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Mainstream, VOL LV No 23 New Delhi May 27, 2017

The If-ing of Nehru

Saturday 27 May 2017

by M. Chalapathi Rau

The following article appeared in Mainstream on November 10, 1962, to mark Jawaharlal Nehru’s 73rd birth anniversary on November 14 that year. This took place during the Chinese aggression in India which began on October 20, 1962.

If only Jawaharlal Nehru had insisted on Tibet’s independence in 1950; if he had only propounded no Panchsheel with the Chinese; if only he had aligned India with the West—these are the irritant ‘ifs’ bandied about in coffee houses by people who read little history and have not written any. Far more imponderable ‘ifs’ have been sufficiently canvassed—if Don John of Austria had lost at Lepanto; if Napoleon had own at Waterloo; if Kerensky had shown an ounce of courage; if Lenin had not arrived in time at Finland Station. The whole of history can be re-written at this rate and made more happy or more readable, and while history does not repeat itself as much as historians repeat themselves, it is a good pastime to think of might-have-been-possible. The Indian ‘ifs’, unfortunately, are only wishful thinking; they are unhistorical, luxurious surmises, attempts at reversals of contemporary history and, therefore, counter-revolutionary.

The ‘if’-ing pastime in India concerns only Jawaharlal Nehru. Nobody asks what would have happened if the Communists had supported the ‘Quit India’ movement in 1942, or if the Socialists had not left the Congress in 1948, or if the British had quit in 1920 or 1930. If only Jawaharlal Nehru could do this or do that, there would have been no attack by China, we would have been breathing softly behind the back of a buffer state, and we would have got the Marines among us; or the Indian Revolution would have been complete, revolutionaries would have been in the Cabinet, and socialism could have come overnight. Either Krishna Menon or Morarji Desai would be nominated his political heir and all the rest would be in their places. If only he had built up somebody, built you or built me up!

Secretive Critics

Jawaharlal Nehru is secure in the love of the millions of India and millions abroad, and they have again shown how they love him by rising like a genie from the magic lamp at his bidding. He has, of course, his critics, who are not candid but very secretive. There is something ludicrous about the attitude of most admirers and critics; they want him, even in the midst of a crisis when the nation has to fight aggression, to be something different from what he is and blame him for being Jawaharlal Nehru. There is much confusion about this self-contradictory attitude of loving him for what he is and of asking him to be anything but himself. It is not a simple situation. There are also some determined critics who dislike him for what he is and do not want him to be anything else.

Political parties too have all these years been helpless. They have revealed both their frustration and bankruptcy by coming to the conclusion that Jawaharlal Nehru must do this and do that, including the strengthening of the parties opposed to the Congress, while he has found the Congress to be a useful instrument of his purposes. As they never asked themselves whether they were equally reliable instruments, it was like asking him to set up an opposition to himself. The manly course was not to go on nagging him and criticising him, while professing to admire him, but to provide an alternative to his leadership. The Opposition parties failed in this task and developed the habit of asking him, practically, to lead them. If he was good enough to do that and still lead the country, he was doing nothing less through the instrumentality of the Congress. It was not consistent to look up to him as the leader of the nation and criticise him for not being leader of parties which were not willing to be led by him.

Rare Combination

For some years, parties and persons were blaming him for not doing what they wanted and for not being what they wanted him to be. If they had their way, he would be Napoleon, Peter the Great, Lenin, Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Patel, even President Ayub Khan, anybody but himself. Even the Brechers and other ununder-standing, if sympathetic, biographers of him adopted this attitude, forgetting that historically, and personally, Jawaharlal Nehru could not be somebody else and need not be.

Jawaharlal Nehru is, like human beings, composite in his nature, a combination of qualities, moulded by will and circumstances. He is one of the bravest of men but he would not say he is the bravest man in the world. He is one of the healthiest men but he is not necessarily the healthiest man. He is one of the honest men but he probably is not the most honest man in the world. He is a man with vision, but there are other men with vision. He is a man of idealism among other men of idealism. His energy is terrific but there are other energetic men. He loves his country; others too are patriots. But he is a man outstanding for his bravery, honesty, idealism, energy, patriotism and vision, and that is a rare combination at any time in history. The people have known him as a combination of outstanding qualities and loved him for what he is. They loved him forty years ago, thirty, twenty or ten years ago; they still love him for these qualities. They cannot want him to be somebody else. He would not then be Jawaharlal Nehru.

