Gandhi and Nehru - Frustrated Visionaries?

An Article by Judith Brown published in History Today, Volume 47, Issue 9, 1997

Above all, the hallmark of new Indians would be a commitment to non-violence in all public and private relationships, as the only moral means of achieving true change. For Gandhi non-violence was the only way to follow after what one perceived as truth without endangering the perception of truth held by others: by its very presence and working it would transform attitudes and relationships, and so begin the process of change at the roots of the individuals who formed the bedrock of society.

Judith Brown assesses the curious coupling of sage and politician that achieved much - but not all - for Hindu aspirations.

The observer of India in 1997 is rightly struck by the immense stability of this, the world's largest democracy, in contrast with her South Asian neighbours and many other new nation states which emerged out of the former British Empire. But equally striking is the great dichotomy between the reality of India at the end of the century and the vision of the new nation offered by its two greatest leaders at the time of independence, Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru.

From 1920 at least, India's growing nationalist movement had stressed through its main organisation, the Indian National Congress, the meaning of independence for the poor and disadvantaged. There was to be a new and more egalitarian society, where the state would have a moral obligation to help the poor and under-privileged and provide opportunities to those who for centuries had been despised and deprived. These ideals were enshrined in the new constitution of 1950, whose preamble committed India to securing for all its citizens justice, liberty, equality and fraternity, and were spelt out in the sections on Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles of state policy.

Gandhi and Nehru had, in their different ways, spoken constantly of the moral, social and political regeneration of the country as the true heart of swaraj, or self-rule. But despite the seminal role of these two leaders, amongst the greatest visionaries of the post-colonial world, after fifty years of democratic government and economic development, there is still widespread and desperate poverty in India. With inequalities of status, consumption and opportunity as great as any in the world, the economy, having teetered on the edge of international bankruptcy at the start of this decade, now moves towards an open market policy with little ideological framework to distinguish it from Western economies. Moreover, this secular state has at times been rent by sectarian loyalties and violence, and India's religious minorities remain fearful and often profoundly disadvantaged. Why has this happened in place of the Mahatma's spiritual vision, and despite Nehru's eloquent pledge at the moment of independence that India would keep her 'tryst with destiny'?

Gandhi and the younger Nehru were, of course, very different as people and also in their vision of the new India to be created as imperial rule ended. A generation separated them, as did social origin and political experience. The older man came from a far more provincial and less privileged background, had reached professional competence as a lawyer by strict personal discipline and a regime of self-denial and hard work: and he had spent twenty formative years in South Africa, where exposure to a wide range of cultural influences and the experience of racial discrimination refined both his political skills and his religious sensibility.

The younger man had been brought up with everything that money could buy, educated at Harrow and Trinity College, Cambridge, and inducted with ease into the world of Indian public life by a father who was one of India's most successful and respected lawyers. With an effortless sense of superiority and no experience of hardship or personal challenge, he had no religious beliefs worth the name, and little knowledge of the India of the vast majority of his compatriots. It was little wonder that his father, Motilal, greatly feared what would befall his cosseted son, in personal and material terms, as he came under the influence of the homespun Mahatma.

Yet Gandhi and the somewhat aimless Jawaharlal formed a strong attachment and political partnership which was to last for almost three decades, until Gandhi's assassination in 1948. The attachment was partly personal, founded on mutual attraction between two strong and idiosyncratic personalities. It was partly forged out of mutual need, as both needed the other to further their public aims. To Gandhi, Nehru was the symbol of the younger generation, the heart and touchstone of a younger India whom he needed to weld into the nationalist movement. To Nehru, Gandhi was unique in his ability to sense the mind and mood of the vast numbers of uneducated Indians, and thus essential for the forging of a broad-based nationalist movement to oust the British. But far beyond mutual need the two shared a passionate conviction that India must change radically as independence was won. This was central to the commitment of each man to a public role, and far more than populist rhetoric. Sensing this core of visionary commitment in the other drew them together in a unique way.

Gandhi first worked out his vision of a new India in a small pamphlet published in 1909, entitled Hind Swaraj (Indian Home Rule). Here he made plain his belief that true self- rule was far more than mere political independence, or an inheritance of imperial structures of control, but manned by Indians. True Swaraj would be founded on a moral revolution of the individual upwards through society as a whole, changing both the pattern of the economy and the nature of political authority. What was needed was a society based on moral individuals who cared for each other and followed spiritual goals, rather than false standards of gain and wealth, imported from the West, along with the means of large-scale production and their potential for the increase of inequality and of violent relations between individuals and groups. After his final return to India in 1915, he never disavowed this early work with its ruthless denunciation of 'modern civilisation' and of Western educated Indians who accepted its values. He persisted in defining swaraj in moral and social, rather than political language, affirming that its hallmarks would be a more equal society, mutual tolerance between different religious groups, and a commitment to small-scale economic arrangements which put people before gain.

