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A tryst with Nehru

Looking back at Jawaharlal Nehru, through the eyes of Walter Crocker whose prophetic out-of-print book Nehru: A Contemporary’s Estimate, has been republished, Karan Thapar asked Mani Shankar Aiyar, Swapan Dasgupta, Ramachandra Guha and TN Ninan how much India owes its first PM.

india Updated: Nov 15, 2008 22:19 IST

Looking back at Jawaharlal Nehru, through the eyes of Walter Crocker, a former High Commissioner of Australia, whose prophetic out-of-print book Nehru: A Contemporary’s Estimate, has been republished, Karan Thapar asked Minister of Panchayati Raj Mani Shankar Aiyar, columnist Swapan Dasgupta, historian Ramachandra Guha and Business Standard editor, TN Ninan how much India owes its first Prime Minister.

Karan Thapar: Mani Shankar Aiyar, you’re an unabashed admirer of Nehru. Let me quote to you one of the conclusions from Cricker’s biography of the man. He writes: “Nehru’s rule will leave some mark on India but not as much as expected. The future is likely to show that the roots did not strike deep.”

Mani Shankar Aiyar: That’s a fair assessment. The fundamental things about India in which Nehru played a very major role have remained in place. It is primarily the conception of India as a nation of diversity and its unity arising from that diversity. The other thing that has enduring is his accent and emphasis on the poor, which despite many changes of economic policy still remains a primary concern.

KT: Swapan Dasgupta, it’s interesting that Mani Aiyar has spoken of the emphasis on the poor because another conclusion from Crocker’s book is that if you compare between ’47 when Nehru first came to power and ’64 when he died, Crocker says, "The people of India were not better-fed or housed and were more corruptly governed. they were subject to a worse law and order situation and more unemployment."
Taken for a ride: Beijing crowds cheer Nehru during his visit in 1954. The Sino-Indo war broke out in 1962

Swapan Dasgupta: Mr Crocker’s overall assessment is very interesting. On the positive side he says Nehru was a very good chap, a gentleman who had an innate sense of decency. But when it comes to governance, he gave this grave indictment to his economic policies, his foreign policies, and finally at a personal level, he says that the man was completely imperious, intolerant and sometimes prone to a great deal of flattery. Now these were contemporary estimates which haven’t obviously been translated because I feel somehow the flatterers have won the day and the current assessment of Jawaharlal Nehru sometimes is quite detached, far removed from what a contemporary who saw Jawaharlal Nehru and actually assessed the failure of his economic record, the pillar on which people like Mani Shankar Aiyar still rest.

KT: Ram Guha, there is something that Crocker couldn’t have foreseen but which Indians are only too aware of today — the fact that for many Indians, the most enduring legacy that Nehru left behind is the Gandhi family. Would he have been proud of the fact that his daughter, his grandson, his grand-daughter-in-law and perhaps even his great-grandson have achieved the pinnacle of power? Or would he have been embarrassed and even disapproving?

Ramachandra Guha: I think he would have been deeply embarrassed. As the journalist Frank Moraes said in 1960, "The creation of a dynasty is wholly inconsistent with Nehru’s career and character. The dynasty was created by Indira Gandhi through an accident — the six Congress bosses who chose her as Prime Minister thought they could manipulate her. They were proved horrendously wrong. So it’s important in assessing Nehru to separate him from what followed later. One major difference between Nehru and Indira Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi and so on, is that in Nehru’s time, and with Nehru’s encouragement, the Congress Party was a properly democratic organisation. Nehru could not impose Chief Ministers on states; Nehru could not impose presidents on the Congress. It was a thriving, decentralised, democratic organisation. So the answer to your question is clear: Nehru would have been deeply embarrassed by the fact that his party has become captive to the interests of a single family.
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KT: Ninan, would you say that when you look at Nehru and you look at India today, the three legacies that perhaps have conditioned modern India are the fact that we are a democracy, the fact that our IITs and our IIMs produce graduates of considerable distinction, and the fact that perhaps we have a domestic civil atomic agency we can be fairly proud of.

T.N.Ninan: Yes, they are his legacy. But the question is what were his priorities? If you put those that you’ve listed against, for instance, the fact when he died, India was virtually living ship-to-mouth and couldn’t feed itself…What did he do for agriculture? Apart from abolishing zamindari (which is a good thing but which Crocker criticises because it created a whole new peasantry and a middle-class unlike Pakistan which never had land reforms), he did nothing. There were a few
big irrigation projects but very little else.