Jawaharlal Nehru will continue to baffle McGill professors, Boston publishers, and Indian publicists, and Brecher made the usual mistake of saying everything possible about him in his biography without saying anything worthwhile in the process. Brecher, for instance, was keen on stressing Jawaharlal Nehru’s changing moods, forgetting the clarity of his vision, on stressing his vacillation, forgetting his moments of decisiveness, on stressing his temper, forgetting his self-knowledge and self-discipline. If Jawaharlal Nehru had tried to be Lenin in the conditions of the Indian Revolution as it emerged in 1947, he would at best have been Sardar Patel; if he had tried to be Sardar Patel, he would at best have been Morarji Desai; if he had tried to be Gandhi, he would at best have been Vinoba Bhave; if he had tried to be President Ayub Khan, he would at best have been General Cariappa. Even now, to some, he is a dictator when he should be a democrat; to others, he is a democrat, when he should be a dictator.

Myth and Reality

It is surprising that people forget the hard nature of historical forces. Jawaharlal Nehru is a product of historical forces as much as anybody else, and he has had to measure his opportunities not according to his desires, which are imperious enough, or his ambition for shaping the destiny of his country, but according to the forces at his command. In the Russian conditions of 1917, he would have been delighted to be Lenin; in China, he might have been a poet revolutionary like Mao. His humanism may have undergone mutation; he could have become ruthless. For, he would not have given up high ambition for his country, his earnestness of purpose, or his sense of history. In this country, in these years, he could do at his best what the Congress would allow him to do and other parties were missing so many opportunities that they were not in a position to force him or permit him to do anything. His leadership itself was muffled in myths both by the people and the political classes. He did not arrive at it by being Motilal Nehru’s son or through any nomination by Gandhi. Those who have known of the struggles in the UP Congress know of the hard struggle he had to wage at every step. If the single largest slice of opportunities came in 1947, it has to be remembered that while the situation was revolutionary, the people were in no revolutionary mood, and the leadership at large was not. The perplexities of Partition made many opportunities wither away.

There has not been a more question-begging and futile attitude in recent history than this ‘if’-ing of Jawaharlal Nehru. For him to be somebody else is a difficult, un-historic propo-sition; if he were somebody else, he would not be Jawaharlal Nehru. He is content to be Jawaharlal Nehru; even if he is not, he cannot be anybody else. The more straightforward course was to reject him. Yet, nobody has rejected him. This has been the pathetic part of Indian politics. And Jawaharlal Nehru, in boredom, could say, like Sir Thomas More, to admirers and critics: “Thou servest me, I wene, with iffes and with andes.”

For a Better Life

Now many ‘if’s have become blurred, the people feel like one nation, and the political parties seem to have come together. What will Jawaharlal Nehru do with his opportunities? He has to lead the resistance to aggression; he has to organise the social and economic conditions which will result in the best possible resistance. The people, among the humblest and the lowliest, who are making sacrifices for the country, are fighting not only for pieces of territory but for freedom, for dignity, for social equality and justice. They know the China that they have to fight; they know the India for which they are fighting. But they are also fighting for the India of their dreams. To Jawaharlal Nehru, this is not a mere war of resistance, and not certainly a profiteers’ or blackmarketeers’ war, but a war for a better life. The tasks of planned development are as urgent for peace and for war. From the war effort, in which sacrifice has to be equally distributed among the different sections of the people, must result a better world. The need to fight the Chinese does not affect the need for socialism.

Neither admirers nor critics have understood Jawaharlal Nehru’s capacity to keep growing. At sixty, he was still a man of promise: the Plans were to come. At seventy, he was taking steps to make the foundation safe for socialism. At present, he is fighting for the security and peace that are necessary for our social and economic revolution, untrammelled by outside interference. A great country like India cannot be anybody’s satellite, and Jawaharlal Nehru finds that the basic principles of policy, non-alignment and all that, remain unaffected by war, the more so because China seems to want a completely divided world. He is fighting for true independence of spirit. He is a war leader who is keen that a secure peace shall emerge. Churchill was a great war leader but he had not the social vision to plan for the social reconstruction that must follow war.

Jawaharlal Nehru knows and comprehends the situation more completely than anyone else. But even he can do only what the people will help him to do. It is the duty of all those who are fighting for a free, independent, socialist India to help him against external aggression and internal sabotage. It is a fight for the principles and politics he has represented, and it will also be a long fight. The instruments of war are also the instruments of peace. As we shape the means, we shall be able to shape the ends of war.

(Mainstream, November 10, 1962)

The author was one of the most distinguished journalists and editors this country has produced.

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