Recalling Jawaharlal Nehru’s campaign in 1951-52
When the first general elections were held, in 1951-52, Jawaharlal Nehru had been prime minister of India for five years. The government was identified with him, and so was the ruling party. He was their main vote-catcher and speech-maker, in these respects akin to the prime minister now seeking re-election. It may thus be worthwhile to recall some of the rhetoric that Nehru used while asking for votes for his party. Nehru’s speeches were in Hindi; in what follows, I have quoted the English translations in his “Selected Works”.
Nehru began his campaign in Ludhiana, where he declared “an all-out war against communalism”. Warning his audience to beware of “sinister communal elements” who could “bring ruin and death to the country”, he urged them instead to “keep the windows of our mind open and let in fresh breeze from all corners of the world”. Then, speaking in New Delhi on October 2, Gandhi’s birthday, Nehru said that “the moment a nation shackles its mind, whether in the name of religion or whatever it may be, narrow-mindedness grows and the nation stops growing”. “If any person raises his hand to strike down another on the ground of religion”, he remarked, “I shall fight him till the last breath of my life, both at the head of the Government and from outside”.
Nehru had seen the State and people of Pakistan shackle themselves in the name of religion. He was deeply worried that, in a spirit of competitive communalism, India and Indians might do the same. And so, in his election speeches, he returned again and again to the theme of interfaith harmony. In Amritsar, he said that “there has never been a question of one religion trying to suppress the others. If anyone tries to do it now, he will be very foolish and will cause great damage to the country”. He believed that communal conflict acted as a brake on economic development; as he put it, “India can progress in only one way and that is when all Indians, irrespective of their professions, province or religion, live in harmony with one another and march together. They may hold different views and opinions, but they must not live in compartments politically or otherwise.”
In another speech, Nehru remarked that “the individual who is communal-minded is a small man with a narrow mind who cannot undertake anything big, and nations based on petty principles also become small”. He said “the communal organizations are doing a great deal of damage by constantly spreading ill-feeling... They are causing harm not only to the national cause because the Hindus cannot hope to make progress through the Jan Sangh or the Hindu Mahasabha and want the others in India to be left behind. It is a childish thought because not only the others but the Hindus will also be left behind”.
Nehru also spoke often of the importance of gender equality. He thought it “very essential to uplift the women of India because both legally and traditionally their condition has been very bad in this country. I think a country can be judged by the status of its women.” He added: “The influence of men is still very powerful in this country. I think that the laws and traditions in this country suppress women and do not allow them to rise. This is wrong and should be removed and that can only be done by changing the laws.”
The attempts by Nehru’s government to reform Hindu personal laws in favour of gender equality had been met with “a loud protest that Hindu religion was being destroyed”. Nehru thought, however, that these reforms, “instead of destroying it, will do a special service to Hindu religion, which will progress, otherwise the Hindu society will become weak…”.
In focusing so strongly on communal harmony and gender equality, Nehru was asking his fellow Indians to build a more just and more caring society. He was seeking to stoke what Abraham Lincoln had once called the “better angels of our nature”.
In one speech, Nehru remarked that “I do refer to other parties but only on questions of principle. I do not look at them from the point of view of personalities”. On the other hand, the Opposition leaders often attacked him personally, yet Nehru was fine with this. As he said: “I do not want to shirk my responsibility. It is obvious that I do not do everything myself and there are thousands of cogs in the wheel — but the ultimate responsibility is mine. When you put me in a position of great responsibility, how can I hide behind a curtain and deny it? I am prepared to take on the responsibility for everything, good or bad, that the Government has done in India….” Nehru could easily have blamed the legacies of two hundred years of colonial rule or the malign intentions of our neighbours for his government’s failures; but he did not.
Notably, Nehru urged voters to listen carefully to what his opponents had to say. When he heard that the Socialist leader Jayaprakash Narayan was to tour the Punjab after him, he told his audience: “I advise you to go and listen to him. … I may not agree with him on certain things. But he is an excellent man…. You must listen to the others and try to understand all the arguments and then decide for yourselves”.
The reader may wish, if she so chooses, to compare the tone and tenor of Nehru’s election speeches with the speeches made by various leaders in the election campaign that has just ended. On my part, I can only offer this prediction: 50 or 60 years hence, no historian is going to write appreciatively about what Narendra Modi or Rahul Gandhi (or Mamata Banerjee or Mayawati) said while campaigning for votes in the general elections of 2019.
Ramachandra Guha is the author of Gandhi: The Years That Changed The World.
The views expressed are personal