A new compilation of Jawaharlal Nehru's letters to his chief ministers over a 16-year period reveals his views on democracy, the RSS, the communists, and yes, Vallabhbhai Patel too. Madhav Khosla, who edited the book, talks about Nehru's complex worldview.
Madhav, you are a lawyer, working on the Indian constitution. What drew you to Nehru?
My current research on the political thought of India's constitutional founding naturally led me to the major writings by key political actors at the time. It's through this research that I stumbled upon Nehru's fortnightly letters.
To sustain writing letters every fortnight for over 16 years seems incredible. In 1950, within a few months Nehru was writing about Tibet, Kashmir, the food crisis and communalism. What do you think were his motivations for engaging so closely with CMs?
You're quite right- this kind of political practice requires extraordinary energy, and captures how remarkable Nehru was. His was motivated above all, I think, by the idea that the Indian project was a collective one, and could only succeed through joint action.
I was struck by Nehru's focus on the RSS and the communists in many letters. How did he see the far right and far left of Indian politics?
I think he saw both as posing distinct concerns, and ultimately believed that neither offered a plausible strategy for the realisation of freedom. Each sacrificed some value, whether religious liberty or civil rights, in the furtherance of an overwhelming ideology.
You talk about Nehru's dislike for identity politics. But he also realised minorities and backwards had specific problems.
Nehru's writing contains remarkable subtleties in thinking about identity. He grasped that identity can be a major source of social identification and, indeed, discrimination. But he also understood that using identity to mediate citizenship was part of the problem rather than solution for such an approach prevented self-identification and therefore, prevented one from constructing his or her own identity. In addition to it, he felt that it also distracted from concerns about class, drawing attention away from real poverty.
Madhav Khosla, author of Letters for a Nation: From Jawaharlal Nehru to his Chief Ministers (1947-63)
The current Indian government has abolished the planning commission. An entire section of your book is on Nehru's thoughts on planning and development. How did he see the commission? Was it a panacea in his view?
I think Nehru understood politics too well to regard anything as a panacea, but he certainly considered centralised planning to be a major national priority. I think it's important to see that this view was neither unreasonable nor surprising at the time. There were hardly any models of nation-building at the time that did not grant some major role to the state. What's particularly important in Nehru was his resistance to viewing the Commission or socialism in doctrinaire terms; it was more a considered judgment rather than the implementation of some metapolitical idea.
PM Modi's party does not like Nehru too much. But so much of what Modi says seems to echo what Nehru said- about administrative inefficiency, about government departments fighting with each other.
As we would expect from anyone focused on national planning, Nehru placed a huge emphasis on state capacity. To put this somewhat boringly, he saw in very clear terms that unless it was possible to have a functional state as regards the most basic amenities, such as law and order, it would be impossible to achieve very much.
You end your book with Nehru's tributes to some of his comrades. The Nehru-Patel relationship has drawn commentary. But in his letter, Nehru speaks of a sense of emptiness at Patel's death, the loss of a guiding hand. What was their dynamic like?
I think Rajmohan Gandhi's book on Patel best answers this and shows us how Patel and Nehru, despite differences in temperament and personality, joined hands at the moments that mattered. It is fashionable to place great figures in competition (think of Ambedkar and Gandhi) but I think the letter you mention is a reminder of the shared imagination that that particular historical period produced.
In times of Nehru bashing, what do these letters tell us? Do you think the current PM can learn lessons from him?
All historical figures are appreciated and criticised in cycles, and Nehru has not uniquely suffered that fate. But I think what we can all learn from the letters- whatever we may feel about Nehru- is to pay greater attention to his effort at nation-building, his belief in political action, and his capacity for genuine self-reflection.