Nehru’s Prescient Words During 1st General Elections Resonate Today

On India’s first PM’s 60th death anniversary today, amid a polarising election campaign, his utterances on upholding the Constitution and defeating communal forces resound.
Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru (Centre) and Maulana Abul Kalam 'Azad' (File Photo)

Sixty years ago, India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, passed away on May 27, 1964 while serving his third consecutive term in office. As the solemn death anniversary of Nehru is being observed on May 27, 2024, the 18th general elections are being conducted in seven phases, with the last phase scheduled to take place on June 1.

While paying tribute to Nehru and recalling his rich legacy to build a new India from the ravages of centuries of colonial rule, and lay its foundation, among others, on the strength of science, technology, scientific temper and secularism, it is of crucial significance to reflect his ideas on elections, which he articulated a few days before the conduct of the first general elections in 1951 and during the conduct of its different phases.

It is illuminating to note that those articulations of Nehru on elections were so prescient that those are immensely relevant for our country today, when the conduct of 18th general elections are in full swing.

Nehru’s Warning on Coercive State Apparatus to Benefit a Party

In a letter to the Chief Minsters on June 5, 1951, five months before the commencement of the 1st general elections in November that year, Nehru wrote that he was accused by several opposition parties that he was instrumental in passing several legislations for the purpose of creating a coercive State apparatus with a view to winning the elections. He described the conduct of the 1st general elections as “a colossal affair taxing our administrative capacity to the utmost.”  “They will,” he remarked, “tax also our forbearance and will be a test for all of us”.

He proceeded to add that in the shadow of those elections, there were heated debates in Parliament and in the press, and in several quarters the legislation passed by the provisional Parliament was interpreted as a measure connected with those elections. Possibly, Nehru was referring to the Representation of People’s Act of 1951 and described the twisted interpretation given to it as “….a completely wrong inference.”

“Indeed,”, he sharply stated, “there could be no greater folly for a government, such as we are, than to use the repressive apparatus of the State to benefit any party”. “That itself,” he sensitively observed, “would rouse antagonism and lose support for that party.”  

Nehru’s utterances that “Indeed there could be no greater folly for a Government, such as we are, than to use the repressive apparatus of the State to benefit any party” resonate when people of India and Opposition parties are confronting a highly coercive State headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has employed several government agencies against Opposition parties and leaders, arrested leaders and even the Chief Minister of Delhi Arvind Kejriwal, former Chief Minister of Jharkhand Hemant Soren before and during elections.

Even the bank accounts of the Congress party have been frozen by the income tax authorities in a bid to financially paralyse the party from conducting its election campaign. So, today, the State apparatus is being used to benefit a particular party.

The contents of the aforementioned letter of Nehru need to be recalled while paying tribute to him on his death anniversary and remind the nation that how, with a farsighted vison, he wrote therein that bullying tactics of the State for winning elections for the party in power would generate antagonism and diminish people’s support for it. What Nehru wrote before the conduct of general elections is being replayed now when the election process is in full swing across the country.

Warning on Communal Forces

In that letter, Nehru also wrote that dangerous attempts were being made to cause trouble during the elections by, what he called “some ill-disposed persons” and he very prophetically stated, “Mostly it is expected from communal groups”. He, therefore, cautioned that the nation should be prepared to meet that anti-social challenge, which he candidly said, represented “fascist forces who never participated in freedom struggle.”

And 60 years after Nehru’s sad demise and during the election campaign, none other than Prime Minister Modi, as a star campaigner of the ruling Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) is engaged in stoking communal passions and targeting Muslims by spewing poison against them.

The Election Commission of India has written to the BJP president, J P Nadda, that the star campaigners of his party should desist from violating the Model Code of Conduct , which prohibits parties or candidates from indulging in activities that “may aggravate existing differences or create mutual hatred or cause tension between different castes and communities, religious or linguistic.”

While first Prime Minister Nehru, a few months before the conduct of the 1st general elections in 1951, indicted the communal groups for their attempts to engage in anti-social activities, the present Prime Minister, as BJP’s star campaigner, is being indicted by the Election Commission, albeit half-heartedly, for using religion and communally divisive narratives for appealing to the electorate to vote for his party.

It is instructive to note that Nehru, in another letter to Chief Ministers on October 4, 1951 wrote, “The near approach of elections has galvanized all kinds of communal parties into fierce activity”. He stated that this concerned itself not with any positive proposals but falsely targeted the Congress for its so called ‘appeasement’ policy toward Muslims.

Nehru also noted with deep anguish that the communal forces indulged in “an abundance of vulgar abuse” which, he said, went down with the crowd. He wrote with pain that the “vulgar and foolish approach and the inherent poison of communalism, which, if allowed free play, would break up India”.

However, he also expressed his optimism by writing that the “vulgar abuse peddling communalism” could be countered with presentation of facts before people, who were good enough to accept the narratives anchored in truthful account.

In another letter to Chief Ministers on November 1, 1951, Nehru referred to several aspects of electioneering as depressing and described the “ugly phenomenon of communalism” being pushed forward during the election campaign as the most dangerous development of the time.

That “dangerous” development flagged by Nehru during the first general elections is now being embraced by Prime Minister Modi with impunity, and in complete disregard of the law and the Supreme Court’s directions.

Nehru and Saving the Constitution

It is illuminating to note that Nehru, during the first general elections, wrote about the responsibility of the people in general and those occupying high offices in particular, for proper implementation of the Constitution. In a letter to Chief Ministers on April 15, 1952, while referring  to the formation on Congress ministries in Coorg, Delhi, Pepsu, Ajmer, Mysore and Madras, he wrote about the Constitution of India, defining the rights and responsibilities of the Centre and of the States. “But,” Nehru remarked, “however good the Constitution of a country might be, it depends ultimately on the people of that country, and more especially on those in positions of responsibility, how work is carried on and what results are achieved”.

Those utterances made by Nehru 72 years ago, assume added significance on the occasion of his 60th death anniversary in 2024, when election campaign is on and people have made “saving the Constitution” an electoral issue. They did so because those in positions of responsibility, such as several BJP leaders contesting to get elected to the Lok Sabha, stated that Modi after winning 400 plus seats, would change the Constitution.

The words of Nehru “however good the Constitution of a country might be, it depends ultimately on the people of that country, and more especially on those in positions of responsibility” resonates in today’s India and constitutes a propelling force for people to remind those occupying positions of responsibility not to tinker with it.

It is rather fascinating that the issue of the Constitution and its proper implementation, which Nehru said rested with those wielding power, is now being reiterated by people and they are in the forefront to defend it by making it a major election issue.

Nehru’s legacy is of enduring significance and in upholding it, we can defeat communal forces who are out to cause havoc to the ‘idea of India’ and the Constitution.  

The writer served as Officer on Special Duty to President of India K R Narayanan. The views are personal.




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