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What if Nehru had not been the first PM of independent India? What if it had been ______?

I responded to this question on Quora with positives only. My answer caused huge debate, hate mail and some stray kudos. So I thought why not republish here and … Here goes..

Opening Note:

Nehru’s legacy is known, everyone else is only hypothetical. There is therefore a tendency,  naturally,  to think of the alternative as perfect, of course with the benefit of hindsight. My line in these type of questions is to only call mistakes those decisions that were wrong given the data available at the time they were made. In hindsight almost everything can be trashed. Remember Humphrey Appleby saying “It could be argued that the sermon on the mount was a dangerous document since the phrase the meek shall inherit the earth could do tremendous damage to the defence budget.”

If Nehru had not been selected as the first Prime Minister of independent India it is possible that

  • India would be a Hindu country with the minority population much more disadvantaged than it now is. Look at key development indicators like education, maternal mortality, positions in industry etc to know what I mean. The losses to pluralism, culture, science and life in general are obvious. I personally would hate to live in a country that has a State Religion. Sorry, no can do whether I belong to that religious persuasion or not.
  • A religion based State would immediately have mean that there would be more tensions and separatists movements. Enhanced insecurity would have been a real risk. India would get Balkanised. Poof – there goes the dream of an economic superpower.
  • The divide between rural and urban India would be wide(r) because none of key institutions like banks & airlines would bother operating there, at least in the initial years. Even as we blame Air India for making loses let us not forget that the King Fishers [now defunct in spite of all those high value routes]  and Jet Airways and likes love flying heavy traffic routes but do not go to smaller towns with any significant regularity even now.  How many branches does HDFC bank have in villages?
  • We would not have world-class educational institutions – IITs, IIMs, ISRO or ISI.  A lot of Indian soft power has been built on the back of these institutions.
  • The separation of the State and the Army would not have been as strong and well established leading to the ever present danger of military dictatorship; all we have to is cast a quick eye around some of the other countries in the neighbourhood to know what I mean by this.
  • There would be no Non Aligned Movement; while I am not entirely sure that the NAM managed to make dents in the balance of power it did present an alternative to craven brown-nosing of one super-power or other in the Cold war days. Not too great a contribution but was a signal of Indian aspirations on the world stage even as a new country.

After I wrote this, a lot of people said, in comments, other answers and in mails to me, that “...all of these positive things are not necessarily attributable to Nehru alone and with any other PM also we would have got them…

I agree. They are not attributable to Nehru alone. However, there is a concept of fairness.  When we are heaping all the ills facing India at his doorstep just because he was the leader, then it is only fair to credit him with the positives because he was the leader. Else we are just being hypocritical.


Ramchandra Guha writes a brilliant piece on Jawahrlal Nehru whose 50th death anniversary falls on 27th May. A man committed to secularism, scientific thought and gender equity stands vilified. Read on.