Above all, the hallmark of new Indians would be a commitment to non-violence in all public and private relationships, as the only moral means of achieving true change. For Gandhi non-violence was the only way to follow after what one perceived as truth without endangering the perception of truth held by others: by its very presence and working it would transform attitudes and relationships, and so begin the process of change at the roots of the individuals who formed the bedrock of society. In this vision a modern state had little role to play. Gandhi was deeply distrustful of the power of the state, and felt that individual self-control was the only true regulatory power which could change society. At the end of his life he advised Congressmen to disband their party, turn their backs on political power and engage in grass-roots social service.

Gandhi drew his inspiration from aspects of Hindu and other religious traditions, and from a wide range of dissenting voices in Western culture who feared for the spiritual and social implications of industrialisation in Western society. Nehru's vision, by contrast, was generated by his contacts with several variants of Western socialist thinking during his years of education in England and later during his European travels (including a visit to the Soviet Union in 1927), and through his wide reading. Despite his 'alliance' with Gandhi, he made plain the differences in their hopes for India's future, for example, in a series of press articles republished as a pamphlet entitled Whither India? (1933) and in his subsequent longer writings, including An Autobiography (1936). As he wrote in the former:

    India's immediate goal can... only be considered in terms of the ending of exploitation of her people. Politically, it must mean independence and the severance of the British connection... economically and socially it must mean the ending of all special class privileges and vested interests... The real question before us... is one of fundamental change of regime, politically, economically, socially.

The means to this end was first a powerful and broadly-based nationalist movement to oust the imperial ruler; and second, a powerful modern state to redistribute resources more equitably and to manage a modern economy. Nehru had little time for Gandhi's commitments to non-violence and to individual moral 'change of heart' as the route to truly radical change; and he had no sympathy with the Mahatma's religious language and priorities, aiming instead, in more straightforward political terms, for both a secular state and society.

After India's independence the visions of both men were soon dashed on the rocks of reality. In Gandhi's case this was less surprising. He had always known that few Congressmen had shared his very particular moral viewpoint or sympathised with his broad- ranging plans for the reformation of Indians, their society and polity. When Congressmen had begun to gain significant power at provincial level under successive constitutional reforms, he had lamented that they were behaving like their imperial predecessors; and he spoke with sad realism of the way they left his 'constructive programme' lying littered on the floor at party gatherings.

Gandhi never held high office in Congress either after the Second World War, when it was clear that independence was imminent, or, later, in the new nation state; he recognised that political power was in the hands of those, like Nehru, who believed in the need for a strong state, both to serve their political ambitions and also to fulfil their genuine hopes for India's economic and social development. After his assassination he was greatly revered: but the only ways in which his vision was even partially enacted was in the legal abolition of the status and practice of untouchability, a gross form of social and ritual discrimination practised against those at the base of Hindu society, and in the encouragement of 'cottage industries' alongside large-scale industrialisation.

Nehru, on the other hand, was India's prime minister without a break from independence until his death in 1964. Yet even his socialist dreams remained unfulfilled. Despite attempts at far-reaching social legislation, he was unable to achieve genuinely radical reform of landholdings on any scale, which would have been a prerequisite for extensive redistribution of resources and abolition of vested interests. He was unable to push through a uniform civil code which would have done much to ameliorate the legal position of women and reduce the entrenched differences between various religious groups. Although there was significant economic development, particularly large-scale industry, planned and partly managed by the state, there was little change in agricultural practices and production, and the incidence of life-threatening poverty, malnutrition and disease remained widespread, making a mockery of the directive principles of the constitution.

Furthermore, India continued to be governed by Nehru in ways which were remark- ably similar to those of his imperial predecessors, both in the structure of the state itself, despite the universal adult franchise, and in the style of the administrative services which he had once denounced as anti-national and requiring drastic reform. At the end of his life he was, like Gandhi, frustrated at his inability to achieve so much of his life's dreams. On his desk he kept the words of the poet, Robert Frost:

But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep

The reasons for the frustrations of these great visionary leaders lay in part in their different, but unique, pathways into Indian political life. Both were to an extent 'apart from' the ordinary world of Indian professional and business life, or that of the nationalist politician. Gandhi had failed as a lawyer in his native Western India and had achieved professional success and personal maturity in another continent, working among the Indian migrant community. Nehru had been insulated, indeed isolated, by the great wealth of his family and by his prolonged period of education in England. Back home in Allahabad with his family he saw for himself no clear role either in politics or in the profession of the law, for which he was destined. On their return to India both found that they had few natural connections with the world of Indian politics, and no groups of allies or supporters with whom to make their mark.

