Mandela with Priyanka Gandhi in New Delhi in 2001 after the Gandhi Peace Prize was conferred on him
When the South African who often draws comparisons with the Mahatma chose Long Walk to Freedom as the title for his autobiography, he was paying a tribute to his Indian hero: Jawaharlal Nehru.
“There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere,” Nehru had written more than half a century earlier.
The sentence resonated lifelong with Nelson Mandela, who had to endure 27 years in prison before he saw his country attain freedom from apartheid. He used the quote in his first major political address in September 1953 and continued repeating it in his speeches.
Nehru’s family returned the admiration. When Rajiv Gandhi met Mandela the first time, at Windhoek in March 1990 as Namibia celebrated its Independence Day, he told the South African leader: “Mr Mandela, when my daughter heard that I would be meeting you, she said I should think of her when I shake hands with you. I am thinking of her now.”
According to former foreign minister K. Natwar Singh who was present there, Mandela was visibly moved.
Five years later, as Mandela delivered a speech to the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation in New Delhi, he quoted Rajiv: “The freedom of India started in South Africa; and our freedom will not be complete till South Africa is free.”
Then, looking at Sonia, he said: “On behalf of the people of South Africa, I have come on this occasion to say to Rajiv, Pandit and Mahatma — indeed to the people of India — ‘Your freedom can now reach its zenith because the people of South Africa are free’.”
Old-timers recalled that when Sonia learnt about Mandela’s impending trip to India in 1995, his first as South Africa President, she sought Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao’s help to send an invite to the visitor to speak to the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation.
Sonia was then head of the foundation and was yet to join politics. Her ties with Rao were far from smooth. Yet Rao immediately agreed, recalling how Rajiv had deputed him, Natwar and Anand Sharma to visit South Africa to greet Mandela on behalf of the Congress following his release from jail.
Mandela had told the Congress delegation that he had been reading Nehru’s writings, including his autobiography, since the 1940s.
In 2007, Sonia travelled to Johannesburg to meet Mandela on what she described as a “pilgrimage”. She presented him with a book, The Gandhian Way, which commemorated the centenary of the Mahatma’s Satyagraha movement which he had launched in South Africa.
“It’s a privilege for me to be here,” Sonia said. “A visit to South Africa for me as an Indian is a pilgrimage. Coming here without calling on Mandela — the visit would not be complete.”
Her statement was virtually an echo of what Mandela had told the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation in 1995: “To come to India is for us a homecoming; a pilgrimage to the shrines of great leaders and a great people we shall always admire.”
Referring to Nehru, he had said: “Jawaharlal Nehru taught us that the right to a roof over one’s head and affordable services, a job and reasonable income, education and health facilities is more than just a bonus to democracy. It is the essence of democracy itself: the essence of human rights.”
On the Mahatma comparisons, Mandela said: “I could never reach the standard of morality, simplicity and love for the poor set by the Mahatma…. While Gandhi was a human without weaknesses, I am a man of many weaknesses.”
Mandela was in jail throughout Indira Gandhi’s stints as Prime Minister. In 1980, her government announced the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding for the African National Congress leader.
Close Mandela associate Oliver Tambo, travelling on an Indian passport, received the award on his behalf.
Addressing a gathering in New Delhi that included Indira, Tambo said: “Nelson Mandela’s captors may wish to ponder the fact that Jawaharlal Nehru, who was no stranger to imprisonment and was in no way destroyed by it, served the world community, including the British, far better as a free man than as a political prisoner. Nelson Mandela’s (then) 18 years’ imprisonment has in no way destroyed him, and will not.”
According to historian Ramachandra Guha, Nehru appealed to Mandela and Tambo on account of his political views. As a socialist and modernist, Nehru’s ideas were more congenial than Gandhi’s to these South African “radicals”.
In Guha’s assessment, there seems a practical reason for Mandela’s appreciation of Nehru. As Prime Minister of India, Nehru worked tirelessly to arraign the apartheid regime in the court of world opinion.
As Tambo noted in his 1980 speech in New Delhi: “If Mahatma Gandhi started and fought his heroic struggle in South Africa and India, Jawaharlal Nehru was to continue it in Asia, Africa and internationally. Speaking at the Bandung Conference in April 1955, Nehru had remarked, ‘There is nothing more terrible than the infinite tragedy of Africa in the past few hundred years’.”