Freedom Issue 2017: Essay

Throwing out Secular Nehru with the Socialist Bathwater

Zareer Masani is the author of Macaulay: Pioneer of India’s Modernisation. He presents ‘Amritsar 1919’ on BBC Radio 4 on April 9th
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The end of an idea that was Indian politics’ greatest contradiction

As India turns 70, and I do too, Hindu nationalists have renewed their onslaught on the republic’s first Prime Minister. As one of Midnight’s Children, I grew up in the shadow of Jawaharlal Nehru’s towering presence. My father, Minoo Masani, started out as his confidante in the 1930s and ended up leading opposition to his pro-Soviet socialism in the 1950s and 60s. But for all their ideological differences, Father might not have approved the way Nehru is being thrown out today.

President Kovind’s omission of Nehru from his inaugural speech was no Freudian slip, but a rewriting of history every bit as partisan as the past Nehru cult of personality. In the 1980s, I earned the displeasure of my former academic supervisor, Dr S Gopal, for writing a review criticising his biography of Nehru as a one-sided eulogy that was unfair to Nehru’s principled opponents, like C Rajagopalachari, Acharya Kripalani and my father. Today, I feel compelled to resist the pendulum swinging to the opposite extreme.

As with all such debates, historical context is everything. In Nehru’s case, one has to return to the 1920s, when he entered politics in the footsteps of his enormously wealthy barrister father, Motilal. Educated at Harrow and Cambridge, young Jawaharlal returned to India thoroughly anglicised and deracinated. His beautiful sister, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, named ‘Nan’ by their English governess, described their very privileged home in a candid interview with the BBC as Indian High Commissioner in London in the 1950s.

“Really, looking back on it,” she recalled in a cut-glass English accent, “one is impressed by how Western it all was. Take, for instance, dinner time. We sat around a table which might have been a table in any well-to-do home in England with its imported china. My father loved china, and we had some beautiful pieces of Dresden and Sevres. We had Irish linen and silver candlesticks on the table, masses of flowers in the English way. My brother himself was a product of that sort of home, a young man of ease, very fond of sports and racing motor cars. In fact, we were the first family in our part of the world to possess a motor car.”

Apocryphal stories even had Motilal sending his shirts to Paris to be laundered, while Jawaharlal chided his father for employing a commonplace British governess for his sisters, instead of a more rarefied French Mam’selle. There were also rumours of the emancipated, young Nan eloping with her Muslim lover, journalist and future diplomat Syed Hussain, and being forced to give him up by Mahatma Gandhi, then the spiritual guardian of the family.

Despite Jawaharlal’s public image as a thoroughly non-communal Hindu, he is reported to have fiercely opposed the prospect of a Muslim brother-in-law. Such contradictions would envelop the Nehrus down the generations. To their impeccably anglicised lifestyle, they added, as Kashmiri Pandits, the highest possible Brahmin caste credentials. It was this illustrious pedigree, and his willingness to sacrifice it all to become a khaddar-wearing, gaol- going Gandhian that so enamoured the Mahatma of young Jawaharlal and convinced him that he deserved promotion above rivals like Sardar Patel and Subhas Chandra Bose.

In the first of several dynastic Congress successions, Jawaharlal took over from Motilal as Congress president at the Lahore Congress of 1930. As the Congress adopted independence as its goal, a dashingly handsome young Nehru rode into the session on a symbolic white charger, and many hailed him as a new avatar of Vishnu. In yet another Nehruvian contradiction, this new deity, beloved of the Hindu masses, was also a convert to radical socialism.

It was in this capacity, as the bright new socialist hope for the Congress, that Nehru befriended my father and other young radicals who formed the Congress Socialist Party in 1934. In a characteristic fudge, Nehru never formally joined the CSP, because he feared it would alienate Gandhi and the Congress right, but he became their patron, and they pinned their hopes on him for a future socialist takeover of the Congress.

As General Secretary of the CSP, Father saw a good deal of Nehru through the 1930s and was a frequent guest at the palatial Nehru home at Anand Bhawan in Allahabad. I remember his anecdote about Nehru’s somewhat neglected wife Kamala. Father was at the breakfast table with the Nehrus when Jawaharlal announced: “Minoo, would you believe it, there’s a young Parsi boy who follows Kamala around like a puppy and thinks he’s in love with her! Can you imagine any young man being in love with my wife?” Father gallantly responded: “Yes, of course, I could fall in love with her myself.” He was rewarded by the dazzling smile that was Kamala Nehru’s secret weapon. Her young admirer, it turned out, was none other than Feroze Gandhi, who transferred his affections to her daughter Indira after Kamala’s early demise.

