Bigger than the Sum of his Imperfections

Pratap Bhanu Mehta is president of the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. He is one of India's most popular columnists and public intellectuals
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He did a far better job of gaining knowledge of the larger sweep of history than any of his contemporaries. The confidence with which we condemn Nehru exposes the narrowness of our certainties more than it detracts from his achievements

It is perhaps the fate of all great democratic statesmen that in the shadow of their achievement it is also possible to draw an indictment against them. This is true of Lincoln and Roosevelt, as it is of Nehru. Lincoln, for all his manifest greatness, has never stopped being accused of less than noble intentions. Did he compromise a commitment to full equality as a price for abolishing slavery? Was a brutal war that resulted in, on one estimate, a million deaths, a necessary price for his moral objectives? Did he at some point subordinate the moral ambition of equality to a more elusive idea of preserving ‘union in perpetuity’? Roosevelt is similarly indicted. Here is a president who saved both liberal democracy and capitalism at the moment of its greatest historical crisis. Yet it was an achievement founded on sordid compromise: he had to leave the structure of Southern racial discrimination intact. The New Deal was often on the verge of failing; and some have argued Roosevelt’s misjudgement at Yalta gave the Soviets more room than necessary to divide the world in the way it eventually got divided during the Cold War. And yet, despite these judgments, there seems something almost indispensible about these men; as if, despite their imperfections, they and they alone, could gather the tides of history to articulate and preserve something that remained and offer an enduring beacon of hope. The achievement survives more grandly than the imperfections that attend it. In fact, the mistakes make their greatness even more of an achievement; for it makes the achievement all the more human, not mythical or god like.

Such indeed is also the fate of Jawaharlal Nehru. At this historical juncture, with a public discourse besotted by the condescension of hindsight, it is easy to draw a litany of indictments against Nehru: his economic policies were misguided, he was naive about China’s geopolitical intentions, he often compromised on the purest version of secularism that he embodied by instinct, he was often too sure of himself and centralised power, his lapses of judgment contributed to Partition, his handling of Kashmir was unpardonable, he failed to notice adequately that he was creating a party structure prone to corruption and he was often more sanctimonious than strategic. But such is the alchemy of statesmanship that these critiques, in the final analysis, cannot detract from his achievement. It is easy to point out that on this or that matter, someone else, Patel or Rajaji, might have exercised better judgment. In a lot of individual instances, that is true. But it is another matter whether there was any comparable leader at the time who could exercise leadership in a way that could create a whole that was larger than the sum of its parts. Almost all of his contemporaries and detractors recognised that the historical mission of crafting a new republic out of the raw materials served by history, was not a matter of this or that particular judgment or skill. It required an extraordinary ability to earn the trust of millions in a way no one could rival, and then manoeuvre their conflicts and contradictions, their virtues and vices, fears and hopes, into an enduring republic. We so take for granted the Republic whose values we cherish and freedoms we enjoy, that we often forget what a singular and fragile achievement it is. Nehru is one of those handful of legislators who truly is amongst the founders of a republic that will endure beyond its individual triumphs and failures.

What kind of knowledge is appropriate to judge statesmanship of this order? This question is particularly pertinent for Nehru who was himself aware of the tortured uncertainties that anyone who engages with tides of history faces. As Sunil Khilnani pointed out, it is hard to read the closing pages of Discovery of India without appreciating Nehru’s own self doubts. He is constantly wracked by that haunting question, ‘Do we really know what we, who claim to have taken the tides of history into our hands really know what we are doing?’ Suspend for a moment the easy certainties that hindsight gives. Who could imagine what an India of the future would look like? In the 1930s, what would it have been like to imagine a democracy with universal suffrage in a poor unlettered country? What would it have been like to imagine how to transform a bankrupt country, teetering at the edge of starvation, into an economically sustainable giant? What would have been the consequences if any of the other proposed solutions to India’s challenging problems been enacted?

On the central question that dominated Indian politics, the ‘Hindu-Muslim Question’, did anyone have the right answer? Azad was for unity, but it would have come at the price of entrenching social orthodoxy in both communities. Lala Lajpat Rai very rightly wanted a politics shorn of religious identity. But the carriers of this doctrine could not enact their politics in their conduct. Would a harder line have produced more polarisation or more peace? Does compromise calm or embolden your adversaries? These are questions of political agency and historical knowledge that are often answered after the fact. As Nehru himself wrote: ‘I feel terribly distressed about it and ashamed… I have not been able to contribute anything substantial towards [the Hindu-Muslim question’s] solution. I must confess to you that in this matter I have lost confidence in myself, though I am not usually given that way.’ In a curious way, his acknowledgment of his lack of confidence made him a far more credible figure than any of his contemporaries.

