Gandhi and Nehru: Frustrated Visionaries?

By Brown, Judith | History Today, September 1997 | Go to article overview

Gandhi and Nehru: Frustrated Visionaries?


Brown, Judith, History Today


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. …

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