Despite Jawaharlal’s public image as a thoroughly non-communal Hindu, he is reported to have fiercely opposed the prospect of a Muslim brother- in-law. Such contradictions would envelop the Nehrus down the generations

It was on another visit to Anand Bhawan in 1937 that Father witnessed what he regarded as the turning point in Nehru’s relations with the Muslim League, and the moment when Pakistan became likely, if not inevitable. The UP Congress had just fought the provincial elections under the new 1935 constitution, which granted democratic self-government to the British Indian provinces. Facing a formidable opposition from conservative taluqdars and businessmen, Congress had fought the UP elections in alliance with the Muslim League. The natural outcome would have been a Congress-League coalition government. But when Congress, to its own surprise, won an absolute majority of seats, Nehru decreed otherwise, maintaining that a formal coalition would be a betrayal of loyal Congress Muslims.

Father was with Jawaharlal when a telegram arrived from his deputies, Govind Ballabh Pant and Rafi Ahmed Kidwai, requesting permission to offer the League two seats in a coalition cabinet. Nehru angrily dictated a reply insisting that the UP Muslim League would have to dissolve itself and merge with the Congress before any of its leaders could be given government posts. The talks failed, the UP Congress took office on its own, the Muslim League organised hartals, and its leader, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, never trusted Nehru again.

In the decade that followed, Father and Nehru drifted apart, mainly over the latter’s soft spot for the Soviet Union and its Indian fellow-travellers. Father, by then, had turned fiercely anti-Communist, driven partly by Stalin’s mass purges and partly by the ruthless entryism of Indian Communists trying to capture the CSP. In 1945, Father was elected as a Congress member to the Indian Legislative Assembly at the Centre, which later became India’s Constituent Assembly. As a front-bench Congressman, he had a ringside seat at last-ditch attempts by the very conscientious Viceroy, Lord Wavell, to avert partition and persuade both the Congress and the Muslim League to share power under the Cabinet Mission Plan.

The Plan envisaged India remaining undivided as a loose confederation in which most powers would be devolved to the provinces, who would have the right to group together and even secede after a 10-year period. While Jinnah reluctantly accepted the Plan, Nehru torpedoed it at a press conference where he announced that the Congress would reverse it at the earliest opportunity after the British left. Father always maintained, and more recently released documents have proved him right, that Nehru never seriously considered sharing power with Jinnah, whom he disliked personally (the feeling was mutual) and considered a reactionary. Nehru was determined to get majoritarian rule in the new India, so that he could impose his vision of centralised socialist planning.

Today historians agree that Nehru was at least partly to blame for Partition. His intransigence found an unexpected ally in the new Viceroy, Earl Mountbatten, who shared his aristocratic background, his immense vanity and his dislike of Jinnah. Curiously, their partnership was aided and abetted, rather than hindered, by Nehru’s love affair with the Viceroy’s wife. Not surprisingly, Jinnah felt excluded from such intimacies, and his insistence on Pakistan grew more adamant.

MY OWN FIRST memories of Nehru came from a children’s book about him written and illustrated by my mother. It was by far the best children’s book about him ever written, and I was reminded of it recently while interviewing the ardent Nehru loyalist, Mani Shankar Aiyar, for a BBC Radio documentary. “When I was a little boy,” Mani recalled, “your mother’s book was one of my favourite readings—the pens that Nehru stole from his father’s desk and all those stories. I want to get that book for my own grandchildren.”

Possibly because of her book, Nehru was always very affectionate with Mother, even after Father stormed into the Lok Sabha as an independent MP in a much- publicised 1957 by-election. I remember childhood visits to the Prime Minister’s huge, palatial mansion at Delhi’s Teen Murti Marg. An impressive Lutyens building, surrounded by eight acres of rolling parks and rose-gardens, it was built as the official residence of the British Commander-in-Chief. There Nehru held court with all the pomp and splendour of a Mughal emperor, closely monitored by his daughter and official hostess, Indira Gandhi.

