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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 49, November 21, 2009

Nehru as PM and Foreign Minister

Tuesday 24 November 2009, by K. Natwar Singh


Fortyfive years after Jawaharlal Nehru’s death, has history done him justice? Regrettably not. In surveys that rank India’s best Prime Minister, he is placed below his daughter, and on some occasions he figures third. This is preposterous. Only three worthwhile books on him have appeared after his death: Hiren Mukherjee’s The Gentle Colossus, S. Gopal’s three-volume biography and M.J. Akbar’s Nehru: The Making of India.

Jawaharlal Nehru laid the foundations of a democratic, secular, pluralistic India. He established the Atomic Energy Agency and the Planning Commission. The IITs are his gift. The great dams and steel plants have Nehru’s imprint on them. From 1947 to 1957, he was a prominent Asian world statesman. Was he a great man? I share Isaiah Berlin’s definition of greatness.

to call someone a great man is to claim that he has intentionally taken…a large step, one far beyond the normal capacities of men…permanently and radically alters the outlook and values of a significant body of human beings…his active intervention makes what seems highly improbable in fact happen.

Nehru fulfills every aspect with distinction.

Now we come to his record as a Foreign Minister. The Nehruvian foreign policy framework has stood the test of time. No Central Government has thought it necessary or desirable to jettison it. Why? Because no govern-ment or party has come up with an alternative foreign policy. Take non-alignment. Nehru has been denigrated on this issue, but here are some facts. Its membership now consists of nearly one hundred and twenty countries. The observers include China, Russia, Canada, the US, Japan, Germany, France and several more. The agenda today is obviously different from what it was in the 1950s, 1960s or 1990s. The NAM has to re-invent itself to deal with new issues— terrorism, Muslim fundamentalism, globalisation, environ-ment, drug trafficking, and global migration.

Now, about the relevance of NAM. At a superficial level, critics say the Soviet Union has disappeared, and the Warsaw Pact has packed up. The Cold War is over. Why do we need non-alignment? Quite right. However, one is entitled to ask: how is NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) relevant? NATO continues to expand, right up to the border of Russia.


On two important issues Nehru’s judgments and assumptions were off the mark. By taking Kashmir to the UN Security Council he converted a democratic matter into an international one. India approached the Security Council under Chapter VI of the UN Charter. Chapter VI applies to peaceful settlement of disputes. So, we recognised that there was a dispute. This is a case of political innocence in a state of rare purity.

What Jawaharlal Nehru should have done was to go to the Security Council under Chapter VII of the Charter which specifically addresses itself to “acts of aggression”. We were shouting from rooftops that Pakistan has committed aggression, so why not state that in the approach letter to the Security Council?

The main offenders were Mountbatten, Attlee and Noel Baker—an India baiter if there was one. Some Indian officials are not free from blame either, but history has not found a place for them. Since 1947, Indian diplomats have spent nearly 20 per cent of their time on the Kashmir issue. Nehru even agreed on a plebiscite. It took all the ingenuity of the foreign service to bury the idea.

The decision to go to the Security Council was not Nehru’s alone. The Cabinet approved it. The Cabinet members included Sardar Patel, Dr B.R. Ambedkar and Dr Shyama Prasad Mukherjee. However, on matters of foreign policy, Nehru was accepted as the expert. Sardar Patel reluctantly acquiesced. Actually, at a meeting convened by Mountbatten on Kashmir on February 21, 1948, the Prime Minister and Home Minister expressed divergent views.

Nehru said that it had been an act of faith by the government, at a time when the situation was rapidly deteriorating, to make a reference to the Security Council in the first place. If this faith was now proved to be misplaced, the consequences would have to be borne by those who made the reference.

Sardar Patel did not mince words. He observed that the PM in particular

had great faith in the institution of the UNO but the Security Council had been meddling in power politics to such an extent that very little of this faith was left. He pointed out that it had been the Governor-General who had induced the Government of India to make a reference to the UNO in the first place.

Kashmir, to this day, is being used by Pakistan to pillory India.

Jawaharlal Nehru had an idealistic and romantic view of Sino-India relations. Both countries parroted the same vaporous language: “the two countries have not gone to war for 2000 years”. How could they? Geography made it impossible. Communication did not exist. Buddhism reached China due to the efforts of great scholars and not great armies.

The 1962 war came as a devastating blow to Nehru. The Sino-Indian House he built collapsed in a few days. He himself conceded that “we have been living in a make-believe world”. It was his grandson who put Sino-Indian relations on the right track in 1988.

I am a Nehruvian. As Prime Minister I would give Jawaharlal Nehru 85 out of 100. As Foreign Minister, 60 out of 100. It is my firm belief that one man should not be both Prime Minister and Foreign Minister—the Foreign Minister should take some of the load off the PM. Even Chou En-lai, who was PM and Foreign Minister from 1949 to 1958, finally shed the Foreign Ministry.

Was Jawaharlal Nehru the only statesman who made mistakes? Did not Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin, Mao make even greater mistakes? And
in fact, they all had blood on their hands. Not Jawaharlal Nehru.

(Courtesy: The Indian Express)

The author, a former Foreign Service officer who retired to enter the political arena, is an erstwhile Minister for External Affairs.

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