In Defence of the Vanguard: Gandhi and Nehru

Amongst the many conflicts that we encounter in the public life of India today, is the conflict of history. The past few years have seen a proliferation in debates about historical personalities, and whether or not they deserve the veneration they command. Be it the Tipu Sultan debate in Karnataka or the ubiquitous Aurungzeb vs. Shivaji debate, a particular favourite of the present government. While these debates by a society overwhelmed with socio-political problems are definitely welcome, the repudiation of these contentions from a purely academic set up to one of intense polarisation is often undesirable. For it is difficult to imagine and characterise the characters of the past appropriately in terms of modern standards of right and wrong, we must imagine them complexly and with ample reference to contexts. Having said that, I feel we in India are undergoing a ‘historical amnesia’ of sorts.  The circumstances are understandably clear, we have at the centre a party, which despite its overwhelming political fortunes today, was almost invisible in the freedom struggle( BJP didn’t exist its predecessors like the Hindu Mahasabha, Jan Sangh etc). The rhetoric doing rounds today is one of contempt, not just towards the present heirs of the Nehru-Gandhi family, but the stalwarts themselves, something I find deeply troubling and irreconcilable.

A few weeks back I was engaging, as I normally do in a facebook comment debate with regard to the anointment of a conservative hardliner, Yogi Adityanath as the CM of UP. My interlocutor was a brilliant young man, few years my senior. I referred, as I am wont to do, given my small but substantial training in liberal arts, to the examples in contemporary history where a similar situation had wreaked havoc in the very same state. To this my interlocutor shot back, calling me choicest barbs of ‘pseudo-secular’ and ‘Congi-Chamcha’ and asked me if I couldn’t see what the likes of ‘Nehru’ had done to ‘his’ great country. Now that debate petered out soon afterwards and is now a passé. However what struck me was that this Convent-educated (substantial Indian History syllabus) student who was doing enviably well in his career had not had second thoughts about casting aspersions on the legacy of a giant of modern Indian history.

Now what is at the core of such a great disillusionment is beyond me, but this definitely is the feeling of the youth of our times and maybe Congress is to be blamed for it, but none of us( including my interlocutor) are off the hook when it comes to these statements. The Congress rule in India especially in the recent past has been what might best be called unbecoming of its outstanding legacy. The party has shed key characteristics, like inner-party democracy and strong volunteer base, and has come to be dominated by a coterie of politicians, including the Gandhi scion, who are disjoint from reality. But to put their blame on the shoulders of Nehru would be a great travesty.

Nehru and the Nehruvian era

Nehru was born, as we all know to an opulent family of Kashmiri Pundits. His father was a hugely successful lawyer and young Nehru was sent off to public school in England. Despite his education in the Universities of England, Nehru’s love for India and his in-depth knowledge of the intricacies of its historical and social life was par excellence. In a series of letters to young Indira Gandhi(compiled in the classic Discovery of India), sometimes from jails and sometimes abroad Nehru writes of India with éclat and grace, yet keeps it grounded in reality. However Nehru if he had lived today would not have been able to escape the tag of ‘Anti-National’. Nehru was a lover of meat and was known to indulge in all kinds of meat during government banquets. He minced no words in his criticism of Hindutva, then still in its inchoate stage (propounded by the likes of Hedgegar and Gowalkar of the RSS). He held intellectuals (or pseudo-intellectuals as my interlocutor would call them) in high esteem and filled his cabinet with individuals who did not belong to the Congress. Be it B.R. Ambedkar or Shyama Prasad Mukherjee( of Jana Sangh, the precursor of BJP) , cutting across caste, party and religious lines the first cabinet of India was formed. The then planning commission comprised of intellectuals from all spectrums:  titans of industry, to orthodox agriculturalists to Marxist, all ideologies were welcomed. Nehru was in many ways the most empathetic supporter of federalism, and his regular letter to Chief Ministers, informing them about policy decisions and calling for their support, was an excellent example of what the government today calls ‘co-operative federalism’

Nehru was known particularly for his belief that no one should be allowed to become a Caesar, in sharp contrast to the one-man show we see prevalent in politics today. He famously once wrote an anonymous OPED in a newspaper criticising his own policies and warning that if ‘Nehru was left unchecked, he could become an authoritarian’. This was a time when the papers were all praises for Nehru and there was hardly any negative comment. Nehru’s act showed his deep belief in checks and balances of governance.

However some of his actions were subject to scrutiny. For instance he declared President’s rule for the first time ever in Kerala and unseated the first democratically elected Communist government, much to the chagrin of his supporters. However this was a trifle considering the two failed attempts to unseat governments (Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh), and declare President’s rule to incite defections, of the present government in the last year alone. Nehru also made some crucial policy mistakes, in misjudging the Chinese aggression in 1962 and in his dealings with the world powers. However Nehru took a principled stand on issues, and showed the world that India’s moral compass was stronger than the mammoth Navies of the world powers combined.

Nehru’s economic policy is a subject of intense debate. But it is best to say the solid ‘hard ware’ background that the country needed came from the dams, steel plants and Research institutes that Nehru commissioned. Some will say that the closed economy was riled with red-tape and these are points that must be conceded. But the vagaries of opening up a nascent economy to the vicissitudes of the world could well have been devastating.

Nehru’s criticism often sadly emanates from conspiracy theories and heresy. The case in point is of course his relations to Edwina Mountbatten. While countering conspiracy theories is a futile endeavour, for what it is worth let me. Edwina Mountbatten and Lord Mountbatten’s daughter Lady Pamela Hicks writes of this relationship as one of immense love and mutual respect. Nehru had in Lady Mountbatten a trusted friend and advisor. Any theories about alleged love affairs should be dismissed, by her account titles ‘Daughter of the Empire’. Hicks describes the relationship as pure and platonic and dispels all rumours.

Despite his shortcomings, Nehru was and still remains arguably India’s greatest statesman ( bhakts may differ, but I think statesmen should do more than just give flamboyant speeches and tour the world). His ability to juggle between the right and the left, made Congress a truly centrist and grassroots party. The ability to not just reach across the aisle, but pick a member from across the aisle to be a part of the cabinet, remains unparalleled  in Indian polity. The secular and demcratic ethos which has proven so resilient are in part, his creation.

Nehru despite the accusation of his critics never modelled Indira Gandhi to take on as his successor. Indira was a mere MP during her father’s premiership, and played no substantial role in government, occasionally in the Congress Party. That Indira would go on, to declare the emergency in 1975 and stifle all political rights was unimaginable given her father’s commitment to these core ideals. This ‘twist’ of destiny, if you will, remains an unfortunate occurrence. We have much to learn from this statesman, and much to reproach ourselves for. The disillusioned interlocutor’s comments, albeit with a minor correction, best sum up this article. “You do not know what Nehru has done for (instead of done to) ‘your’ country ! (Contd in a second part about Gandhi, to be published soon)

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