Shashi Tharoor 16 Aug, 2007
Jawaharlal Nehru had no serious rival for power; the only credible alternative, Sardar Patel, died in 1950. But instead of seizing absolute power or embarking on autocratic rule, Nehru consciously went the other way. He himself was such a convinced democrat that, at the crest of his rise in the 1930s, he authored an anonymous article in the Modern Review warning Indians of the dangers of giving dictatorial temptations to Jawaharlal Nehru. "He must be checked," he wrote of himself. "We want no Caesars." And indeed, his practice when challenged within his own party was to offer his resignation; he usually got his way, but it was hardly the instinct of a Caesar.
As prime minister, Nehru spent a political lifetime trying to instil the habits of democracy in his people, a disdain for dictators, a respect for parliamentary procedures, an abiding faith in the constitutional system. He carefully nurtured the country's infant democratic institutions, paying deference to the country's ceremonial presidency and even to the largely otiose vice-presidency; he never let the public forget that these notables outranked him in protocol terms. He wrote regular letters to the chief ministers of the states, explaining his policies and seeking their feedback. He subjected himself to cross-examination in Parliament by the small, fractious but undoubtedly talented Opposition, allowing them an importance out of all proportion to their numerical strength, because he was convinced that a strong opposition was essential for a healthy democracy. And he obliged his ministers and civil servants to be just as respectful to Parliament.
That was not all. Nehru took care not to interfere with the judicial system; on the one occasion that he publicly criticised a judge at a press conference, he apologised the next day to the individual and wrote an abject letter to the Chief Justice of India, regretting having slighted the judiciary. And he never forgot that he derived his authority from the people of India; not only was he astonishingly accessible for a person in his position, but he started the practice of offering a daily darshan at home for an hour each morning to anyone coming in off the street without an appointment, a practice that continued until the dictates of security finally overcame the populism of his successors.
During the 17 years of his prime ministership, Nehru got India accustomed to such attitudes and conduct. By his speeches, his exhortations, and above all by his own personal example, he imparted to the institutions and processes of democracy a dignity that placed it above challenge from would-be tyrants. Democratic values became so entrenched that when, of all people, his own daughter Indira suspended India's freedoms with a State of Emergency for 22 months, she felt compelled to return to the Indian people for vindication, held a free election and comprehensively lost it... (The author has served as the UN Under-Secretary General for Communications and Public Information.)