Deconstructing Nehru

  • Modi’s supporters vituperative about Nehru
  • Nouveau-riche appear to hate him
  • He was Gandhi’s spiritual son
  • Nehru, Patel great patriots

(Vithal Rajan)

Panditji would never have believed that the Indian children who grew up after his time would create an unseemly wrangle on Chacha Nehru’s 125th birth anniversary, and that too for party political gains. The Congress Party refused to invite BJP ministers in power to their international seminar to commemorate his memory, and Sonia Gandhi attacked her opponents for trying to defame him. She seated CPM leader, Prakash Karat, next to Rahul Gandhi, rewriting history in her turn, to obliterate Nehru’s highhanded dismissal of the democratically elected Namboodiripad’s communist government of Kerala in 1959 – a peaceful forerunner to the violent American toppling of Allende’s government in Chile in 1973. The BJP in its turn has promised to erect a pharaohic statute of Sardar Vallabhai Patel, and absorb Nehru into its own pantheon of dead minor leaders. Despite Narendra Modi’s emphasis that Gandhiji’s non-violence included verbal non-violence, his supporters have been extremely vituperative about India’s first prime minister. The worst offenders have been the NRI-PIO crowd, who suffering from the well-known expat syndrome, have at the same time absorbed the rude manners of American rednecks.

Vithal Rajan PhotoThe Indian nouveau-riche seems to hate Nehru’s aristocratic lineage the most. There is a story that his fabulously rich father, Motilal Nehru, slept on the floor for the first time when his son was arrested, to experience what Jawaharlal was going through. He was descended from Kashmir pundits who had been ministers to the Moghul emperors, and he had added to his wealth by becoming a leading barrister of his time. Jawaharlal had English governesses, and had gone to Harrow and then to Trinity College, Cambridge. It is true that he received a third, which Englishmen of his class considered a ‘gentleman’s degree,’ the second being reserved for swots who took up professions, and the rare first for intellectuals who really did not ‘belong.’ What stands to his imperishable credit is the fact that unlike maharajahs and the other colonised elite of the Empire he did not waste his life in luxurious frivolities, but appalled at the great difference between English liberal precept and practice plunged headlong into the turbulent politics of the freedom movement, under the ascetic leadership of the Mahatma. No two men could have been more different from each other, in belief, taste, or upbringing, but their comradeship over the difficult decades speaks volumes for their devotion to their country. Nehru’s ‘Discovery of India’ was a real life experience, like Gandhiji’s ‘Autobiography,’ and these two books alone show that India was lucky to find two such leaders of the independence movement, with such natural inherent honesty. Many cunning leaders and dissemblers followed who served the country well and ill, but none who laid bare their souls so trustingly to their fellow compatriots.

Rahul_Prakash Karat-18

Even before the Mountbattens cleverly manipulated the leaders, and pushed through an early Partition that suited Britain, and which even Jinnah did not wish for, Gandhiji had decided that Nehru would be the leader of independent India. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad had produced a formula for the Constituent Assembly which might have avoided partition and which, surprisingly, was acceptable to Jinnah, for it gave autonomy to the regions that ultimately became West and East Pakistan. Nehru, unused to the processes of political bargaining, quibbled at giving Muslims 33% representation in parliament when they were only 25% of the population. Jinnah broke off the parley and events escalated towards final break up of India.

Temples of Modern India

Nehru’s differences with Gandhiji go back to the 1920s, and the Mahatma, whose ‘spiritual son’ he was, even asked Nehru to oppose him publicly if he held such diametrically opposed views. Nehru was a modernist, enamoured of the successes of the United States and the Soviet Union alike. He was in a hurry to build the large-scale ‘temples of modern India,’ the big dams, the giant-owned state corporations. He fatally discounted Gandhi’s carefully worked out village economics strategy. By hindsight we see that Mao Zedong had a similar model which boosted rural people’s associations and self-confidence, contributing to China’s fantastic growth years later. The euphoria created by the initial success of India’s First Year Plan was a tide that carried Nehru, his planners, and the coterie behind him headlong towards bottlenecks and stagflation, the causes of which were economically deciphered only a few years after Nehru’s death by Gunnar Myrdal in his monumental ‘Asian Drama.’ Had the Mahatma lived, India might have been spared decades of poverty, neglect of rural economies, and a widening class divide, but a Brahmin bigot ended that precious life on the morrow of independence, and Patel immediately banned the RSS as the originator of that evil.

