BJP karyakartas to practice and display their Hinduness.

At the ground level the difference between the Congress and the BJP leaders, ideologically, began to disappear. That was when the BJP began to emerge as an alternative to the Congress.

Nehru combined social and democratic values with some Gandhian values. But unlike Gandhi, who was singing Ram and Krishna bhajans, Nehru was a genuine admirer of Gautam Buddha.

He said, “The Buddha story attracted me even in early boyhood, and I was drawn to the young Siddhartha who, after many inner struggles and pain and torment, was to develop into the Buddha. Edwin Arnold’s Light of Asia became one of my favourite books.” In this respect he was closer to Ambedkar, not Gandhi.


At a time when the BJP is trying to denigrate Nehru and own Gandhi and Patel, the Congress should re-read Nehru. The India of today is India of social identities and new aspirations. The BJP has used those aspirations, whereas the Congress has not.

The problem of the present Congress is that many of its leaders are closer to the BJP and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh ideologically than they are to Nehru.

Few Congress karyakartas have read Nehru’s books, not many know his philosophical and socio-cultural position. Personal corruption creeps when ideologically and philosophically leaders are not anchored to an icon who provides an ideology of historical morality. The Congress is at that crossroad now. Nehru alone can save it.


In my view, even if Mahatma Gandhi had become India’s first Prime Minister, he would not have sustained democracy, as he would have been seen as a representative of majoritarian religion.

People trusted Nehru because he practiced even as PM what he believed in, atheism and rationalism. He remained a meatarian pundit, while Gandhi was propagating vegetarianism.

If casteism from above was imposing group cultural chauvinism, Nehru remained a strong individualist, an essential ingredient of democracy and liberalism.

Even now the BJP does not believe in liberalism and individualism. At best it believes in democratic voting. But, unfortunately, the Congress cadres also do not cultivate liberalism and individualism. For Nehru, multi-culturalism was part of human evolution. That’s why for a long time the BJP could not challenge the Congress.


Mere talk of so-called secularism and democracy by Congress leaders will not invigorate the party. It has to rediscover itself in the tradition of Buddha and Nehru, with the addition of Ambedkar’s vision.

In my view it has to embark upon a social reform agenda, just as it did during the freedom struggle. So far it has failed to convince the new generation of oppressed youth, particularly the OBCs, dalits and adivasis.

Nehru’s rationalism has to be spread among these sections with systematically organised programmes. Unless the intellectual forces that work around the Congress re-read Nehru, lost ground cannot be regained. If they think the Congress has suffered just one of many electoral defeats, they are mistaken.

The writer is director, Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad