These are reasons, among many, why one recalls the historical relevance of Jawaharlal Nehru. And it is not merely because of his birth on November 14th, 1889 or death on May 27th, 1964. Towards the end of his life, he had been ailing and so when the end came, not many were surprised. But for all the absence of surprise, there arose, suddenly as it were, the feeling that a void had come into Indian politics.
After quite some years of people raising the question, ‘After Nehru, who?’ there was now the very real matter of the succession to the man who had governed free India for 17 years. Nehru’s had been an overwhelming presence, for all the right reasons. He had not only been a gigantic figure in the struggle for freedom from British colonial rule but also the man who had carefully and consciously directed India along a course he thought would ensure a dignified place for it on the global stage.
But, of course, any reflection on Nehru’s politics holds the danger of sounding superfluous. That is because millions of words have already been written on him, indeed on the democracy and socialism he turned into cardinal principles for his country between its tryst with destiny in 1947 and his own passage into the ages in 1964. Books continue to be written about Nehru, not least because he eventually turned out to be the spark that would produce a political dynasty unprecedented in its quality and charisma anywhere across the globe.
While all of that and a whole lot more remain true about Nehru, it is the individual he was that continues to be a preoccupation for many across the world. There is little question that Nehru was a learned man, an intellectual of the definitively sublime sort. If wisdom is ever to come encompassed in symbolism, you only have to turn to India’s first Prime Minister to experience the nature of it.
Nehru’s The Discovery of India is a work that has left its imprint on people in the subcontinent. It was a tale of the country, at once one and indivisible, that he retrieved in the loneliness of incarceration. And then there were the letters to his daughter Indira Priyadarshini, each one of them a mesmerising journey into the lost lanes and alleys of India’s rich political and cultural heritage. You read those missives and ask yourself the question: how could one single individual gather in himself so much of knowledge, retain it and then pass it on to another? But that was Nehru, a thoroughly erudite man if ever there was one. The patrician in him was a product more of peregrinations into history than lineage.
Of course, there were the flaws in the Nehru character. That, at least, is the way some people saw them. They spotted the arrogance in him and noted the patronising manner in which he regarded some people. And yet Nehru made it a point never to humiliate, never to undermine another individual. He had little patience with pretentious people. When in 1951, a young American Congressman called John Fitzgerald Kennedy planned to see Nehru in Delhi, he was warned that if the Indian leader turned his gaze, at some point in the conversation, toward the ceiling, it would mean he was getting bored.
And that was precisely the way it happened. Nehru’s estimation of Kennedy’s intelligence did not register much of a rise in later years. When he visited the White House in 1961 to meet President Kennedy, he gave all the signs of tedium coming into him. It was daughter Indira who tried to carry on a conversation with the President and Jackie Kennedy. Nehru could be brusque. He never trusted Muhammad Ali Jinnah and thought of him as a snob too steeped in foreign traditions to be able to comprehend Indian realities.
There are reasons to think that Nehru, with his wide reading of the classics and history, considered Jinnah rather shallow and dangerous, dangerous because he was shallow. Was that a prime reason why in July 1946, once the Cabinet Mission Plan had been accepted by both the Muslim League and the Congress to keep India united as a federation of sorts, the future Prime Minister of India gave Jinnah an excuse to repudiate the deal? We will never know. But from a perspective of history, it was Nehru’s blunt statement that the Congress reserved the right to interpret the deal that it had agreed to nothing, which impelled Jinnah, by then under assault from his party for having accepted the Mission Plan in the first place, into opting out of it in relief.
That was when the last chance to keep India in one piece ebbed away. A month later, the communal riots in Calcutta were to be the last nail in the coffin of a united India. To what extent Nehru can be blamed for the Partition of 1947 remains a good question. But it is certainly true that had he been a little more circumspect and accommodative, India might have remained a single country.
In 1960, on a visit to Pakistan to formalise the Indus Waters Treaty, Nehru quickly put President Ayub Khan in his place when Pakistan’s military ruler sought to raise the issue of Kashmir with him. Like all men believing in decency and democracy, the Indian Prime Minister had little respect for military officers seizing political power by pushing politicians aside. He was worried that Pakistan was not only headed towards a long period of authoritarian rule but was also on its way to becoming a client state of the West, especially the US. He was to be proved right on both counts.
But where he was proved grievously wrong was in his conviction that China and India would enjoy lasting friendship, that together they would be a force to contend with in the whole wide world. The 1962 war, when China launched an assault on Indian forces, left Delhi beaten and embarrassed. Nehru was not quite the same man after that. Those who saw him after 1962 thought that his spirit had been broken, that he could not comprehend why his good friend Zhou En-lai needed to stab him in the back. In the less than two years that remained of his life after October 1962, Nehru demonstrated very little of the energy which had characterised his politics throughout his long career.
Remembering Jawaharlal Nehru is essentially a recalling of all the men and all the ideas that galvanised minds in an era when decolonisation became a process of politics in Asia and Africa, when non-alignment and pure idealism defined thoughts across broad swathes of the earth. Nehru was a tall subcontinental figure who bestrode the global stage in his times. He was also a man who loved poetry, loved the company of intelligent women. The uproarious, spontaneous manner in which he laughed in the company of Edwina Mountbatten is an image deeply ingrained in our souls.