Nehru’s Word: Parliamentary democracy is in keeping with our own traditions

"Parliamentary democracy is not something which can be created by some magic wand. We know very well that there are not many countries in the world where it functions successfully"

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

At the end of the first Lok Sabha’s term, Jawaharlal Nehru delivered a valedictory speech on 28 March 1957 in which he reiterated that what mattered most was how deep and strong the roots of parliamentary democracy were in the country. He laid down some essential principles for its functioning—such as faith in peaceful methods, discipline and self-restraint, and shared the belief that “our people have the spirit of democracy in them”. Extracts from his speech:

Mr Speaker, sir, it is befitting that on this occasion, when this Parliament stands at the edge of its own dissolution, there should be some valedictory references to our past… Here we have sat in this Parliament, the sovereign authority of India, responsible for the country’s governance. Surely, there can be no higher responsibility or greater privilege than to be a member of this sovereign body, which is responsible for the fate of the vast number of human beings who live in this country.

During these five years we have not only functioned on the edge of history but sometimes plunged into the processes of making history. We have lived here at a moment of great change and transition, of fast upsets and revolutionary processes. Not only have we been part of that world drama but we have also had our own drama.

It would be interesting for someone to take a rather distant view of the drama of these five years and more, not being lost in the innumerable confusing details but seeing this broad current of history in motion in this country—how far has it moved, what changes has it wrought, how far has it laid stable foundations for this republic of India, which the people of India created a few years back?

We chose this system of parliamentary democracy deliberately; we chose it not only because we had always thought on those lines previously, but because we thought it was in keeping with our own old traditions. Not the old traditions as they were, but adjusted to the new conditions and new surroundings. We chose it also—let us give credit where credit is due—because we approved of its functioning in other countries, more especially the United Kingdom. 

Parliamentary democracy demands many virtues… It is obvious that a House like this cannot function without a spirit of cooperation, without a large measure of restraint and self-discipline in each group. Parliamentary democracy is not something which can be created in a country by some magic wand. We know very well that there are not many countries in the world where it functions successfully.

I think it may be said without any partiality that it has functioned with a very large measure of success in this country. Why? Not so much because we, the Members of this House, are exemplars of wisdom, but, I think, because of the background in our country, and because our people have the spirit of democracy in them.

We have to remember what parliamentary democracy means, more so in this time of change and ferment than in ordinary times… Change there must be, change there has to be, particularly in a country like India which was more or less changeless for a long time—changeless not only because the dynamic aspect of the country was limited, restricted and confined by foreign domination, but also because we had fallen into ruts of our own making, in our minds, in our social framework and the rest… We had to make rapid changes in order to catch up.

While change is necessary, there is another quality that is also necessary—a measure of continuity. There has to be a balancing of change and continuity… If there is no change and only continuity, there is stagnation and decay.

If there is only change and no continuity, that means uprooting. And no country and no people can survive for long if they are uprooted from the soil which has given them birth and nurtured them.

The system of parliamentary democracy embodies these principles of change and continuity. And it is up to those who function in this system—Members of the House and the numerous others who are part of this system—to increase the pace of change, to make it as fast as they like, subject to the principle of continuity. If continuity is broken, we become rootless and the system of parliamentary democracy breaks down.

Parliamentary democracy is a delicate plant and it is a measure of our own success that this plant has become sturdier during these last few years. We have faced difficult and grave problems, and solved many of them; but many remain to be solved. If there are no problems, that is a sign of death. Only the dead have no problems; the living have problems and they grow by fighting with problems and overcoming them…

 These five years have passed and we are at the end of this chapter of our history; and the very end suddenly merges into a beginning and we begin afresh, because ends and beginnings are only of our own conception. Life is continuous for a nation. We may pass out of this House or pass out of our lives, but the nation goes on.

Therefore, here when we stand at this end—which is also a beginning—we indulge in retrospect and we indulge in prospect… But, above all, we have to remember how stable, how deep, are the foundations of this democracy that we have sought to serve and build up in this country.

Ultimately, it is on the strength and depth of those roots that we shall prosper, on our strength of character and capacity for service, and not by the number of laws we pass, not by our external activities.

Parliamentary democracy naturally involves peaceful methods of action, peaceful acceptance of decisions taken and attempts to change them through peaceful ways again. It is no parliamentary democracy otherwise.

It is essential that we, who talk and believe in the quest of peace so much, should remember that the quest of peace and the quest of democracy can only be made through methods of peace and not through any other methods.

We have a great, united country, a country which is dear to us, and which we are proud of. But being proud of it does not mean that we should close our eyes to the grave problems we often have to face in the country and the disruptive tendencies that raise their heads and challenge the democratic process which this Parliament represents.

It is in the measure that we put an end—even in our thinking—to these disruptive tendencies which divide us, and which tend to break up the unity of India, that we shall have strengthened our country and laid sound foundations for the future.

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

More of Nehru's thoughts and writings can be found in our archives here.

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