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A MATTER OF PERSONALITY
- Nehru remembered, and recovered, by a not-wholly-biased historian

This article was written on the occasion of Jawaharlal Nehruís 113th birth anniversary. [email protected]

In my early days as an academic, I made the mistake of defending Jawaharlal Nehru in the smoky seminar room of the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, off Lansdowne Road in south Calcutta. I was then very young, and my defence was weak and confused anyway. I canít even remember what form it took (I most likely said that he was a decent man as politicians go). But it was enough to bring the roof down. I got snarls and dirty looks in the seminar room itself, and afterwards was set upon by my immediate boss, then an upcoming political scientist in his mid-thirties (and now a scholar of world renown). This gentleman called in a colleague into his study and, pointing to me, said: ďEi shala Jawaharlal Nehru shapotaar

To be a supporter of Nehru in a Marxist stronghold of those days is much like someone now defending the Emperor Babar in a shakha of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. For the left, Nehru was a confused, weak-kneed idealist, full of high-flown rhetoric, but without the will or wherewithal to take necessary revolutionary action against the ruling classes. Indeed, the political scientist who chastised me had just then published a book making this case at some length ó here he also compared Nehru, unfavourably of course, to V.I. Lenin.

But, truth be told, the first prime minister of free India was not exactly popular among non-Marxist circles in Calcutta either. The bhadralok thou- ght he had not done enough with his privileged education. The intellectuals mocked his second-class degree from Cambridge, while the boxwallahs pointed out that unlike his close contemporary, the yuvraj of Cooch Behar, he had not even made the cricket First Eleven at Harrow. And of course, Bengalis of all stripes and ideologies lamented the accident of history which had placed him, rather than their adored Subhas Bose, at the helm of the government of free India.

What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow. An old cliché, which in this case turns out to be surprisingly true. The Bengalis were precocious enough to detest Nehru while he lived and ruled, whereas the rest of us admired him then but have savagely turned on him now. Thus the free marketeers attack Nehru for strangling the economy, the environmentalists for promoting destructive development, the Hindutva-wadis for appeasing the minorities. It is as risky a business to defend Nehru in Delhi or Mumbai in 2002 as it was to defend him in Calcutta in 1982, or indeed, in 1962.

A rare Bengali and Indian who has been a consistent, if qualified, admirer of Nehru is the sociologist, Andre Beteille. Beteille has perceptively pointed out that the story of Nehruís posthumous reputation exactly reverses a famous Biblical injunction. Jesus said that the sins of the father shall be visited on his children, for seven generations. In Nehruís case, however, the sins of the daughter and grandson have been visited upon him.

Thus Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi were both politicians of limited mental ability, but with an unrivalled capacity for cronyism and manipulation. They left the polity and country in a far worse state than in which they found it. This deadly duo did what they could to undo the institutions and processes of liberal democracy. Yet, and this is the paradox hardly anybody notices, those institutions and processes were, in the first place, cultivated by Nehru himself.

As it happens, for professional reasons, I have spent much of the past twelve months studying the India of the Fifties and the Sixties. I have been reading memoirs and biographies set in that period, contemporary journals, and accounts by anthropologists and political scientists. One man, Jawaharlal Nehru, laid his definitive stamp on those years. How, then, does a historical analysis of what he actually did compare with the posthumous criticisms and revisions of the present day' What follows is one historianís not-wholly-biased answer.

First, Nehru was without question the chief architect of our democracy. It was he, more than any other nationalist, who promoted universal franchise and the multi-party system. He respected other Congressmen and opposition leaders, and honoured the freedom of the press and the independence of the judiciary.

Second, Nehru had the unique idea of staying non-aligned in a Cold War that was forever threatening to turn Hot. His policy allowed a newly independent, desperately poor, and still vulnerable country room to manoeuvre, the better to take economic aid from both sides. This principled independence also allowed India, and Nehru, to play an important mediating role in critical international conflicts such as in Korea and Vietnam.

Third, while it is now fashionable to attack Nehruvian economics from the free-market or environmentalist point of view, his views in this respect were not singular, but representative of a wide spectrum of intellectual and scientific opinion. Even the capitalist class was then behind the mixed economy ó they thought the state should invest in infrastructure, and protect them from foreign competition. In any case, those economic policies have not been altogether unsuccessful. They have built a decent industrial base, helped assure self-sufficiency in food, and created a pool of technically skill- ed manpower which has fuelled the recent software boom.

Fourth, Nehru built on the harmonious social policies of his master, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. He consciously brought women, low castes and Muslims into public life. He worked overtime to integrate and respect the minorities. It is a striking (if now little-noticed) fact that his period as prime minister was largely free of communal riots.

Fifth, Nehru nurtured a compelling idea of India, of what it meant to be an Indian. This idea ó in whose fashioning Tagore and Gandhi also contributed ó was culturally inclusive, socially tolerant, and genuinely outward-looking.

Set against these manifest contributions, of course, are some notable failures. In the realm of domestic politics, Nehru need not have let his fellow Congressmen persuade him to dismiss the Kerala communist government in 1959, an act which was wrong in itself and set an unpleasant (and since, much-abused) precedent. In foreign policy, he should have been more alert to Chinese adventurism and more critical of the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. As for his economics, he could have listened more to socialists who advocated rapid land reforms and to Gandhians who preached environmental sustainability. But it was in the realm of social policy that the greatest of all his failures lay, the inability or unwillingness to wipe out the scourge of illiteracy.

If I were to sum up Nehruís performance as prime minister in one consolidated report card, it would read, in percentage: domestic politics, 85; foreign policy, 70; economic policy, 60; social policy, 70; cultural policy, 90. This works out to a round average of 75 per cent. This performance, for a college student, would be pretty decent, but for a politician it is simply outstanding. Lord Mountbatten once told Nehruís biographer, Sarvepalli Gopal, that if Nehru had died in 1958, he would have been remembered as the greatest statesman of the 20th century.

Gopal also quotes a vivid contemporary appreciation published in that normally sceptical British paper, the Manchester Guardian, after Nehru had addressed a press conference in London: ďA hundred men and women of the West were being given a glimpse of the blazing power that commands the affection and loyalty of several hundred million people in Asia. There is nothing mysterious about it. Mr Nehruís power is purely and simply a matter of personality. It is as intangible as that. Put in its simplest terms, it is the power of a man who is father, teacher and older brother rolled into one. The total impression is of a man who is humourous, tolerant, wise and absolutely honest.Ē

This appeared in the summer of 1957. When Nehru was at the height of his prowess and popularity. Kerala and China and all of that still lay in front of him. The encomium is excessive, but not by very much. His political achievements were indeed colossal. And (as I think I hesitatingly pointed out in that dim seminar room of long ago) he was a leader of a transparent and winning decency of character. We Indians were very lucky to have him as prime minister for as long as we did. You donít believe this' Ask any Pakistani, Indonesian, Nepali, Brazilian, Ghanaian or Zimbabwean, whose postcolonial states have been built ó if that is the word ó by looters and murderers posing as third world anti-colonialists. It is because of the work of men like Nehru that we are still reasonably independent and ó despite everything ó reasonably democratic as well.

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