We are too used to thinking and judging the protagonists of that enormous ferment of the nationalist period in terms of whether they correspond to our ideological proclivities. But it is an altogether more complicated measure to judge a statesman in relation to history. One of the greatest American novelists of the twentieth century, John Williams, in Augustus, his magnificent novel on the Roman Emperor, wrote: ‘The moralist is the most useless and contemptible of creatures. He is useless in that he would expend his energies upon making judgements rather than upon gaining knowledge, for the reason that judgement is easy and knowledge difficult. He is contemptible in that his judgements reflect a vision of himself that he would impose upon the world.’ Nehru was not perfect. But on any measure, he did a far better job of gaining knowledge of the larger sweep of history than any of his contemporaries. The confidence with which we condemn Nehru exposes more the narrowness of our certainties than it detracts from his achievement.

In some ways, Nehru is now a victim of easy judgment more than hard- won knowledge. In some measure, his contemporaries were wiser in recognising his power. One of the marks of a great statesman is that he drives his most talented opponents to the point of infuriation. They are able to point out and detect his faults. But if they have even the slightest trace of generosity left, they have to come to terms with the fact that they are dealing with a figure larger than a sum of his mistakes. Nehru had many gifted adversaries and critics: Patel, Lohia, Rajaji, Jaiprakash Narayan. All of them, on many occasions, expressed their near exasperation with Nehru. But all of them had to labour under the rather disquieting thought that the more they attacked him, the more his stature grew; the more they questioned his legitimacy, the more it revealed the fact that they could in no way dislodge him as a democratic prince. It is a measure of Nehru’s hold on hearts and minds that he could drive such talented adversaries to a degree of uncharacteristic pettiness.

The tribute that best captured the essence of Nehru is perhaps, not surprisingly, that of Atal Behari Vajpayee, who, of all Indian politicians, was probably most like Nehru in his sheer sense of curiosity and fun about people, especially of women perhaps. He described Nehru as the “orchestrator of the impossible and the inconceivable.” But he mentions a peculiar quality. Nehru was not someone “who was afraid to compromise but he would never compromise under duress.” Compromise is a bad word in politics. But it is, in some ways, the essence of democratic politics. What made him a genuine politician was precisely this characteristic: that for all his own intellectual certainties, he never succumbed to the illusion that history would be simply his intention writ large. He always knew that he acted in a field full of other agents, who would have to be the object of public reason and persuasion.

This is perhaps what sets him apart from almost all the major leaders of his time, both domestically and internationally. India was one of the few post colonial countries whose nationalist movement was not scripted either by the extreme left or the extreme right. Unlike post- colonial movements buttressed by communism, which treated society as a blank slate and violently tried to reconstruct it in the image of its own ideology, India’s politics has always been compromising and gradual. And unlike right-wing nationalist movements, bent on expunging what they think are the nation’s cultural impurities, India carried along a vast confluence of cultures as if it was her own. In what is probably his most memorable line, he wrote that India is ‘akin to some ancient palimpsest on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed, and yet no succeeding layer had completely hidden or erased what had been written previously’. India could not be reduced to a single identity or benchmark: that would be the end of genuine ‘thought and reverie’. In some ways, this figure, accused of being deracinated, understood more deeply the depth of civilisation and the complexity that made him possible.

But this sense of complexity and compromise was also unique in his leadership style. For a moment, consider him in relation to his gifted contemporaries. There were three kinds of leaders. There were the moralists. Gandhi was an extraordinary figure of the kind the world had not seen: a brilliant organiser and moralist. But in some ways, he was peculiarly unsuited for the hurly-burly of normal democratic politics: with its compromises, its combination of low interest and imperfect idealism. For these figures, politics, in the end was pure morality writ large. It made them, in some ways, inherently intransigent. Gandhi’s extraordinary greatness was that he recognised this about himself, and gradually made himself marginal to the conduct of normal politics. Most Gandhians therefore had enormous influence outside the bylanes of politics. Sometimes Gandhians like Jaiprakash Narayan could exercise influence over politics. But their moral intransigence put severe limits on how much they could accomplish. The same was true of lesser ideologues like Lohia.

The second group of gifted leaders like Patel had great tenacity and dedication, and in some ways their single mindedness and focus made them see farther than Nehru on many issues. But the biggest strength of these leaders was also often their weakness. They often displayed—to borrow a phrase from John Stuart Mill—the completeness of limited men. They displayed a single-minded commitment to the task at hand, often against great odds. But whether they would have been equal to the constant and expansive improvisations that modern nation building requires, is an open question.

The third sets of leaders were, if you like, more factional. They rose on the basis of a social grouping or regional identity. They had commitments to larger causes, but there were limits to how much they could transcend their social base. It is not an accident that in such a landscape Nehru seemed like the natural choice to lead the country unchallenged for so long. Even his most dogged critics had to admit that he was unique amongst the pantheon of national leaders. We do not notice how rare his qualities were because we take them so much for granted. He, almost alone, had that synthetic ability that democracy required: between left and right, conservatism and progressivism, force and persuasion, high idealism and low politics. He sometimes got the balance wrong, but that balance was required was a proposition from which he never wavered.

