Jawaharlal Nehru is an iconic figure in the history of Ante Partition Indian Subcontinent…His life story, evolution of his ideas and growth as politician is key to understand many a political turmoil this region has faced in last 100 years. I will not dwell on useless wordiness as the aim of this platform is to lay bare the facts and their effects on our History and Social life. So let’s begin the discourse.
NEHRU THE HUMAN:
It’s a common phenomenon in human history to apportion a certain “aura” to all the leaders who are present at the crucial events of any nation’s history. But if looked closely many of them appear to be humans with a mixture of flaws and commendable qualities. I do not say that they are ordinary in every sense of the word because most of them have some personal traits that make them best suited for the role they come to play eventually. Now I will mention some of the qualities that I think defined Jawaharlal Nehru and influenced his motives and actions.
Total Ambition: If one quality that sets Nehru apart from all his political peers in Congress can be guessed at, his sheer ambition will be the top contender. Once he let go of his University era luxurious life and set his heart to politics his tenacity was unmatched. Although in his personal Notes which he used to write in his prison he often appeared a lazy romantic and haggard at times but in the political strife he was very energetic and pursued his goals without any respite. That’s why he often referred to his prison life as time of rest.
Anger and Distrust: Nehru is said to have a prickly nature. Anger was one of the leading factors in many of his decisions .We see many instances of these feelings at play. His tussle with his father Moti Lal Nehru, his impatience of Gandhi’s fondness of means over the ends and perhaps more crucially his utter distrust and dismissal of Jinnah as a political force from the get go are some examples.
This mistrust of other leaders at the time and inability to be patient with natures different to him also left him helpless to solve many key problems for example Hindu- Muslim communal issue from the very beginning. According to him it was just a matter of economic class conflict and was exaggerated by British imperialists and politicians like Jinnah to increase their political stock. It wasn’t till the final outcome of two independent states and more importantly the massacre that happened towards the close of British rule in Bengal and Punjab that he realized it was more than just an economic equation or simple “Divide et empera” policy.
Mercurial Nature: Nehru was a man of changing seasons. One of his greatest ability which helped him in political negotiations and public life a lot in my opinion was to mould his persona as the time and need required it to be. Sometimes this shift was very recognizable. It also helps to explain why many British statesmen over the years (with few exceptions) found Nehru to be a pleasant and comparatively reasonable political player despite his continuous public persona of a Revolutionary and fiery politician. But that was not the only reason for the paradoxical trusting disposition of English politicians,as is sated later in the same column.
Obsession of fitness: This is probably just a humorous quirk but maybe not. In his letters to Indira Gandhi, his daughter and heir and also his diary one often comes across this morbid fear of Aging which is strangely recurrent. He also was very careful regarding his body fitness and believed it to be the prime healer in all afflictions .Even towards his last years his step was firm and he would tire his much younger aides.
3. NEHRU THE POLITICAL ICON:
The most prominent and distinguishing accomplishments of Jawaharlal Nehru as politician and ruler of India are three.
1.Staying at the top: In retrospect it seems an easy feat for a political Giant like Nehru to stay at the helm of Congress and later Indian politics through the defining three decades of Subcontinent. But upon closer study of those tumultuous times one can recognize that this was in itself not an easy feat. He had many rivals to the throne. Most prominent of them were Sardar WalabBhai Patel and Netaji Bose for a brief time.
Other than such direct threats to his leadership was none other than Gandhi ji. Mahatma Gandhi had by virtue of his unique and impressive persona attained a centre stage role from the moment he entered the arena of Indian political life. Furthermore Gandhi ji had a wholly different philosophy and method of influencing masses. He also remained for a long time unofficial final Judge in all matters of Congress.
How Nehru overcame such seemingly insurmountable odds and managed to gain full control of congress just at the most crucial moment in Indian history remains a political achievement worthy to be studied. He never openly confronted Gandhi ji or for that matter Sardar or Neta ji Bose. In fact he took shelter in their respective capabilities time and again when it was essential for manifold reasons. But he eventually neutered even Gandhi’s political authority.
Later as Premier of India he had fewer problems in staying the main decision maker for all his principal rivals were long dead. But towards the end of his career and life he had another task to accomplish. For most of his life he had been grooming Indira to take his place once he faded from the political arena. But she was still quite young when he saw his own end beckon to him. So he came up with a brilliant plan of ousting all senior congressional leaders’ likes of Moraji Desai.And he installed a weak and obscure second-in-command so that his daughter could easily come to power in a few years span after his death. These instances need to be read in detail to appreciate the brilliance Jawahar Lal came to achieve over the years.
