Jawaharlal Nehru (November 14, 1889 – May 27, 1964) was a senior political leader of the Indian National Congress, was a pivotal figure during the Indian independence movement and served as the first Prime Minister of the Republic of India. Popularly referred to as Panditji (Scholar), Nehru was also a writer, scholar and amateur historian, and the patriarch of India’s most influential political family.
Many scholars of the period view Nehru’s determination to be the first Prime Minister of independent India come what may (instead of offering this post to M.A. Jinnah or some other prominent minority candidate, at the suggestion of Mahatma Gandhi, by way of reassurance of their position in the new, secular Indian state) led to the 1947 partition of the country.
As the son of the wealthy Indian barrister and politician Motilal Nehru, Nehru had become one of the youngest leaders of the Indian National Congress. Rising under the mentorship of Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru became a charismatic, radical leader, advocating complete independence from the British Empire. An icon for Indian youth, Nehru was also an exponent of socialism as a means to address long-standing national challenges. Serving as Congress President, Nehru raised the flag of independent India in Lahore on December 31, 1929. A forceful and charismatic orator, Nehru was a major influence in organising nationalist rebellions and spreading the popularity of the nationalist cause to India’s minorities. Elected to lead free India’s government, Nehru would serve as India’s prime minister and head of the Congress till his death.
As India’s leader, Nehru oversaw major national programmes of industrialization, agrarian and land reforms, infrastructure and energy development. He passionately worked for women’s rights, secularism and advancement of education and social welfare. Nehru incepted the policy of non-alignment and developed India’s foreign policy under the ideals of Pancasila. However, he was criticised for his failure of leadership during the Sino-Indian War in 1962. Later after his successor Lal Bahadur Shastri’s demise ; Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi would go on to lead the Congress and serve as prime minister, as would his grandson Rajiv. Rajiv’s widow Sonia and her children lead the Congress today, maintaining the Nehru-Gandhi family’s prominence in Indian politics.
Nehru was very strongly attracted to Gandhi’s philosophy and leadership. Gandhi had led a successful rebellion on behalf of indentured Indian workers while a lawyer in South Africa. Upon his return to India, Gandhi organised the peasants and farmers of Champaran and Kheda in successful rebellions against oppressive tax policies levied by the British. Gandhi espoused what he termed as satyagraha — mass civil disobedience governed by ahimsa, or complete non-violence. A forceful exponent of Indian self-reliance, Gandhi’s success electrified Indians, who had been divided in their approach to contesting British rule. Having met Gandhi and learning of his ideas, Nehru would assist him during the Champaran agitation.
Following Gandhi’s example, Nehru and his family abandoned their Western-style clothes, possessions and wealthy lifestyle. Wearing clothes spun out of khadi, Nehru would emerge as one of the most energetic supporters of Gandhi. Under Gandhi’s influence, Nehru began studying the Bhagavad Gita and would practice yoga throughout his life. He would increasingly look to Gandhi for advice and guidance in his personal life, and would spend a lot of time travelling and living with Gandhi. Nehru travelled across India delivering political speeches aimed at recruiting India’s masses, especially its youth into the agitation launched in 1919 against the Rowlatt Acts and the Khilafat struggle. He spoke passionately and forcefully to encourage Hindu-Muslim unity, spread education and self-reliance and the need to eradicate social evils such as untouchability, poverty, ignorance and unemployment.
Rise to National Leadership
In the 1920s, Nehru was elected president of the All India Trade Unions Congress. He and Subhash Chandra Bose had become the most prominent youth leaders, and both demanded outright political independence of India. Nehru criticised the Nehru Report prepared by his father in 1928, which called for dominion status for India within the British Empire. The radicalism of Nehru and Bose would provoke intense debates during the 1928 Congress session in Guwahati. Arguing that India would deliver an ultimatum to the British and prepare for mass struggle, Nehru and Bose won the hearts of many young Indians. To resolve the issue, Gandhi said that the British would be given two years to grant India dominion status. If they did not, the Congress would launch a national struggle for full political independence. Nehru and Bose succeeded in reducing the statutory deadline to one year.
The failure of talks with the British caused the December 1929 session in Lahore to be held in an atmosphere charged with nationalist, anti-British passions. Preparing for the declaration of independence, the AICC elected Jawaharlal Nehru as Congress President at the encouragement of Gandhi. Favoured by Gandhi for his charismatic appeal to India’s masses, minorities, women and youth, the move nevertheless surprised many Congressmen and political observers. Many had demanded that Gandhi or the leader of the Bardoli Satyagraha, Vallabhbhai Patel assume the presidency, especially as the leader of the Congress would the inaugurater of India’s struggle for complete freedom. Nehru was seen by many as too inexperienced for the job of leading India’s largest political organisation, including himself:
“I have seldom felt quite so annoyed and humiliated… It was not that I was not sensible of the honour… But I did not come to it by the main entrance or even the side entrance: I appeared suddenly from a trap door and bewildered the audience into acceptance.”
