The Indian National Congress is in terminal decline. Even if we take a charitable view and hope for a miraculous revival at some stage, it is definitely in a temporary state of debilitation. These are testing times and challenge the loyalty of the faithful to the hilt. The easiest targets are the leaders, whose policies and performance can today be adjudged with the wisdom born out of hindsight.
Nehru is a specially vulnerable victim. He is seen to be a latter-day Babar, a founder of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. He is visualised as a 20th century Porus who suffered an ignominious defeat at the hands of China. He is portrayed as a greedy villain who conspired with Mahatma Gandhi to stab Vallabhbhai Patel in the back, in order to become the first Prime Minister of independent India. He is depicted as a namby-pamby peacenik who allowed the UN to unnecessarily intervene in the Kashmir dispute. He proved his “secular” credentials by lightly trifling with the Hindu law enshrined in the Manusmriti in the teeth of severe opposition from Hindu leaders, while not daring to impose a uniform civil code on the Muslims. He inflicted the Soviet model of centralised planning with its public sector behemoths which resulted in the Hindu rate of growth, possibly the only “Hindu” element in Nehru’s attainments.And above all, he is represented as a lecherous widower who engaged in lustful affairs with sundry Edwinas and Padmajas.
What is the veracity of the allegations? Let us examine these in seriatim.
Did he found a dynasty? If he had wished to do that, he would have steered the top leadership of the Congress towards the fulfilment of this objective. He did not die suddenly. He had a paralytic stroke and he remained conscious to the end. Had he wished to ensure that Indira succeeded him to the throne, he would have elevated her to Deputy Prime Ministership; or declared her to be the senior-most Cabinet Minister after him. He would have made her chair meetings of the Cabinet and its important committees. He did none of these. He merely appointed her Minister for Information and Broadcasting, hardly a portfolio to give her either clout or stature.
That is Humayun’s position. As far as Akbar and Jehangir are concerned, they were toddlers in Nehru’s time. And Shah Jahan had not yet been born. So how did Nehru found a dynasty?
Also, witness the course of events as it actually transpired after Nehru died. He was succeeded immediately by Gulzari Lal Nanda and later by Lal Bahadur Shastri. Shastri was Nehru’s favourite. He had scaled new heights with his resignation as Railways Minister just because there was a railway accident. He had a most successful tenure and he proved conclusively that the apprehension expressed in a section of the media around the theme “After Nehru who?” was misplaced. Had Shastri not suddenly died in Tashkent, he would have stayed in office for at least 10 years.
It is no one’s case that Nehru got Shastri killed in Tashkent. So how did Nehru found a dynasty?
Let us now come to Alexander’s invasion. Nehru was not a warmonger nor did he build a huge arsenal to overawe his neighbours. He was a genuine votary of peace and harmony. His spiritual guru was Mahatma Gandhi, who was a veritable apostle of non-violence. Gandhi followed the advice of Jesus Christ literally. And Jesus had advised his followers thus:
“That ye resist not evil; but whosoever smiteth thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”
Gandhi had gone to the extent of seriously advising Nehru to disband the army. It was a good thing that Nehru did not take him literally. God forbid, if he had done so, we would today be a province of South China and you would be reading this article in Mandarin Chinese.
So when the Bandung conference was held and the principles of Panchsheel were enunciated by Nehru and accepted most vociferously by all countries, Nehru did not feel like Porus. If a historical analogy is required, he would much rather ape Ashoka the Great with his shilalekh (rock sculptures), advertising the lofty thoughts of Gautama, the Buddha.
Unfortunately for him, Chou en-Lai played foul. After shouting slogans of “Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai!” with exemplary vociferousness, he sent his troops into Indian territory. Had Nehru been a normal politician, he would have bided his time, built up his armed strength, and when he was good and ready, he would have repulsed the attack and won a memorable victory, just as his daughter did nine years later against Pakistan.
So what did Nehru do? Did he turn the other cheek, as Jesus taught? Did he put himself in a state of readiness and give the enemy a drubbing he would remember? He did neither. Like a confirmed pacifist, he went to neither extreme of Christian non-violence or Alexander-like warmongering. Least of all did he behave like Porus, defend his territory with might and main, and although technically defeated, give such a fright to Alexander and his cohorts that they slunk away in the general direction of Macedonia with fear writ large on their hearts. He acted as a confused pacifist would normally do. He tried to look brave and made a casual offhand remark, “I have asked the army to throw the infiltrators out.” That showed his Hamlet-like indecision—“To fight or not to fight, that is the question.”
THE next allegation is that Nehru was a greedy villain who conspired with Gandhi to deprive Patel of the prime ministership. Short answer: both men were incapable of conspiracy.
Contemporary accounts show that Nehru became close to the Mahatma in 1915 when he collected funds for Gandhi’s struggle in South Africa. He was so overwhelmed by Gandhi’s personality that he got converted from an Anglicised drawing-room orator to a khadi-clad man of the masses who plunged heart and soul into the various movements that Gandhi launched. He was a truly secular person who genuinely felt for the minorities. Gandhi had certain reservations about Patel’s secular credentials, although he admired him greatly for his administrative acumen. Three times he had to choose between Nehru and Patel. Each time, he selected Nehru.
How serious is the charge that Nehru mishandled the Kashmir problem? Cabinet minutes show that the decision on Kashmir was taken by the Cabinet when Patel was present. Mountbatten also played a role by persuading the Maharaja to sign the Instrument of Accession. At the same time, he dissuaded Jinnah from sending in reinforcements in the form of regular troops of the Pakistan army to assist the raiders. Kashmir was indeed a complicated issue, for which Nehru alone cannot be singled out for blame.
About the amendments in Hindu law, the experience of the last 60 years amply bears out Nehru’s vision of a modern Hindu society with full gender parity and a balanced approach towards divorce. If the Indian Muslims wish to stick on to outdated practices like triple talaq which all other Muslim countries have forsaken, they are themselves to blame.
The most uncharitable criticism is levelled at Nehru’s economic policies. People tend to forget that radical land reforms were a necessary prelude to the green revolution. They suffer from amnesia with regard to the absence of basic industries like chemicals, machine tools, steel, fertilisers, rail coaches, transport vehicles, power plants, heavy electricals and so on.
It was only when Nehru gave a kick-start to these critical industries that the way was smoothened for the private sector. In that sense what Nehru did was an inevitable precondition for the emergence of private initiatives in industrial development.
The last charge against Jawaharlal Nehru was that he carried on affairs with various women. He was a famous man and a widower. He had a charming personality. Such men always attract persons of the other sex. Whether such relations were intellectual, platonic or physical is a deeply personal matter into which we need not and should not delve.
This year, when we celebrate the 125th birth centenary of this great intellectual, patriot, pacifist, freedom fighter, writer and a true blend of the nationalist and the internationalist, let us remember the radiant personality of Jawaharlal. Let us recall Chacha Nehru with his love for children. Let us see the handsome Kashmiri wearing an achkan and churidar with a rose in his lapel.
MK Kaw is a former Secretary, Government of India