2. Kashmir: The tragedy of Kashmir originated in the final years of partition and the year following. Nehru played the prime role in the whole debacle from the start. His ancestors belonged to Kashmir. So for this reason alone he took steps to assimilate a clearly Muslim Majority state into India as soon as he saw partition imminent, thus initiating a long saga of blood and turmoil in this region.
There were many other factors too which contributed to the affair but the generally held view that departing British Government alone was responsible for this chaos is inaccurate. Once Nehru came into power he gave orders for military intervention before the disordered Muslim uprising gained much ground. He also forced The Maharaja to sign an Accession without any regard to the Muslim majority that clearly was opting for Pakistan according to even Lord Mountbatten. He also used the Muslim Conference’s Sheikh Abdullah to keep the tribesmen and Muslims at bay till Indian army gained complete control of all key areas.
Once a fragile Indian authority had been established he quickly went to the second tier of Kashmir Strategy to neutralize any open military intervention by Pakistan. He knew that a complete war at such an early phase would jeopardize all his work. Therefore India went to UN Security Council for ceasefire.
He agreed to have a plebiscite as soon as peace prevailed. And he always kept repeating this promise for twelve years till the end of his life in public. Sadly in his private correspondence he openly said there will be no plebiscite of any kind. Thus the fate of Kashmir was sealed in an endless horror of repression and violence till this day. He also took care of his “lion of Kashmir” Sheikh Abdullah when he tried to scratch the “Indian Prince” himself. He had him thrown in jail for ten years but still called him a “friend “till his death. The maneuver to achieve such “good riddance” begs to be studied more in detail to appreciate the genius of Jawaharlal Nehru.
3. Diplomacy: Foreign policy and diplomatic missions always intrigued Prime Minister Nehru more than drab internal affairs. And he achieved great success in this field too. I will mention only few policies that he initiated.
a) Non Alignment Movement: Nehru had a daunting task ahead of him once he took reigns of the second most populous country of the world. He had to get funds and trades support from big countries for the economy of India was too weak to sustain such huge load for any length of time. He also found himself in the thick of Cold war politics. Instead of joining one of the two big blocs Nehru opted for a lesser known polity of Nations who identified themselves as Non Aligned. It seemed a grave error then but soon it was the critics who were proved mistaken. Nehru saw the potential in that seemingly ineffectual foreign policy stance. He was able to gain influence in the whole third world bloc of nations which helped India to gain an image of a safe and non aggressive nation. Kashmir was easily forgotten. More importantly he was able to extract Funds and trade deals from both poles of the Cold war world i.e. US and Soviet Union, a seemingly impossible task during those years.
b) Gandhian propaganda: “propaganda” seems a harsh word for the policy Nehru adopted post partition yet it’s the most accurate way to describe it. It was a common knowledge in Indian political circles that Nehru didn’t believe in Non Violent philosophy of Mahatma. He did not believe in keeping means above the ends he wanted to achieve.
Yet in the world of foreign diplomacy he adopted this very “mantra”. He inserted Gandhian philosophy in all his speeches on world platforms. Gandhi was a well known philosophical figure in many world countries by then. Therefore, his philosophy was a good introduction at the world stage weary of violent and contrasting identities. This policy had two benefits. One, preaching non-violent philosophy helped India achieve a persona that many countries worked hard for decades to achieve i.e. a soft image in modern jargon. This positive imaging helped ease many of the earlier diplomatic debacles. And two, it was a wonderful way to keep the world distracted from Kashmir issue. It also presented a good contrast to Pakistan’s jerky and at times rough foreign policy.
MISCELLANEOUS TOPICS OF INTEREST:
The Krishna Menon Phenomenon:
The intangible figure of Krishna Menon appears in many places when one studies the life and politics of Nehru. He was often termed the Rasputin of India. They both met in early years of Nehru’s political life and soon became close friends. All the ensuing storms in their lives could not severe that early bond. Krishna Menon was not a mere pen- friend of Nehru but much more. He stayed most of his life in London where their paths crossed during the Socialist phase of Nehru. Krishna Menon was pivotal in keeping the volatile figure of Nehru relevant in the influential circles of Britain despite his long periods of incarceration. He also worked hard to assure English politicians that Nehru could be very “reasonable “despite all his rhetoric. That’s one of the reasons that many missions that were sent from Britain to solve India’s problems always had a favorable soft spot for Nehru and what he had to say.