Perhaps more importantly, their exposure to the world beyond India had created in each of them a distinctive and idiosyncratic vision of the meaning and nature of 'nationalism' and the Indian nation as they thought it should become. By contrast most of their contemporaries who saw themselves as nationalists thought primarily in terms either of ameliorating British rule and making more room for Indians within the imperial structures of power, or of removing the British altogether. But few thought beyond independence or had visions of radical change grounded in. religious belief or a powerful secular ideology as did Gandhi and Nehru.

Their eruption into the politics of nationalism was therefore unpredictable. Gandhi emerged in 1920 as a leader within the Congress because he offered the party a mode of non-violent protest against the British Raj, at a specific juncture in nationalist politics when constitutional politics seemed to have achieved little and when few were willing to resort to the opposite tactic, namely that of violent protest. In the euphoria which followed, Nehru willingly became involved in politics for the first time, sensing that in Gandhi he had met a leader who would address real social and political problems, would lead Indians in fearless resistance to the imperial ruler, and would do away with the parlour politics of an older generation he had so despised. As he wrote in his autobiography of the heady experience of participating in Gandhi's first nation-wide campaign of non-violent non-co-operation with the Raj:

    Many of us who worked for the Congress programme lived in a kind of intoxication during the year 1921. We were full of excitement and optimism and a buoyant enthusiasm. We sensed the happiness of a person crusading for a cause ...Above all, we had a sense of freedom and a pride in that freedom. The old feeling of oppression and frustration was completely gone.

However, the Congress party was never transformed into a band of moral Gandhian enthusiasts, committed to the Mahatma's constructive campaign for the renewal of the nation. Although many Congressmen and many more outside the Party's ranks were attracted by his fearlessness, by his personality and by his Indianness, few accepted his religious vision of man and society, and few were converted to his belief in the rightness and transformative nature of non-violence.

The Congress remained what it had become over the forty years since its inception – a loosely organised association of groups of local men (and a few women), many of high educational and professional background, who were politically active on a full or part time basis, who wished to gain access to the decision-making and executive power of the state which the imperial authority was creating, and who knew that their hands and arguments would be strengthened by an all-India alliance under the umbrella of the national Congress. It had little full-time and effective party organisation, and depended largely on the co-operative stance of local individuals and groups who used its name – a fact which Gandhi and Nehru both recognised and sort to remedy, because they realised how it reduced the Congress's political effectiveness as a party of direct action or of long-term change.

A further consequence was that Congress had little in the way of a defining and driving ideology, apart from its anti-imperial stance. Ideological compromise was more often the cement which held its members together; particularly as so many of them were comparatively privileged and had social and economic interests to safeguard in the future. Consequently those of its declarations which had a socialist ring were generally little more than vote-catching rhetoric.

In this party Gandhi and Nehru were in their own ways unique, and that uniqueness was both their strength and a long-term weakness in terms of their ability to galvanise Congress into action in pursuit of visionary goals. Gandhi was never a 'leader' in any Western sense of the word. His role from 1920 to the 1940s was more that of an 'expert' on non-violence who could be welcomed and to an extent used by Congress when they felt his particular non-violent strategy of opposition and profoundly moral stance and style suited their purposes; to achieve compromises between different groups within Congress when its internal divisions threatened to rend it apart and destroy the vital unity of the nationalist movement.

Nehru's role was similarly not that of a leader with a natural power base in a locality or in a group of like-minded allies. His 'ticket' in Congress was that of Gandhi's protégé and later heir, a fact which at times caused him embarrassment and distress. In the later 1930s his ideological position was so anti-pathetical to many of the more conservative in Congress that the latter would have made his position in the party impossible if it had not been for Gandhi's presence and watchful eye on the internal dynamics.

As independence became imminent after the end of the Second World War, Congress activists recognised Nehru's skills as a negotiator with the imperial authorities – in part because he spoke their language and had inhabited so much of their mental and political world. But even though he became leader of the transitional government which saw the transfer of power to Indian hands, and subsequently prime minister, Nehru was not secure as the party's undisputed leader and ideologue until some years later.

