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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 48, November 14, 2009

A Splendid Partnership

Tuesday 17 November 2009, by A.K. Damodaran

Of the many achievements of Jawaharlal Nehru as a national leader, world statesman and a sensitive individual who had the rare opportunity of shaping the destinies of a whole nation and, at the same time, possessed the gift for standing back and eyeing with some detachment his own strengths and weaknesses, and also commenting upon them in an anxiously honest fashion, the institutional aspects are the most impressive. In spite of the many popular taunts and repeated gibes, Jawaharlal was no Hamlet. He did not destroy institutions: he invented them when he could not amend the existing ones. The establishment of a functioning parliamentary democracy with the peculiar Indian character-istics of secularism and ‘socialistic’ planning was the work of a whole generation of gifted, committed people who learnt in a creative epoch to submerge their many differences in a common cause at a time of national trauma, doubt and self-questioning. The manner in which parlia-mentary democracy, a free press, a responsible Opposition, a supportive bureaucracy, and armed forces standing outside the political framework, disinterested in the political processes, matured over fifteen years, was due to the total identifi-cation between the system and the country’s beloved hero leader. There were flaws in the system even in his own time, but these were discussed and remedies were devised with a certain skill. The years since his death have shown the need for much greater commitment to democracy on everybody’s part.

For two successive generations, the Indian people had learnt to ride piggyback, so to speak, in moral terms, on the character and personality of two very great men. We were lucky to have Gandhi and Nehru to lead us by precept and example. Their very greatness, their unquestioned stature made it possible for us to carry on in a rather pleasant, innocuous, soft way. That is no longer feasible. In all societies, the successors of great, larger-than-life leaders have a difficult, intricate, usually unacknowledged, challenge to face: the problem of society have to be sorted out by discipline, dull routine and predictable laws and by laws, depending on the awareness and activism of the ordinary citizen and not by the irrational dictates of charisma and mythology. The men who followed Mao, Lenin and, at another level, Kamal Ataturk, have had to restructure the organisation of national life on a more normal basis. In both China and the Soviet Union, the post-heroic experience has been near-tragic. That India escaped such anguish is due to the fact that the two men who led the national movement in the penultimate stage, liked and admired each other, and did not scorn to learn from each other. The people of India sensed it and they idolised these unusual politicians of a rarer breed.

There was never, ever, any question of who was the leader and who was the lieutenant. Gandhi was the supreme generalissimo, the man who called the shots, the leader who responded to the faintest change in the political pulse rate of his people: he had also a superb sense of timing; more precious than all these talents was his gift for dialogue, persuasion and, when necessary, moral coercion. Jawaharlal was a simpler, much more easily understood personality; he was the political leader, Gandhi was the prophet. That was understood. There were tensions, temporary misunderstandings and even interludes of alienation during their twenty years’ partnership. But at no single moment was there any question of bad faith.

There was another quality to this unique team of two gifted men, so unlike each other in many details of intellectual activity, information, knowledge, and understanding of the world outside. Each learnt from the other. The great, intellectually exciting period between the declaration of War in 1939 and the ’Quit India’ Movement in 1942, was marked by a genuine exchange of ideas between Gandhi, with his insistence on the ‘here’ and ‘now’, and Nehru, with his interest in the myriad developments in the world outside which could affect the country’s fortunes. Nehru’s excitement about history made him see patterns in the past, a link between ‘now’ and ‘then’: his knowledge of world politics made him curious about what was happening ‘there’ and not merely ‘here’.

And so these two men, who could be angry with each other but could always relax in each other’s company, formed a team which led the national movement in its climacteric stage. They made some mistakes of understanding, judgment and prejudice. But we are fortunate they were there, the two of them, with all their great qualities and their little foibles, great men who knew how to remain themselves fundamentally unspoilt, even when intervening in history in a masterful fashion.

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