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Nehru was a tall subcontinental figure who bestrode the global stage

To recall Jawaharlal Nehru is fundamentally to recall the egalitarian democracy he inaugurated in India, to remember the support he provided to the decolonisation of Asia and Africa through the 1950s and 1960s, recalls Syed Badrul Ahsan

May 30, 2017
By Syed Badrul Ahsan
                                 
Jawaharlal Nehru died on May 27, 1964. Fifty-three years after his death, there are many reasons to remember the man and the political figure that he was. 
 
India’s first Prime Minister had been ailing for quite sometime and so when the end came, not many were surprised.
 
But for all the absence of surprise, there arose, suddenly as it were, the feeling that a void had come into Indian politics. After quite some years of people raising the question, ‘After Nehru, who?’ there was now the very real matter of the succession to the man who had governed free India for 17 years. 
 
Nehru’s had been an overarching presence, for all the right reasons. He had not only been a gigantic figure in the struggle for freedom from British colonial rule but also the man who had carefully and consciously directed India along a course he thought would ensure a dignified place for it on the global stage.
 
Even so, any reflection on Nehru’s politics holds the danger of sounding superfluous. That is because millions of words have already been written on him, indeed on the democracy and socialism he turned into cardinal principles for his country between its tryst with destiny in 1947 and his own passage into the ages in 1964. 
 
Books continue to be written about Nehru, not least because he eventually turned out to be the spark that would produce a political dynasty unprecedented in its quality and charisma anywhere across the globe. While all of that and a whole lot more remain true about Nehru, it is the individual he was that continues to be a preoccupation for many across the world. There is little question that Nehru’s was an erudite personality. If wisdom is ever to come encompassed in symbolism, you only have to turn to India’s first prime minister to experience the nature of it. 
 
His voyage of self-discovery in 'The Discovery of India' is a work that has left its imprint on the popular mind, in that global sense of the meaning. It was a tale of the country, at once one and indivisible, that he retrieved in the loneliness of incarceration. And then there were the letters to his daughter Indira Priyadarshini, each one of them a captivating journey into the forgotten and lost lanes and alleys of India’s rich political and cultural heritage. You read those missives and you ask yourself the question: How could one single individual gather in himself so much of knowledge, retain it and then pass it on to another? But that was Nehru, a thoroughly accomplished man if ever there was one.
 
Surely there were flaws in the Nehru character. You think of his ties with Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, a political relationship that he let sink in his devotion to Mahatma Gandhi. You recall too the rashness that made him seemingly go back on the Cabinet Mission Plan in July 1946, just the moment Mohammad Ali Jinnah was waiting for to wriggle out of a decision he had made earlier to go along with the concept of a united India. 
 
That, at least, is the way some people have seen Nehru’s politics, or part of it. They spotted the arrogance in him and noted the patronising manner in which he regarded some people. And yet Nehru made it a point never to humiliate, never to undermine another individual. 
 
He had little patience with pretentious people. When in 1951, a young American Congressman called John Fitzgerald Kennedy planned to see Nehru in Delhi, he was warned that if the Indian leader turned his gaze, at some point in the conversation, towards the ceiling, it would mean he was getting bored. And that was precisely the way it happened. Nehru’s estimation of Kennedy’s intelligence did not register much of a rise in later years. When he visited the White House in 1961 to meet President Kennedy, he gave all the signs of tedium coming into him. It was daughter Indira who tried to carry on a conversation with the President and his wife Jackie Kennedy. 
 
Nehru could be brusque. He never trusted Mohammad Ali Jinnah and thought of him as a snob too steeped in foreign traditions to be able to comprehend Indian realities. With his wide reading of the classics and history, Nehru considered Jinnah rather shallow and dangerous -- dangerous because he was shallow. 
 
In 1960, on a visit to Pakistan to formalise the Indus Waters Treaty, Nehru quickly put Field Marshal Ayub Khan in his place when Pakistan’s military ruler sought to raise the issue of Kashmir with him. Like all men believing in decency and democracy, the Indian Prime Minister had little respect for military officers seizing political power through pushing politicians aside. He was worried that Pakistan was not only headed towards a long period of authoritarian rule but was also on its way to becoming a client state of the West, especially the United States. He was to be proved right on both counts. 
 
But where Nehru was proved grievously wrong was in his conviction that China and India would enjoy lasting friendship, that together they would be a force to contend with in the whole wide world. The 1962 war, when China launched a sudden assault on Indian forces, left Delhi shocked, beaten and embarrassed. 
 
Nehru was not quite the same man after that. Those who saw him after 1962 thought that his spirit had been broken, that he could not comprehend why his good friend, and Chinese Premier, Chou En-lai (Zhou Enlai) had stabbed him in the back. In the two years that remained of his life, Nehru demonstrated very little of the energy which had characterised his politics throughout his long career. His politics effectively ended in October 1962.
 
To recall Jawaharlal Nehru is fundamentally to recall the egalitarian democracy he inaugurated in India, to remember the support he provided to the decolonisation of Asia and Africa through the 1950s and 1960s. 
 
Nehru was a tall subcontinental figure who bestrode the global stage in his times. He loved poetry passionately, and loved the company of cerebral women. The spontaneity with which he laughed in the company of Lady Mountbatten is an image that has remained deeply engraved in our mind.
 
(The author is a noted columnist, he was previously Executive Editor at the Dhaka-based Daily Star and Associate Editor at the Daily Observer. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent to: editor@spsindia.in)

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