By a remarkable coincidence, 2014 was both the year of Jawaharlal Nehru’s fiftieth death anniversary as well as being his 125th birth anniversary on 14 November. Of all his great contemporaries in the second half of the twentieth century, he is among the very few who are remembered so fondly and with such reverence, even at this distance in time.

Yet it must not be overlooked that – in sharp contrast to the overwhelming adoration he evoked among almost all his countrymen during his long and luminous political career – many Indians today hold him responsible for all that has gone wrong with the country. Indeed, it seems to be open season on Nehru. He is sometimes demonised.

More on this subject presently, but let me first say that no amount of vilification can erase from the pages of history his yeoman’s and incomparable service as independent India’s first prime minister for seventeen long, unbroken and formative years, or his enviable popularity with the masses.

To put it most briefly, the Mahatma was India’s liberator, Nehru its moderniser and untiring builder of its parliamentary democracy. Secularism, equality before the law, making Parliament a highly effective and respected institution, unflinching observance of every democratic norm (except once in 1959 when, under pressure from his daughter Indira Gandhi, who was then Congress president, he wrongly sacked Kerala’s duly elected communist government), and modernising India’s colonial economy and feudal society through the use of science and technology, as well as economic planning, constituted his creed.

His policy of non-alignment – nowhere has one man dominated foreign policy so completely as he did here – gave India and him personally a much greater role on the world stage than this country’s economic and military power warranted. India’s, indeed his, contribution to ending the wars in Korea, Indo-China and the Congo brought us kudos. The Nehru-Liaquat pact on the treatment of minorities in the two countries in April 1950, which took a week and eleven drafts to be concluded, saved the subcontinent from what would have been a protracted and hellishly destructive India-Pakistan war.

What a terrible tragedy it is, therefore, that Nehru’s greatest failure was also in the area of his prime expertise. It was his heavily flawed China policy that led to our humiliating defeat in the brief but brutal border war with China in 1962, which shattered him both personally and politically. Unfortunately, none among his close advisors, civilian or military, ever questioned his naïve belief that the Chinese "would do nothing big". For the governing doctrine then was, "Panditji knows best".

Excerpted with permission from the essay 'If Nehru Did Not Exist', by Inder Malhotra, from Nehru’s India: Essays on the Maker of a Nation, edited by Nayantara Sahgal, Speaking Tiger Books.