KT: When you judge Nehru what would you say about his performance in the economic field…do his failures outweigh his successes?

TNN: When somebody’s been Prime Minister in the time — post-colonialism, post-Partition — he was Prime Minister, it’s hard to take tough positions on somebody. Because, who knows what the situation was and how you functioned. And the fact that he did what he did, is something you have to take your hats off to.

KT: Are you ducking the question?

TNN: No, I don’t want to be unnecessarily harsh on a man who you don’t understand what he went through and in what conditions he functioned. But the fact of the matter is that he was hopelessly wrong on economic policy. He did not understand the need for efficiency. Crocker’s book tells you that the factories he set up were producing goods that were 40 per cent more expensive than British or American goods; the birth of India’s ‘High Cost’ economy was then.

KT: You’re saying if he had followed a different economic model of development we would have been better off.

TNN: He had fundamental contempt for people with money and capitalists.

KT: Mani Shankar, that’s one area of Nehru’s failure. Another that Crocker makes a lot of is Nehru’s Kashmir policy. He’s particularly critical of the fact that Nehru promised a plebiscite but failed to hold it and till the end he says Nehru’s attitude was "unbalanced" because of what he calls a "personal infatuation". Is Kashmir a failure?
Man in the middle: Nehru, Rajiv and Indira on Rajiv’s first birthday

MSA: It’s still a part of India. And the world has rejected effectively the position that Pakistan was taking at that time. And I cannot conceive of an India without Kashmir and I don’t think we’ll ever have an India without Kashmir. And in these circumstances, Crocker’s estimate is not the right one. I agree with a lot of what Crocker says. But I think on Kashmir he’s wrong and I think on the economic policy Ninan is completely wrong.

KT: Swapan, what about Crocker’s view of Nehru’s handling of India-China relations? He argues, and many others have argued the same thing, that Nehru was first lulled into quiescence by Chou En-lai, and then when he sensed danger, he opted for a rather provocative foreign policy — a forward policy — that almost directly led to war. Was China, looking back on it, Nehru’s Achilles heel?

SD: Well, of course it was Nehru’s Achilles heel. It was quite clear that Nehru was initially governed by a very romantic notion of what constitutes the New China, the post-Chiang Kaishek China. The systemic decimation of Indian interests in Tibet was at the root of the problem. Nehru let the China border come into our doorstep where Tibet had been a buffer State and he removed that buffer. And that is what we have been paying for subsequently. We used to have a Tibet card. We no longer have a Tibet card and I think the incursions that happened in 1962, the debacle of the Indian Army were all a consequence of that. That was Nehru’s greatest failure and he admitted it as much.

KT: Ram, when one thinks of Nehru’s foreign policy, the word that comes to mind is ‘non-alignment’. Would you see non-alignment as a benefit to India? Or would you see it, particularly after his death, being transformed into an ideology which prevented India appreciating the realities of a changing world?

RG: What happened after Nehru’s death, let’s leave out. But in the 40s and 50s, a newly independent state finding its way about the world could not afford to take sides. I also think ‘non-alignment’ was also smart in an economic sense. Because both the Soviet bloc and the Western nations came forward to woo us with foreign aid, help us build steel plants and so on. There was, however, a certain inconsistency in Nehru’s non-alignment: particularly in 1956, he leant a little towards the Soviets, which he himself corrected, but later. Under Indira Gandhi, the Soviet tilt became even more blatant. I think there was no other option. If we had entered either camp, we would have become a satrap of a satellite.

KT: People often say, and it’s not only the BJP, that Patel would have made a better Prime Minister. If Patel had been PM, would India have been the sort of secular country we are today? In other words, is secularism a gift that we got from Nehru or is it actually a byproduct of India’s own internal cultural attitudes.

TNN: I think it’s both. And what Patel would have done as Prime Minister who knows. He was certainly right on China, warning Nehru repeatedly on China. So he was right on something, badly wrong on others.

MSA: India’s not secular because of Nehru. What Nehru did was to use the inherent secularism of India’s civilisation to create a secular State.

SD: Yes, we would have been secular regardless of Nehru. Nehru’s contribution was that his version of secularism was culturally more insensitive.

Nehru: A Contemporary’s Estimate (Rs 250) has been published by Random House India.
(This debate was aired on ‘India Tonight’ CNBC-TV 18 on November 13)