125th Year of Nehru

Trendsetter Nehru

Lord Mountbatten swears in Jawaharlal Nehru as the first Prime Minister of free India on August 15, 1947
Janardan-ThakurJanardan Thakur started his career in journalism with the nationalist Patna daily, The Searchlight, in December 1959. In his long and distinguished career spanning the reign of each Prime Minister since Independence, Thakur reported from the thick of some of the most momentous contemporary events at home and afar-JP’s ‘total revolution’, the Emergency, the bristling emergence of Sanjay Gandhi, the fall and rise of Indira Gandhi and then the rise and fall of Rajiv, the Kremlin of Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and Khomeini’s revolution in Iran, Ronald Reagan’s re-election in an America swinging Right, VP Singh’s ascent as a messiah with tainted magic and the rasping run to power of the BJP. Thakur’s journalism, from the very start, broke traditional moulds of reportage and writing, going beyond the story that meets the eye and into processes and personalities that made them happen. His stories on the Bihar famine of the mid-1960s and the manmade floods that ravaged the State were a sensation. He was perhaps alone in predicting defeat for Indira Gandhi in 1977 and again singular in exposing the corroded innards of the Janata Government that followed. A Jefferson Fellow at the East-West Center, Hawaii, in 1971, Thakur moved to New Delhi as a Special Correspondent for the Ananda Bazar Patrika group of publications in 1976. He went freelance in 1980 and turned syndicated columnist. In 1989-91, he was Editor of the fortnightly Onlooker, and The Free Press Journal. Thakur authored All The Prime Minister’s Men, probably the most successful of the crop of books that followed the Emergency. His All the Janata Men, the story of the men who destroyed the first non-Congress government in New Delhi, was equally successful. He passed away on July 12, 1999.

NEHRU had always been far more conscious of his image abroad than in the country, which he could take for granted. The people of India loved and adored him so much that he could get away with anything. He knew the political advantages of having a favourable image abroad; it had given him a head start over all other leaders in the freedom movement. Nehru had spent long years wandering in England and the Continent, conversing with the great minds of the West, Bernard Shaw, Romain Rolland, Andre Malraux, Marcuse, Albert Einstein and so many others. No other leader had so many friends and admirers abroad. Even after he became the Prime Minister, Nehru carried the permissive Western traditions of his father’s aristocratic establishment to Teen Murti House, the massive, red sandstone building where the British Commander-in-Chiefs had lived.

His mindset had remained more Western than Indian, which unfortunately was one of the main factors that had weighed on Gandhi’s mind when he named Nehru his successor. Little did Gandhi realise then that one consequence of his choice would be a reversal of his own political and social beliefs.

There was nothing wrong in Nehru being influenced by the West. For years he had interacted, through meetings and correspondence, with some of the greatest thinkers, writers and politicians of Europe and America, and it was natural for some of it to rub off on his personality. He spoke English with a Cambridge accent, and many who heard some of his great speeches still cherish the memory. Such was his personality that it never seemed he was putting on an accent or trying to behave in an Occidental manner. It came to him naturally.

During the days of the freedom struggle, Nehru had often talked about the need to snap ties with Britain, to become “genuinely Indian” and self-reliant. But when he became the Prime Minister, he depended so much on the advice and guidance of the former rulers that the country never got the chance to develop its own ways of administration and governance. Whitehall remained the model. Soon after independence, he had sent a team of top Army officials to London. When this was criticised, Jawaharlal replied nonchalantly, “We have never discussed defence policies in the Commonwealth, either jointly or severally.” Many refused to be convinced. A Member of Parliament had interrupted him. “Then why did you allow the Commander-in-Chief to go to London?” Nehru replied, “Our Commander-in-Chief goes to London to take part sometimes in what are called ‘military exercises’. Perhaps the honourable member does not understand these things.” Nehru had great respect for the institution of Parliament, but he often showed great contempt for Parliament members. “The members of Parliament respect Ellora but don’t go there,” he had told Andre Malraux, French Minister for Culture.

Mahatma Gandhi had set the dynasty rolling. Jawaharlal was elected President of the Indian National Congress at Lahore in September 1929. “Whatever all this means…” was a characteristic phrase of Jawaharlal Nehru, which he often used to clinch an argument, without really clinching it. He was so sure of his charisma and popularity that he did not bother about the ambiguities and inconsistencies. By the time freedom was won, Jawaharlal had been jailed nine times and spent 3,262 days (23 days short of nine years) in prison.

Nehru had a unique way of touching the hearts of the people. Knowing how corruption had spread like an uncontrollable virus, he declared: “I will hang every black-marketer from the nearest tree.” People were impressed, never mind if they did not know of a single instance of any substantial punitive action taken against any of the notorious black-marketeers.

Nehru was a trendsetter in more ways than one. Most of the evils that have corroded India in the last fifty years had their beginnings during the Nehru Raj.

In the name of democracy, Jawaharlal created oligarchic pockets which he could use to safeguard his despotism called the Republic of India. Of course Nehru would not admit that India under his regime was gradually turning into a police state. He got furious if anyone accused him of adopting the familiar methods of a fascist state.

But there was nobody to question Jawaharlal Nehru. He littered his wrath all over the country, thought nothing of insulting high officials in public, in the presence of their subordinates. Even some of the high-level bureaucrats could hardly have been happy about the way they were treated. Jawaharlal’s grandson, Rajiv Gandhi, had a good example to follow when years later he sacked a Foreign Secretary in public. As Nehru advanced in years, people around him noticed a growing intolerance in him. Sometimes he would even break down in a sorry spectacle of shattered nerves and frayed temper.