He kept Nehru abreast of all the latest developments in the British government and its intellectual circles long before his peers in India would come to know. He also helped publish Nehru’s books and their marketing in the upper echelons of society.
One of his biggest service to his friend was the initiation of another friendship between Nehru and then relatively unknown Mountbatten Family which came to be of crucial importance in the final year of partition. He even gave a rough sketch to Mountbatten about a possible plan of partition before He had even come to India and saw any Leader from Congress or Muslim League. The final Plan of partition closely resembled that same sketch.
Post partition Nehru gave him many influential posts. But soon during last years of Nehru’s life Krishna Menon’s star also sank with perpetual scandals of various sorts. Sino India war ended this long professional friendship finally. To understand Nehru a parallel research into his close friend is very important to gain a complete picture.
Lord and Lady Mountbatten:
Jawaharlal Nehru might still have a diminished role in those precarious years leading to the trauma of partition but for a final stroke of good Fortune. The final Viceroy who was given the mandate to give the final solution to Indian subcontinent before British Government departed for good was none other than Lord Mountbatten whose friendship with Nehru had already been cultivated thanks to Krishna Menon. But once the new viceroy and his wife landed in India and met Nehru, a new and unique bond was created among the three of them the likes of which can hardly be found in the whole Indian political life to this date. Nehru and Lord Mountbatten instantly came to like each other as close and personal friends but more intriguing was the unlikely Romance that took birth in those chaotic and disturbing times between him and Edwina Mountbatten.
This trio emerged as the most powerful factor on the political landscape for coming many years. A lot has been written on the story of Nehru and Edwina. We will not dwell on such spicy rumors. This close association between The Congress leader and the Mountbattens skewed the whole political discourse, and greatly affected the final outcome. It sealed the supremacy of Nehru on all congressional rivals and squeezed out Gandhi from Indian political arena for good (he was soon assassinated by a Hindu fanatic within two years).
Romance with Socialism:
In the beginning of Young Jawaharlal political life he had to face overwhelming odds to reach the top of the ladder. In normal scheme of things he would have to be patient for decades to gain enough political stature among Indian political giants such as Gandhi, Jinnah, his own father Motilal Nehru, Tilak C.R Das and so on. But young Nehru was no ordinary politician to be enduring for such a long time.
He recognized that to gain the top table he needed an out of the way approach. So he embarked on a risky plan of Revolutionary Socialism. His fearless and scathing speeches against British imperialism and capitalist greed of industrialists gained him a quick and sturdy mass following. All the progressive socialists most of them young students started following this young politician who had no fear of consequences.
Soon his bet paid off when he eclipsed even his own father in congress. His purpose was completed. Though he kept giving strong and emotional speeches which guaranteed him the mass following and peasants’ support but his socialist colleagues and intellectuals soon knew that he had abandoned their philosophy for it was waning in its appeal. During his last decade he was severely criticized by them.
Yet what’s most amazing is his ability to take leverage from all the available resources at the time. The ethical or moral questions to such Real-politic are a different debate but we have established that he believed in the ends not the means.
HIS PERSONAL WRITINGS AND THEIR IMPORTANCE:
Nehru was one of the most prolific writers in political History with many works ranging from autobiography to History and discussion of politics. His Cambridge style writing is famous for its efficiency and style. He had a natural gift of writing skillfully. But paradoxically his writings were more concealing than revealing in nature, especially when it came to his personal life struggles. Nehru often attempted to “rationalize” or “justify” his own errors of judgment and shortcomings. Nonetheless his works are important from another aspect. If they are read critically and reader attempts to look beneath the sleek surface many revealing personality traits can be observed.
His book also shares a slightly embellished style which is common to many Indian writers. Tendency to over analyze unimportant matters and to write ambiguously about personal incidents is also observed. Even so they are a good study in political writing.
I have attempted to recount in detail my impressions of the life and work of Jawaharlal Nehru. My earlier claim of his being a pivotal role in all the events around partition has been justified. The study matter was Nehru: A tryst with destiny written by Stanley Wolpert. It is in no way a final judgment on him. Rather an invitation for further research and debate about those history defining times.
The importance of this work in current politics is manifold. Such detailed historical works give an insight into the way regional politics have been defined over the years. We can also study the recent devices and practices of contemporary politicians and by comparison draw useful lessons vital for our nation’s present and future. Therein also lie many lessons in foreign relations and diplomatic maneuvers .I hope this debate will not stop here.