Englishman in reality

Nehru was in reality an Englishman of his class and era and was unable to see through the dissembling self-serving obsequiousness of the Congress satraps who gained local power under his magnanimous leadership. Had Sardar Vallabhai Patel lived in the 1950s, with his shrewd sense of political reality, he would have weeded out all the corruption that became the party’s hallmark of operation in the decades to come. Thus, even before the First Plan became reality India lost that crucial fellowship of leaders that had brought her freedom. The Maulana was gracefully secluded from power politics as ‘the father of learning,’ and Rajagopalachari who might have held the central ground of the party was forced to start the inconsequential Swatantra Party of maharajahs and business tycoons.

Nehru’s gaze turned outward, towards the new comity of post-war nations, where he yearned to play a role which he believed he was uniquely fitted for. He was to quote Bernard Shaw’s famous lines: ‘This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one.’ The war-torn world needed a mediator – who better than a son of the land of the Buddha? He left his party to decay; and rural India to stagnate. That other great modernist, Dr. Ambedkar, who understood the plight of the poor and disinherited people, was also soon dead, and there was none left to focus Nehru’s attention on the internal plight of the nation. Despite the nominal introduction of the Panchayati Raj Institutions in the late 1950s the people were to be ruled hierarchically from the top. Rajagopalachari and Patel were able administrators, and they would have seen the dangers of allowing the new country to be ruled by ‘brown sahib’ bureaucrats, which Gandhiji had warned against, but Nehru was naturally at ease with them and refused to change the old inherited system.

Admiration for both US, USSR

An aesthete and intellectual liberal, he fronted the non-aligned movement with engaging naivety, refusing to recognize that on the one hand he faced cynical Russians, who made use of his admiration for socialism, and on the other the dangerously blinkered John Foster Dulles who, like Hitler before him, was very willing to plunge the world into catastrophe to have his way. Mendes-France and Adenauer were busy in post-war reconstruction, the ‘little Englander’ Atlee disliked Indian nationalists, and Churchill, who acknowledged Nehru as an equal in his class, would have no wish to support him. All his international efforts came to nothing very much.

It was also his innate sense of decency and liberalism that made him stumble into the Kashmir quagmire. It is tragic that this blunder by a good man has helped neither India nor Pakistan, and least of all the suffering people of Kashmir. It is equally tragic that the idealist who blamed the British for bombing insurrectionary tribal villages in the North West should have been forced in turn to order the bombing of insurgents in the North East! Perhaps, his greatest mistake was to condescend towards the Chinese, who secretly held the colonised bourgeoisie in contempt. Swayed by the oratory of Krishna Menon, and peevish with creeping old age, he unthinkingly led India into a losing war with China in 1962.

Gandhi’s bright hero, whom he compared to Chevalier Roland ‘sans peur et sans reproche,’ died a suddenly broken man, leaving his country without leadership and in economic shambles, needing to import ten million tonnes of food grains a year to stave off  famine. Almost without his knowledge he had groomed his daughter well, and she, called a ‘gungi gudiya’ by the selfish old guard, seized power like a reborn Catherine the Great and brought India out of dangerous times, though none may forgive her for the period of Internal Emergency and its criminal excesses, or the brutal Operation Bluestar and its equally tragic aftermath.

Idle speculation!

The powerful stream of politics during the critical years of the earlier part of the 20th century threw up many great leaders in India, and they were all contenders for the supreme post of the first prime minister. A present-day historian, comfortably ensconced in his chair, can idly speculate what might have happened if someone else had taken Nehru’s place, even as GM Trevelyan wondered what would have happened in Europe if Napoleon had won the battle of Waterloo. What is important to remember is that Nehru’s contemporaries and close associates saw him as the unopposed leader, beloved of all Indians, and they were willing to support him unflinchingly. He had many failings, as all men have, but these were inextricably derived from his personality, from the man he was. What he left India with, what all his associates valued, Gandhi, Patel, Azad, Ambedkar, Rajagopalachari among others, was a firmly entrenched democratic form of governance, secular and socialist, taking affirmative action on behalf of disadvantaged communities, with strong legal measures to do away with traditional injustices, and a society with modern values for scientific, economic growth, which nevertheless continued to cherish its rich multicultural heritage. No one could ask for more. Few countries achieved as much.

vithal.rajan@gmail.com

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