When thinking of what defined Jawaharlal Nehru’s India, certain ideas immediately leap to mind: a foreign policy marked by nonalignment, socialist economic policies which could be very unfriendly to business, secularism, stable democracy, and a strong central government at the apex of a very top-down federal administrative structure. Nehru’s stamp on everything – from high-level policy to the direction of particular artistic and cultural developments – can seem so pervasive that he easily assumes the mantle of the architect of modern India.

What if all of these were merely myths?

In this episode, Taylor Sherman, author of Nehru’s India: A History in Seven Myths, picks apart and explodes several common presumptions of India’s first 17 years of independence. She offers an excitingly revisionist account of the Nehruvian era, demonstrating complexity, ontradictions, and an absence of rigidity and coherence in policymaking realms.

Take the idea of secularism. While Nehru and several of his colleagues were careful to reach out to Muslim communities and make broad assurances of minority rights, they did not articulate a precise formula for how secular ideas were to be translated into on-the-ground administrative practices. Consequently, many bureaucrats “tended to default to majoritarian solutions”.

Elsewhere, the government balked at the enormous challenge of transforming retrograde social attitudes. When it came to discrimination against Dalits, members of Parliament congratulated themselves on passing a law but, incredibly, acknowledged that the law would prove a failure in curbing those practices which enforced untouchability.

Some of the most cherished ideas of Nehru’s India, Sherman cautions, are more complex than meet the eye. Nonalignment was more rhetoric than reality: India was firmly anchored within the Western economic and military orbit. Superpower rivalries affected Indian foreign policy far less than we assume. “It is fair to say that India was a rather marginal player in the Cold War,” she declares. “The reverse is equally true: the Cold War was relatively marginal in India’s foreign policy.”

Nehru might have been a committed socialist, but the type of socialist policies implemented in the 1950s and 1960s could be a far cry from heavy-handed Soviet approaches or even paternalistic Fabian ones. Due to severe fiscal constraints, the Indian government promoted “self-help” socialism, encouraging citizens, businesses and organisations to actively formulate, design and fund particular projects for development. This resulted in unintended consequences: self-help socialism worked better for those with resources, who often coopted projects, and yielded little for those lacking social and economic capital. It tended to widen socioeconomic differences and strengthen social hierarchies.

What explains these divergences between myth and reality? As Sherman notes in this episode, the answer lies in the archive. Archival research, a notoriously difficult task for any era of Indian history, is tortuously complex for the years after independence. The post-1947 files of whole ministries remain locked up and inaccessible to researchers. Consequently, scholars of Nehru’s India rely on the most accessible material: Nehru’s own words, his published speeches and correspondence.

The Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, for example, “present us with a universe with a celestial body at its centre that produces such heat, light and energy that it is hard to make out anything else around it”. In reality, however, Nehru’s power and influence was far more limited. While Nehru recognised these limits, subsequent generations of politicians – from both the Congress and, more recently, the Bharatiya Janata Party – have found it convenient to inflate his importance.

Mythmaking is a part of every national tradition. By studying some of modern India’s most resilient myths, Sherman raises additional questions about our treatment of the years both before and after Nehru’s prime ministership. Is it correct, for example, to assume that Indira Gandhi’s tenure represented a wholesale reversal of the democratic consolidation achieved by her father? Or can a much longer history be written of democratic disillusionment and the politicisation of the bureaucracy?

Ultimately, we will need far more access to archival sources to properly answer these questions. But Sherman’s book demonstrates that the answers might be surprising and, indeed, myth-shattering.

Dinyar Patel is an assistant professor of history at the SP Jain Institute of Management and Researchin Mumbai. His award-winning biography of Dadabhai Naoroji, Naoroji: Pioneer of Indian Nationalism, was published by Harvard University Press in May 2020.

Past Imperfect is sponsored and produced by the Centre for Wisdom and Leadership at the SP Jain Institute of Management and Research.