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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 27 New Delhi June 27, 2015

Nikhilda, the True Intellectual

Monday 29 June 2015

by Jaya Jaitly

When a good person is no longer in our midst the feelings they leave with, and the aura of their personality remains like a soft breeze in one’s life. There are many ways in which people touch the lives of others, and as I remember Nikhil Chakravartty, I recall his intellectual purity, gentleness, and honesty in friendships. An intellectual is a loaded word and I have written at length about many current-day intellectuals as conceited and opinionated people who believe their ideas carry worth because of the weight of their own pre-eminent personality rather than their logic. Today’s intellectual is the Op-ed writer who believes in taking a rarely hidden political stance and adjusting his/her arguments to suit them. They pontificate at length on abstract issues but the core of their logic is essentially based on bias. They look for acceptability within their own kind and believe that a collection of half-a-dozen or so of those like them become listed as ‘eminent’ merely by issuing collective state-ments against particular regimes while remaining silent about the misdemeanours of others. Once bias of this nature shows, an individual can no longer claim to be an intellectual who ought to offer a purer truth that is distilled from an examination of facts without prejudice.

Most people may remember Nikhilda as a thoughtful senior journalist, but for me he was always the best example of an honest intellectual who never shied away from searching for the truth and looking at all angles of an issue to understand it better before delivering his very own analysis and opinion. Apart from respecting his writings from a distance I did not engage with him much when I was new to the hurly burly world of active politics. As a Left-leaning person close to the CPI, he had greater ideological affinity with socialist stalwarts of the JP-Lohia variety than did leaders, journalists and thinkers close to the CPM, who always allowed dogma to come between reason, and let rationalisation of the irrational take place whenever practical political necessities came into play.

Why Nihkilda stood out in my mind was his unshakable belief that once he respected you as a friend and a good human being, if you did something he would normally disagree with, or believed was a wrong move, he would seek you out and spend hours trying to understand issues from various perspectives, without clouding his mind with preconceived ideological positions. Open-mindedness is the sine qua non of true intellectualism, as is the willingness to look beyond the obvious. This was what drew me to Nikhilda as a person and as a moulder of opinion.

A perfect example of his way of arriving at conclusions was when the Samata Party in the later part of the 1990s decided to link up with the Bharatiya Janata Party for an electoral alliance in Bihar. The Chief Minister of that State, Laloo Prasad Yadav, was by then notorious for blatantly favouring his own caste and neglecting others. Both corruption and anarchy were at their height. Hospitals could not write prescriptions because there was no stock of paper. Government buses stopped randomly on the roadside whenever fuel ran out. Ministers helped kidnappers negotiate ransoms with families, and every daroga waited for telephone calls from the Chief Minister before he acted. Booth-capturing and rigging were rampant and officials aligned themselves to the Chief Minister according to caste considerations to help his candidates to win. The Samata Party had taken the fodder scam matter to court. Today it seems hard to believe such things could happen but we lived through it throughout the 1990s. Against this backdrop, the party was compelled to fight one Assembly election alone because its pleas to parties like the CPI and CPM fell on deaf ears. Unbelievable but true, their answer to the Samata leadership was: “You fight and win, and then we will join you.” Fighting alone led to a miserable result in which the Samata, with neither funds nor alliances, won only six seats in the Assembly. One of these seats was Nitish Kumar’s. He had led the campaign with George Fernandes by his side. Since he was also a Member of Parliament at that time he regret-tably chose to abandon his Assembly seat and retain his Parliament one. So the Samata was left with just five MLAs in Bihar to go forward at the local level in its plans to defeat Laloo Prasad Yadav at the next opportunity. The only way to do that was to forge a strong alliance in the State. The Bharatiya Janata Party was ready and willing. It was also the ideal way of creating a coalition of all castes to fight against crime and bad governance and unite all castes on a common platform.

Nikhilda came to George Fernandes and asked him as a comrade and as a friend as to why he had chosen to join hands with the party that was considered untouchable after the Babri Masjid episode. There was no indignation, passing of judgement, hostility or bias in Nikhil- da’s tone. He and George had respect and admi-ration for each other. This never wavered. George and Nikhilda settled down to many hours of discussion generally in the after-dinner hours, over a period of many days. They talked of many things. I sat in on some of these conver-sations, enjoying the way Nikhilda asked probing questions when he was not satisfied with George’s answers, or expressed his under-standing and agreement when he was. He kept an open mind and tried to grasp the true reasons for this turn in the history of the nation. He also grasped the fact that incidents like the Babri Masjid happen, but there are times in the nations’s history when allegiances and alliances must change according to the call of history and a nation’s need. Just as the Opposition in the country united against the Congress of Indira Gandhi during the Emer-gency, and the Jana Sangh became a part of the Janata Government, so too was an alliance between the Samata and BJP necessary to rid Bihar of its serious troubles. There were no communal statements or slogans uttered by anyone, the campaign reflected the will of the people, and together in the next election the two parties ensured that Laloo Prasad Yadav did not win enough seats to lay claim to the Prime Minister’s chair. It went to H.D. Deve Gowda instead.

Nikhilda understood all this. He never took a dogmatic stand, nor raised issues of parties and people being self-serving or opportunistic. He came with a mind willing to learn and change, and came to a person he trusted and respected so that he could understand this particular logic of politics better. He was a true ally and a friend whose methods of laying claim to being a genuine intellectual should be emulated today.