Although Gandhi lived for a brief period in an independent India, it was Nehru who had to wrestle with the problem of trying to enact his vision of change under the new circumstances – when Congress had become the party of government rather than of nationalist rhetoric and protest, and when he was constrained by the structure of the state and the ability of the administration. For him there were a range of seemingly insurmountable barriers to the achievement of radical change. One continuing example was the nature of the Congress party. Even though he was from the early 1950s its undisputed leader, and though it paid lip service to his vision of a socialist transformation of society, it was now a party which even more than before independence represented the interests of those who had no wish for radical social and economic change. Its very success as a nationalist party had attracted into it many who needed access to power. Increasingly it became the party of the businessman, the prosperous farmer and the professional, those with a stake in the India inherited from the raj and being made more prosperous for those with resources by the actions of an independent government anxious to boost the economy. This rootedness in groups of locally influential people was its great strength at election time, but its weakness as an instrument of change. This Nehru learned the hard way when it came to attempts at land reform and social legislation for the benefit of the deprived.

Moreover, the very structure of the state inhibited change. Just as in imperial India the country had been administered through provinces, often the size of small European countries, now these became the basis of the States within the Indian Union, bound together in a federation. Consequently on many issues legislation had to pass through the legislatures of the States rather than through the Lok Sabha in New Delhi. As in the case of the abolition of great landlords and the redistribution of land into moderate holdings below a certain 'ceiling', those with vested interests could either get themselves into the State legislature where they could modify or delay reforming measures, or could use the months while legislation was being passed to hire lawyers and so equip themselves to avoid the law. Or in the case of agricultural improvement and the dire need to grow more food, policy implementation was in the hands of the agricultural ministries of the States: and Nehru found it impossible to chivvy them in the way he would have wished. Added to this, the actual tools of government were frustratingly weak and slow.

Independent India inherited an administration structured on an immensely slow bureaucracy, which had made a speciality of generating endless files and pushing them from one level to another with agonising slowness. It was a system where those at lower levels were neither trained nor accustomed to take responsibility and make decisions. At the top it was manned by élite generalists who, though highly educated, were essentially trained to conserve the status quo, to enable the collection of adequate revenue, but not to innovate or manage a social revolution. Nehru as a young nationalist had distrusted and criticised the élite Indian Civil Service, although over half of them were Indian by 1947. He spoke of the need for a total overhaul of the administration and the evolution of a new people-orientated class of administrators, But no administrative revolution occurred, and he found himself increasingly having to rely on the heirs of the service he had castigated, who remained in ethos, background and modes of operation so like their imperial predecessors. It was little wonder that he became increasingly frustrated, and at times bad-tempered, at his inability to 'get things done', despite his own vision and frenetic energy.

The frustrations of the idealisms of India's greatest nationalists, and the pragmatism of the Congress Party, created a profound ideological vacuum in independent India. Into this vacuum have emerged a host of parties in place of the once-great and embracing party which led the country to independence. Many are regional in origin and orientation, fostering the interests of specific areas within the subcontinent. But they have proved incapable of making a national appeal or providing the base for a stable all-India coalition. Perhaps the one party which has been able to construct a national vision is the revivalist Hindu Party, the BJP, which has emerged as a highly significant political force over the past decade. But this vision of the nation itself endangers the unity of a nation with many religious minorities and cultural diversities, which Gandhi sort to safeguard with his ethical religion and tolerance, and which Nehru hoped to cement and strengthen with a vision of modern secularism and socialism.

India's politicians need to dream dreams and see visions of a tolerant and compassionate India as their nation's fiftieth birthday is celebrated, for their electorate is telling them sober truths about the lack of repute in which they are held, and their need for integrity and a commitment to real change as the country's expanding population grows increasingly sophisticated and aware of the nature of the political system and its departure from the hopes so manifest in 1947. Gandhi and Nehru may have been frustrated in their hopes for India: but they laid down a marker and a standard by which subsequent leaders and aspirant leaders are judged.

Further Reading:

AJ Parel (ed), MK Gandhi. Hind Swaraj and other writings (Cambridge UP, 1997); B Parekh, Gandhi's Political Philosophy (Macmillian, 1989); Judith M Brown, Gandhi Prisoner of Hope (Yale UP, 1989); S Gopal Jawaharlal Nehru. A Biography (3 vols, Jonathan Cape, 1975-84); J Nehru, An Autobiography (The Bodley Head, 1936); RL Hardgrave, India, Government & Politics in a developing nation (Harcourt, Brace, 1970); Robert W Stern, Changing India (Cambridge UP, 1993).

Judith Brown is Beit Professor of Commonwealth History at the University of Oxford.