Nehru’s prime ministership bears three scars. Scars, not scratch-marks.
First, his being more than warm and then less than cold to BR Ambedkar. Second, his being more than trusting and then worse than suspicious of Sheikh Abdullah. Third, his being more than gracious over losing to the communists in Kerala in 1957 and then overseeing the EMS Namboodiripad government’s shocking dismissal. All three scars caused hurt. Not just to the persons concerned but to institutions and, above all, to that most irreplaceable ingredient of a republic — the fair-mindedness of the leader’s intent.
Ambedkar had been chosen to steer the drafting committee of the Constituent Assembly and, later, to be India’s first law minister. But after he felt he was overstaying his welcome and quit the Cabinet, the Congress not just let him go but let him down. It opposed him in the first election to the Lok Sabha that Ambedkar contested in 1952, and defeated him. Two years later, when he stood again in Bhandara, the Congress yet again defeated him.
Sheikh Abdullah had received Nehru’s consistent support in the years before Independence and it was with his full endorsement that the Sheikh became ‘Premier’ of Jammu and Kashmir in 1948. What happened between the two leaders in the years 1948 to 1953 will never be fully known. But the dismissal of the Sheikh on August 8, 1953, his not being given a chance to prove his majority in the J&K assembly, his subsequent arrest under the ‘Kashmir Conspiracy Case’ and imprisonment for 11 years, form one of the most shadowy periods in modern Indian history.
EMS Namboodiripad, the veteran communist, and Nehru had more in common ideologically than Nehru and many Right-leaning stalwart Congressmen like Sardar Patel, Rajendra Prasad, Morarji Desai and CB Gupta. But after an initial welcome, Nehru lent a receptive if not willing ear to the Congress and certain Right-wing groups in Kerala when they demanded the dismissal of the popularly elected EMS government. His dismissal has become as much a ‘first’ as was his victory.
These, as I said, are scars. Deep ones.
There are some less deep ones as well. Such as Nehru not discouraging his daughter — the prime minister’s daughter — from becoming the Congress president in 1959. And his animated personal campaign in the election in North Bombay in 1962 in which the Congress’ VK Krishna Menon was opposed by the former the Congress president and veteran freedom fighter, Acharya Kripalani.
It is necessary, on his birth anniversary recollection, to start with an honest recital of his mistakes. A man of the veracity and honesty of Nehru deserves nothing less.
The man who repeatedly invited his most charismatic alternative Jayaprakash Narayan to join his Cabinet in any capacity, famously said ‘Don’t spare me!’ to the excoriating cartoonist Shankar, and called on Rajagopalachari on his first visit in 1959 to the capital after the formation of the Swatantra Party saying “I have come to see how young you have become, Rajaji!”, was no ordinary prime minister, no ordinary democrat. He was the fallible, gullible and truest tribune of India’s democratic aspirations, the most ardent protector of her freedoms, her unbound spirit.
He loved India for what India was but strove restlessly to make her live up to the ideals of her greatest minds, from the Buddha down to Gandhi. And he knew that difficult though it is for the democratic method to make the nation go on a particular path, the method of consultation and consensus is the only right way. The following things that happened during his daughter’s prime ministership could never have happened under Nehru’s watch:
* The killing on the steps of his own palace in Bastar, in March 1966, of Maharaja Pravirchandra Bhanjdeo, for leading a movement against the exploitation of natural resources and corruption in the name of land reforms.
* The announcement of populist measures like, the nationalisation of banks and the abolition of privy purses to create an atmosphere conducive to a personal supremacy.
* The sacking of planning commission’s respected deputy chairman DR Gadgil in 1971, leading to the politicisation of that body and its eventual downfall.
* The declaration of the Emergency in 1975, suspension of civil rights, the jailing of political opponents and interventions in the higher judiciary’s processes of promotion.
* Operation Blue Star, 1984.
It is not as if the issues surrounding these events would not have taken place had Nehru lived and continued to be prime minister. They would have in near-similar ways, but he would have handled them with what can only be called iman, trustworthiness. Nehru believed in and worked for an India where every Indian was free to think for herself mindfully of the other person being rather more important in the scheme of things than oneself. And an India where those, more numerous or powerful, would not overawe the less numerous or weak into silence. India for him was home to a civilisation and that civilisation was home to tolerance, compassion and care.
The BJP and Hindutva, wanting to re-cast India, re-engineer and in fact re-invent it, are living in a world of make-believe. India is far too big, in size and spirit, to permit any lobotomising of its nature. Let his political descendants recall Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s words spoken in Parliament at Nehru’s death: Shanti aaj ashaant hai, uskaa rakshak chalaa gayaa, daliton kaa sahaaraa chhuut gayaa, jan-jan ke aankh kaa taaraa tuut gayaa…(Peace is restless today, its protector is gone; gone is the support of the downtrodden, gone, the star of every Indian’s eyes…)
Celebrating Nehru today is much more than a matter of nostalgia. It’s about defending the civilisation within our nation against marauders who are the worse for having been bred by the very democratic temper they seek to destroy.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is distinguished professor in history and politics, Ashoka University
The views expressed are personal