His commitment, and in a deeper sense lack of condescension, is apparent in his campaigns as well as letters. His letters to chief ministers, now made conveniently available in an excellent new volume by Madhav Khosla (see extracts on page 32), are foundational documents displaying how a democracy reasons itself through problems. Nehru may have occasionally set a bad precedent by imposing a chief minister or two on a state, but his conduct and attempts to reach out to them, his commitment to the idea that he needed to justify and explain what he was doing, weaved them into a partnership that far transcended his individual lapses.

Nehru’s finest hour is shepherding India’s Constituent Assembly. Given the globally dismal record of most attempts at writing a workable constitution, India’s achievement stands out. In part, it was made possible by extraordinary gestures: Nehru making sure that talented individuals from both the left and right, most notably Ambedkar but even KM Munshi and Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, remained central to this process. The promulgation of India’s Constitution was made possible by a sensibility that few contemporary historians can recover. While the Constitution was an extraordinary work of synthesis, our historical imagination is given to divisiveness. There is no more striking example of this than the way in which members of the Constituent Assembly have been divided up and appropriated, rather than seen in relation to each other. Ambedkar, Patel, Nehru, Prasad and a host of others are now icons in partisan ideological battles, as if to describe Ambedkar as a Dalit, or Patel as proto-BJP, or Nehru as a Congressman exhausts all that needs be said about them.

The greatness of each one of them consists not just in the distinctive points of view they brought together, but their extraordinary ability to work together despite so many differences. The Congress itself facilitated the entry of several people with an anti-Congress past into key roles in the Assembly. It takes a willful historical amnesia to forget the fact that the men and women of the Assembly worked with an extraordinary consciousness that they needed and completed each other. The historiography of the Constituent Assembly has not regarded it as an exemplar of constitutional morality. It has assessed it on a much more ideological yardstick.

The ability to work with difference was augmented by another quality that is rarer still: the ability to acknowledge true value. This may be attributed to the sheer intellect of so many of the Assembly’s members. Their collective philosophical depth, historical knowledge, legal and forensic acumen and sheer command over language is enviable. It ensured that the grounds of discussion remained intellectual. Also remarkable was their ability to acknowledge greatness in others. It was this quality that allowed Nehru and Patel, despite deep differences in outlook and temperament, to acknowledge each other. Their statesmanship was to not let their differences produce a debilitating polarisation, one that could have wrecked India. They combined loyalty and frankness. Even as partial a biographer of Nehru as S Gopal conceded that what prevented the rupture was their ‘mutual regard and Patel’s stoic decency.’ Nehru’s answer to Patel’s worry that Nehru was losing confidence in him was to acknowledge that Nehru was losing confidence in himself. It is a tribute to that generation that it did not let differences devolve into debilitating factionalism, as many assemblies do. But part of what made that synthesis possible was Nehru, providing the broadest possible canvas, which could accommodate so many different palettes. He was the synthetic figure, the whole that made the sum larger than the parts.

One way of bringing down Nehru is to use the cute description ‘the last Englishman’, an aristocrat out of tune with Indian realities. It was too easy to point out the gap between Nehru’s ideals and the realities of Indian society, as if Nehru represented some kind of usurpation of the Indian space. Indeed, much of the contemporary right-wing criticism of Nehru implicitly accuses him of usurping India, taking it in a direction its history does not warrant: his secularism is seen an assault on Indian religiosity, his attempt to craft a non-sectarian history a rewriting of the Indian past, his scientific temper incapable of coming to terms with a world more traditionally enchanted, and his social progressivism out of place in a society fundamentally conservative. Yet all these critics have never faced up to the fact that this leader who, considered in most of his attributes, did not belong with the masses, became the cynosure of their eyes. How did this aristocrat become an everyman? How did this politician, haughty and almighty to his adversaries, come to be seen by his countrymen as embodying democratic virtue? Part of the answer surely is that Nehru did not appear to have any trace of condescension for his fellow citizens. Quite the contrary, despite his occasional despair of India’s future, he never gave up the thought that his citizens would be open to democratic persuasion. It is almost as if in speaking above his citizens, he avoided speaking down to them. He displayed a trust in them that was far deeper than those who challenged him in the name of the people or tradition. And they trusted him in turn.

Nehru made serious mistakes. In its particulars, whether it was his economic policies or his stance on the first amendment, his preference for centralisation or control, his institutional imprint needs to be overcome. But as we make our choices, we need to remember him for three things: making possible the republic that allows us to make ‘retrievable mistakes’, inculcating a sensibility that is democratic in the deeply psychological sense of looking for intelligent compromises rather than intransigence, and for providing a vision of how men of such unrivalled power can serve democratic ends. As The Guardian put it, to see Nehru is to ‘get a glimpse of the blazing power that commands the affection and loyalty of several hundred million people in Asia...put it simply it is the power of a man who is a father, teacher, older brother rolled into one... The total impression is of a man who is humorous, tolerant wise and absolutely honest.’ The Indian people may have disagreed with him on many accounts. But they knew that in elevating him, they were elevating themselves. In pulling him down, without understanding his achievement, we reveal our own smallness.