On 27 May 1964, Jawaharlal Nehru passed into the Great Beyond.
Fifty-six years after his death, there are a multiplicity of reasons to remember Nehru the man and the political figure that he was. And the remembrance, in more ways than one, is inextricably linked with the mediocre nature of politics which generally characterizes the times we inhabit close to six decades after his passing.
There were certainly the flaws in him, shortcomings that are often part of the story of makers of history. The bigger truth is that throughout his career, in pre-partition India and then in the seventeen years in which he served as prime minister of his country, he remained head and shoulders above every other political leader in his country. Beyond India, he was a proper statesman, at par with global leaders left clearly impressed by his intellect and by the commanding heights he occupied in his country’s political landscape.
India’s first Prime Minister had been ailing for quite some time 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 seventeen years.
Nehru’s had been an overarching 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. His repeated spells in prison, his worries about the failing health of his wife Kamala, his constant endeavours to map a strategy for the arrival of independence are factors of history that could overwhelm today’s politicians. But for him, all of these were a substantive part of his being. Politics was suffering; and suffering was a surefire passage to enlightenment.
Even so, any conversation 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. His loyalty to constitutional politics, his purposeful building and upholding of liberal democracy underpinned a newly independent India. In the vacuum generated by the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi in January 1948, it was for him to lead India, almost single-handedly, into the future. But that journey, he persuaded himself into believing, could only be undertaken in the company of stalwarts like Sardar Patel and B.R. Ambedkar. He did the job with finesse.
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. But here arises an uncomfortable question: being the staunch believer in democracy that he was, how did he, or could he, countenance the beginnings of the rise of his daughter Indira Gandhi in the politics of the Congress? There are other uncomfortable questions that crop up in any assessment of India’s first prime minister. The dismissal of the communist government in the state of Kerala caused a dent in the democratic structure Nehru sought to put in place on his watch. Should he have exercised better judgment here?
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’s was an erudite personality. 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. There was the scholar in him. He wrote a lot, as his books testify. He was an individual whose repertory of reading was vast. Reading gave him pleasure. More importantly, they helped shape his worldview. The regularity with which he wrote to the chief ministers of the states, deliberating on the issues that confronted the country and proffering advice on probable solutions to them, remain hallmarks of his enlightened leadership.
His voyage of self-discovery in ‘The Discovery of India’ is a work that has left its imprint on the popular mind, in that global sense of the meaning. 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 captivating journey into the forgotten and lost lanes and alleys of India’s rich political and cultural heritage. You read those missives and you 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 accomplished man if ever there was one.
Surely there were flaws in the Nehru character. You think of his ties with Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, a political relationship that he let sink in his devotion to Mahatma Gandhi. You recall too the rashness that to all intents and purposes made him go back on the Cabinet Mission Plan in July 1946, just the moment Mohammad Ali Jinnah had been waiting for to wriggle out of a decision he had made earlier to go along with the concept of a united India. Should Nehru have been more circumspect in his public reflections on the plan? Or was he struggling with the idea that an independent India with Jinnah and the Muslim League being a part of it would be a misnomer, that it was therefore necessary to go for an amputation before gangrene could infect the body politic?
That, at least, is the way some people have seen Nehru’s politics, or part of it. They spotted too 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. His hauteur did not belittle lesser mortals.
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, towards the ceiling, it would imply 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 his wife Jackie Kennedy.
Nehru could be brusque. He never trusted Mohammad Ali Jinnah and thought of him as a snob too steeped in foreign traditions to be able to comprehend Indian realities. With his wide reading of the classics and history, Nehru considered Jinnah rather shallow and dangerous — dangerous because he was shallow.
In 1960, on a visit to Pakistan to formalise the Indus Waters Treaty, Nehru quickly put Field Marshal 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 through 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 United States. He was to be proved right on both counts.
But where Nehru 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 Chinese forces marched into Indian territory, left Delhi shocked, beaten and embarrassed. It was perfidy Nehru had not conceived of in his wildest imagination. It was to leave him shocked, his stature as a global figure undermined.
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 the Chinese Premier, Chou En-lai, had stabbed him in the back. In the two years that remained of his life, Nehru demonstrated very little of the energy which had driven his politics throughout his long career. His politics effectively ended in October 1962.
Nehru was a tall subcontinental figure who bestrode the global stage in his times. He loved poetry passionately, and loved the company of cerebral women. Perennial romance defined him. The spontaneity with which he laughed in the company of Lady Mountbatten is an image that has remained deeply engraved in our minds. The grace which underlined his public addresses is today a tale of lost times. The urbanity he brought into the exercise of power points to the glory that democracy is . . . and forever will be.