Nehru's Word: On the road to building a democracy

"We aimed at socialism. We aimed at higher standards for our people. We aimed at a welfare State. How far have we succeeded in preserving the democratic structure and yet gone ahead fairly fast?"

Jawaharlal Nehru making the famous 'Tryst with destiny' speech in the Constituent Assembly
Jawaharlal Nehru making the famous 'Tryst with destiny' speech in the Constituent Assembly

Jawaharlal Nehru

On 5 February 2024, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his reply to the debate on the last Presidential address to the 18th Lok Sabha, expended a fair amount of time and effort deriding the Congress, Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi instead of focusing on the issues raised by the Opposition. On 21 March 1957, responding to the debate on the President’s address in the last session of the first Parliament, Jawaharlal Nehru made no grandiose claims about how many seats the Congress party would win, nor did he castigate the Opposition. Extracts from his speech:

Mr Speaker, sir, the President’s address, which this House has been discussing, deals with a period of about one year. But perhaps we are discussing this address as covering even a longer period, that is, the period of the life of the present Parliament, as this is the last occasion when this Parliament will consider such an address.

It is not my intention to go through the history of the last five years or 10 years at this stage of the debate. I wish merely to draw the attention of the House to the need to take a larger view. In considering our policy, domestic or external, it is perhaps profitable to look round the world and see what has happened elsewhere—how the world has shaped itself during this momentous period of history since the last War ended.

It is profitable to study what has happened in Asia which, since the War, has shown a tremendous vitality. Then, perhaps, we shall have a better yardstick to measure our own achievements or failures.

It is easy for all of us to want to go faster, to be impatient of the many evils that surround us—inertia, inefficiency and all that. And yet, to balance that impatience, we should see this larger picture and see what has happened in other countries around us.

I put this thought before the honourable members of this House because—speaking with all modesty, and looking at this broad picture—I do feel that the achievements of this Parliament during the last five years, and those of the preceding Parliament—in other words, the achievements of the people of India during the past 10 years—have been not only considerable, but striking.

I do not for an instant forget our failures. But I think it would not be right for us to lay stress only on the lack of achievement even as it would not be right to lay stress only on the achievement. Looking at both sides of the picture, I think it may be said with justice that we have advanced on the political plane, on the economic plane and on the social plane.

Most of us, whether on this or the other side of the House, have been engaged for long years in the struggle for India’s freedom. We were engaged in the Indian revolution which was, as the world recognises, a major revolution, even though it was a peaceful one and its methods were different.

We did not imagine, I am glad to say, that the work of the revolution had ended when the political aspect of it was completed. We all agreed that the political revolution had to be carried on to the economic and social field. Most of us, not all, were conditioned by these past events.

When we pledged ourselves to our present tasks, however lacking in worth we might have been, we had this basis of a revolutionary background in the country.

I am saying this merely to point out something that the people seem to forget—not so much in India, perhaps, but outside—that we in this country are still the children of revolution. We have been largely conditioned by it. We may forget it; we may become weak and falter or slip. That is another matter.

But there is some difference between a country that has gained its freedom by a revolutionary process, peaceful or not, and a country that has by chance, you might say, attained a certain objective.

The revolutionary process conditions the character of a people. It gives them the ability to resist and to go ahead; it builds up their capacity for sacrifice. When other countries judge us, let them remember that we are the children of the Indian Revolution and not persons who, by some automatic occurrence, gained freedom.

Let them remember that we cannot, therefore, be dealt with in a casual way as other countries sometimes are dealt with, because they gained their independence—if I may say so—rather accidentally and as a fallout of India’s struggle for independence.

We started building democracy. We aimed at socialism. We aimed at higher standards for our people. We aimed at a Welfare State. How far have we succeeded in preserving the democratic structure and yet gone ahead fairly fast?

It would be interesting to look at other countries with whom we are friends and whom we wish well. Some of them claim to be democratic, but how many of them have even the trappings of democracy, let alone the inner content of it? There are not many such countries in the world, certainly not many in Asia….

Looking at other countries around us—countries that are struggling against disruptive tendencies, countries in which various groups are wasting their energies in fighting one another, and countries which receive a good deal of military and other foreign aid—I find that despite that aid, they have no roots in democracy or in free government. We talk about the Free World.

How many countries which presume to belong to the Free World have the trappings of democracy or freedom?

In India, in spite of all its failings, I submit the democratic process has worked. It may not have worked perfectly—because there is no perfection in this world—but it has, nevertheless, worked with remarkable success. At the same time, the progress on economic and social lines has been considerable. I add ‘social’ especially, because it is no easy matter for a country like India to advance far in the social field by the democratic process.

The laws that this Parliament approved of regarding Hindu law reform were, I think, among the more remarkable, in the sense that they touch our people intimately.

People talk about opposition. The real opposition in India is not the opposition of the honourable members sitting opposite, but it is the opposition of all kinds of disruptive tendencies, inertia, reaction. In a great country like ours, all of us have to fight this opposition.

(Selected and edited by Mridula Mukherjee, former professor of history at JNU and former director of Nehru Memorial Museum and Library)

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