NO one ever dared to match his strength with Jawaharlal. You cannot win against Nehru, they all said. The trouble with him was that he had no real rivals, especially after Sardar Patel was gone, only endless vistas of bowing men. The odd head that bobbed up was soon knocked down. Loyalty and personal attachment counted with him more than the facts of the case.

About his political colour, Nehru was always vague and fuzzy. He had flared up when a delegate at the annual session of the Congress at Indore (January 1957) asked what his definition of Socialism was. Could he spell it out a little more clearly? “I do not see why I should be asked to define Socialism in precise, rigid terms,” he said.

With the coming of power, Nehru was trying to become pragmatic. Or maybe the politician in him realised that he could not just transform the Congress into a party committed to Socialism.

Jawaharlal committed himself to making basic changes in the economic and power relations in the country, but at the same time he wanted to avoid having to pay the political price of a direct attack on the existing social order. Was it possible to change the well-entrenched pattern of wealth, status and power without a frontal attack on the beliefs and structures that had institutionalised a rigid social hierarchy?

JAWAHARLAL always spoke of “a third way which takes the best from all existing systems the Russian, the American and others and seeks to create something suited to one’s own history and philosophy.”

Nehru loved floating in a world of dreams. “He has always lived somewhere in the clouds,” his biographer, DF Karaka, said of him.

The tragedy of Jawaharlal was that India became free in his lifetime, and as the country’s first Prime Minister it fell on him to carry out the promises he had been making for years.

Before independence, Nehru had always talked about nationalisation. Eight months after August 15, 1947, the Prime Minister told Parliament that within a few months of coming to power he was a “wiser and more cautious man”.

President Harry Truman and Jawaharlal Nehru during the latter’s visit to the United States in October 1949

Nehru’s influence as a party leader was not great. As a thinker he was far from impressive. His record as an administrator was nothing to write home about, and yet as an individual he was irresistible. He exuded a sincerity which was compelling. The excitement of attaining independence had blinded most Indians to Jawaharlal’s inconsistencies. As Karaka succinctly put it, “when a ring is worn out of sentiment, one does not look for the flaws in the stone.” Whatever Nehru said or did, the people always looked with trepidation on the prospect of an India without him.

Nehru meeting with Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and Deutsche Bank chairman Hermann Josef Abs during a state visit to West Germany in June 1956

Jawaharlal had little time to absorb the bigger problems which alone should have engaged his full attention. If one only considers the huge tome of letters that Nehru wrote during his years as the Prime Minister to various ministers, governors, chief ministers, politicians and to all and sundry, one would begin to understand how little time he would have had for the finer points of administration. Nehru was an amazingly prolific correspondent, perhaps a compulsive one. There is no topic he did not dwell upon, sometimes at length, in his regular letters to the chief ministers, nearly all of whom belonged to his party at that time. Volumes and volumes of ‘what should be done’ on various issues of the day.

There was nothing humble about the way Jawaharlal ran his Cabinet. One of his ministers had likened Nehru at a Cabinet meeting to a school master in his class. Only two of his Cabinet colleagues, Maulana Azad and Rafi Ahmed Kidwai, could exercise some influence over him.

Nehru with Otto Grotewohl, the Prime Minister of the then East Germany

Jawaharlal was eager to dominate the party as he did the government. But until December 15, 1950, there was no way he could do this. The steel-frame of the Congress, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, the only man who could be described as Nehru’s political rival, was still around.

Nehru had strongly opposed the idea of the same person holding the posts of Prime Minister and party president. “I definitely think that it is a wrong thing for the Prime Minister to be the Congress President….it would not be proper to combine the office with that of the Prime Minister.”

The legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru? What did he leave behind? Take Kashmir. It was very close to his heart. He called it his ‘spiritual home’. And yet, the Kashmir problem which has dogged India for the last five decades was largely his creation. In October 1947, when Pakistani tribesmen entered Kashmir, Thimayya, who was then a young Lt. General, had wanted the Prime Minister’s orders to beat the intruders back. Had Nehru given the permission, there would have been no Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Thimayya had the full backing and support of Sardar Patel but Nehru did not give the order. He was under other influences.

Nehru receiving US President Dwight D Eisenhower at
Parliament House, 1959

NEHRU was very proud of his Panchsheel, and his Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai slogan, but it was the Chinese who dealt the grievous blow to his much-vaunted foreign policy. Between early 1962 when I had reported his campaign speech and October 22, 1962, when he broadcast the fall of Bomdila to a stunned nation, Jawaharlal had suffered a sea-change. That night on the radio he had sounded like a shattered man. He never really recovered from the shock of it.

After the Chinese attack, he became vulnerable. Chinks in his armour got bigger. The Opposition started frontal attacks on him, and in 1963 he faced his first ever no-confidence motion in the Lok Sabha.

It is said that with all his charm and charisma, with all his great qualities of the head and the heart, Nehru cannot be called a great Prime Minister. Most of the problems that the country faces today, whether it is the tension of Centre-state relations or river water disputes or divisive forces in various pockets of the country or corruption and nepotism, they all had their genesis in the Nehru years, and were aggravated by his daughter during her long regime.

India at that point in her history would have done better with a more pragmatic man at the top, a man with a clear vision and greater determination. We needed a harder man, a man who could be a little ruthless at times, if not quite the butcher Churchill envisaged.

Excerpted from Prime Ministers: Nehru to Vajpayee by Janardan Thakur, Eeshwar Prakashan, New Delhi

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