Responses to Gandhi
Nehru speaks highly of Gandhi throughout his life. In the passage below, he speaks about the Salt March that Gandhi organized in order to try to get the British out of the colony of India. Below, in an excerpt from his autobiography, Nehru speaks about his respect for Gandhi and his salt march.
It seemed as though a spring had been suddenly released; and all over the country in town and village, salt manufacture was the topic of the day. We knew precious little about it, and so we read it up where we could, and issued leaflets giving directions, and collected pots and pans and ultimately succeeded in producing some unwholesome stuff, which we waved about in triumph. It was really immaterial whether the stuff was good or bad; the main thing was to commit a breach of the obnoxious salt law. As we saw the abounding enthusiasm of the people and the way salt-making was spreading like a prairie fire, we felt a little abashed and ashamed for having questioned the efficacy of this method when it was first proposed by Gandhi. And we marveled at the amazing knack of the man to impress the multitude and make it act in an organized way.
India’s First Prime Minister
Nehru and his colleagues had been released as the British Cabinet Mission arrived to propose plans for transfer of power. The Congress held a presidential election in the knowledge that its chosen leader would become India’s head of government. 11 Congress state units nominated Vallabhbhai Patel, while only the Working Committee suggested Nehru. Sensing that Nehru would not accept second place to Patel, Gandhi supported Nehru and asked Patel to withdraw, which he immediately did. Nehru’s election surprised many Congressmen and continues to be a source of controversy in modern times. Nehru headed an interim government, which was impaired by outbreaks of communal violence and political disorder, and the opposition of the Muslim League led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who were demanding a separate Muslim state of Pakistan. After failed bids to form coalitions, Nehru reluctantly supported the partition of India as per a plan released by the British on June 3, 1947. He would take office as the Prime Minister of India on August 15, and delivered his inaugural address titled “A Tryst With Destiny:”
“Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance. It is fitting that at this solemn moment we take the pledge of dedication to the service of India and her people and to the still larger cause of humanity.”
In the years following independence, Nehru frequently turned to his daughter Indira to look after him and manage his personal affairs. Following Patel’s death in 1950, Nehru became the most popular and powerful Indian politician. Under his leadership, the Congress won an overwhelming majority in the elections of 1952, in which his son-in-law Feroze Gandhi was also elected. Indira moved into Nehru’s official residence to attend to him, inadvertently estranging her husband, who would become a critic of Nehru’s government. Nevertheless, Indira would virtually become Nehru’s chief of staff and constant companion in his travels across India and the world.
Nehru had led the Congress to a major victory in the 1957 elections, but his government was facing rising problems and criticism. Disillusioned by intra-party corruption and bickering, Nehru contemplated resigning but continued to serve. However, Nehru’s reputation suffered owing to corruption scandals of party MPs and ministers, as well as by public dissatisfaction with a stagnating economy and government inefficiency. The election of his daughter Indira as Congress President in 1959 aroused criticism for alleged nepotism. Although the Pancha Sila (Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence) was the basis of the 1954 Sino-Indian treaty over Tibet, in later years, Nehru’s foreign policy suffered through increasing Chinese antagonism over border disputes and Nehru’s decision to grant asylum to the Dalai Lama. After years of failed negotiations, Nehru authorized the Indian Army to annex Goa from Portugal in 1961. While increasing his popularity, Nehru received criticism for opting for military action.
In the 1962 elections, Nehru led the Congress to victory yet with a diminished majority. Opposition parties ranging from the right-wing Bharatiya Jana Sangh and Swatantra Party, socialists and the Communist Party of India performed well. In a matter of months, a Chinese invasion of northeastern India exposed the weaknesses of India’s military as Chinese forces came as far as Assam. Widely criticised for neglecting India’s defence needs, Nehru was forced to sack the defence minister Krishna Menon and accept U.S. military aid. Nehru’s health began declining steadily, and he was forced to spend months recuperating in Kashmir through 1963. Upon his return from Kashmir in May 1964, Nehru suffered a stroke and later a heart attack. He died in the early hours of May 27, 1964. Nehru was cremated as per Hindu rites at the Shantivana on the banks of the Yamuna River, witnessed by hundreds of thousands of mourners who had flocked into the streets of Delhi and the cremation grounds.