Why India must return to Nehruvian ideas of the Republic and democracy

It is fashionable to decry Nehruvian socialism and ‘Hindu Rate of Growth’, ironically even in these days of recession. But Nehru held out much more than just ideas of self-reliance

Why India must return to Nehruvian ideas of the Republic and democracy

Sujata Anandan

As I write this on Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru's birth anniversary, I wonder if all those who abuse him realise the foundations of the nation they are standing on were built by India's first Prime Minister and that it required rare skill and compassion to pull India out of the bloody turmoil of Partition, heal her wounds and set her on a course to peace and prosperity. That is quite apart from our IITs, IIMs, dams, nuclear plants, space programme etc.

It has become so very fashionable to hate Nehru and attribute all sorts of misrepresentations to him. I was always fascinated by this appropriately named jewel of India – Jawahar - and had read all his writings including Discovery of India, Glimpses of World History and his Autobiography as a child.

But it is only of late that I have realised why the RSS-BJP and certain sections of society hate him, and that has little to do with his erudition. The foremost of these reasons for hate is his abhorrence of fascism. Nehru was among the tallest of world leaders even before World War II and I recently came across a story about how he had turned down an invitation from Benito Mussolini to meet with him and Hitler and a few other leaders in Europe

At the time Mussolini  was little short of a Roman emperor and it took exemplary courage of conviction to thumb one's nose at two world leaders who would exercise a great influence, albeit for a brief while, on the globe and change the course of history. But, unlike Subhas Chandra Bose (whose commitment to India was as great as Nehru's)  who believed that an  enemy's  enemy could be a friend and made overtures to both Hitler's Germany and Imperialist Japan in a bid to defeat the British, Nehru  would have nothing to do with fascists of any hue, whatever the personal cost to himself.

That explains why the RSS hates his great-grandson Rahul Gandhi so much. Because that abhorrence of fascists has transferred in full measure to his great grandson and Rahul Gandhi is as fearless about taking on the RSS as his great-grandfather was about cocking a snook at Mussolini. Something about Nehru, a sworn enemy of British India rule, that was remarked upon and appreciated by even Winston Churchill who himself was not beyond negotiating with fascists before realising their true character and intentions and going to war with Hitler.

Then there was his compassion – there are two examples from the history books. The first is the story of a woman refugee from a camp near New Delhi who caught Nehru by the scruff of his neck and shook him up, screaming, “What did I get out of Partition!”

Nehru gently disengaged her fingers and said sympathetically, “The right to catch hold of your Prime Minister by his collar and ask him questions.”

Now contrast this with the incident in Pakistan wherein Muslim refugees petitioned Mohammad Ali Jinnah and complained to him about how they had been left to rot in the refugee camps while India and the Indian Prime Minister were settling vast tracts of land for their own refugees and treating them with more sympathy than the Pakistani refugees from India.

“We were responsible for Pakistan and yet we are not being respected the way Indian leaders are respecting their own refugees," they grumbled to Jinnah.

His reply was classic. “Only three things are responsible for Pakistan,” Jinnah shot back, “I, my typist and my typewriter!” Arrogant, uncaring and no compassion for people whose lives were destroyed by his own ambition. So unlike Nehru, who had not wanted the partition but gave in to Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel's urgings that one needed to amputate a festering limb to save the rest of the body for future generations!

But I like the second story better. Nehru kept long hours at work, often returning home much past midnight. One such night when he returned past 2am, he found his personal attendant, highly tired out by his own work, had fallen asleep waiting for him and was stretched out on Nehru's bed.

What do you think someone like Narendra Modi would have done under similar circumstances? Probably had the man charged with sedition, going by much of his behaviour.

So, what did Nehru do? Covered the man with a blanket and went to sleep in an armchair beside the bed raising nary a fuss about the incident. It is how you treat people less fortunate than you that makes a difference to your character and when you are the prime minister of a country, it shapes that of the nation as so clearly visible among bigots these days.

No wonder we grew up as a compassionate people - for such traits in Nehru probably also shaped the character of his daughter. There is a story from her first swearing in as prime minister after a bitter battle with Morarji Desai following the demise of Lal Bahadur Shastri.

The story is told by the son of one of her bureaucrats who accompanied her to and from the Rashtrapati Bhavan. She returned to her old residence (I do not think there was any designated Prime Minister’s residence at the time) and found herself locked out - all the staff had given themselves a break for her swearing in and had not yet returned. Her temper got really frayed at the long wait in the garden and when an old retainer ambled along with the keys, she expressed her ire to the man in no uncertain terms.

The old man was untroubled. "Chillao mut, beta," he told India's first woman prime minister, sworn in less than three hours before. ”Tum pradhan mantri  bun gayi ho, pradhan mantriyon ko chillaana shobha nahin deta!” Far from firing the man for his insolence, Mrs Gandhi is said to have folded her hands and apologised, begging his forgiveness.

What would have Narendra Modi have done, you think, anyone, any clue?

This is the character of India set in motion by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. Recently reading anecdotes from the life of US President-elect Joe Biden, I was touched by stories of his compassionate nature that to me had a ring of how Nehru's great grandson Rahul Gandhi conducts himself. After Donald Trump and his boorishness, the US and the world have dire need of a compassionate man like Joe Biden.

And, I believe, India, in whose earth mingle Nehru's ashes, and entwine with her soul too needs to return to his care, compassion and exemplary strength of character.

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