It was a strange choice of residence for the socialist leader of a new democracy, but it was part of Nehru’s projection of himself as a larger-than-life Father of the Nation, similar perhaps to Soviet leaders occupying the Kremlin. It was typical of the Nehru cult of personality that when he died, no one questioned Indira’s determination to turn it into a Nehru Memorial Museum. She wrote imperiously to his short-lived and diminutive successor, Lal Bahadur Shastri, saying that he could not possibly wish to occupy such a large house.

On a recent tour of the museum, I was struck again by its grand staircases, high-domed ceilings and rambling corridors. The rooms actually used by Nehru, his study and bedroom, were remarkably spartan, with little luxury or ornamentation. On his desk sat the familiar words from Robert Frost’s poem:

The woods are lovely dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep

The queues of schoolchildren snaking past me at the museum showed that the cult of Chacha Nehru, as he liked children to call him, is far from over. My own first and only meeting with Chacha Nehru was at Delhi airport sometime in the late 1950s. I was with Mother, and we ran into the Prime Minister with his Defence Minister and eminence grise, Krishna Menon, seeing off some foreign dignitary. Nehru came over, gave Mother a warm hug and patted me on the head. No one would have suspected that Father was by then a major thorn in his side in Parliament.

Nehru’s foreign policy of non-alignment between the Western and Soviet power blocs is still defended as a strategy that allowed India to punch above its weight on the world stage. But Rajaji, my father and many anti-Communists saw it as morally bankrupt and pro-Soviet, especially when Nehru condoned the Russian suppression of Hungary in 1956. Asked by US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, “Are you with us or against us?”, Nehru lightly replied: “Yes.” But Dulles, had he lived, might have had the last laugh in 1962, when Nehru went cap in hand to the Kennedy Administration begging American air support to halt a Communist Chinese invasion.

As the Congress adopted independence as its goal, a young Nehru rode into the session on a symbolic white charger, and many hailed him as a new avatar of Vishnu. In yet another Nehruvian contradiction, this new deity was also a convert to radical socialism

Nehru blamed Chinese betrayal for the spectacular collapse of his policy of Hindi-Chini Bhai-Bhai. But it was his own mismanagement that allowed a trivial border dispute to escalate into a disastrous war. For a decade, he turned a blind eye to Chinese border claims and incursions, then suddenly decided under public pressure to pursue a forward policy for which his troops were wholly unequipped. The rout that followed saw his parliamentary opponents triumphant, his beloved Krishna Menon dismissed and Nehru himself visibly shaken, his health shattered.

‘He was a different Nehru after the Chinese attack,’ his secretary, NK Seshan, recorded. ‘You used to get a feeling…that he was lost. I have never seen him broken before. Many crises he had faced, but this one really broke him.’ I was a schoolboy in Bombay at the time, and I remember news reel footage of Nehru, looking haggard and ill after a stroke, nodding off to sleep on public platforms. According to the old proverb, ‘nothing grows in the shade of a banyan tree’, and he had been the proverbial banyan tree for two decades. With no obvious heir apparent, the question of who would succeed him aroused growing suspense and apprehension. It’s a moot point whether Nehru himself promoted a dynastic succession by his daughter Indira, but he did allow, if not actively arrange, her election as Congress president in 1959.

Nehru’s second great Himalayan blunder, for which India is still paying the price, was Kashmir. His confused and morally indefensible policy there was driven partly by a sentimental attachment to the land of his ancestors, partly by his vision of India as a secular homeland for Muslims, but mostly by a less- than-honourable desire to spite Pakistan. To annex a Muslim-majority state, with the collusion of its Hindu Maharaja, was completely contrary to both the principle of national self-determination, to which India had just signed up at the UN, and to the very basis on which partition had been agreed. Any moral justification for annexing Kashmir ended when Nehru sent in Indian troops to invade Hindu-majority Hyderabad, at the cost of many thousands of Muslim lives, to prevent the Nizam and its Muslim minority from declaring independence or joining Pakistan.

Through the 1950s, Indian liberals like Rajaji, Jayaprakash Narayan and my father campaigned in vain for Nehru to hold the plebiscite in Kashmir that he had solemnly promised at the UN. Instead, the Prime Minister cracked down on dissent in the Valley, locked up his own former ally, the popular premier, Sheikh Abdullah, and replaced him with a corrupt quisling regime. It’s a Nehru legacy that lies at the root of India’s 70 years of military conflicts and cold war with Pakistan, which only Nehru might have had the power to resolve by allowing Kashmiri independence.

Nehru’s most enduring claim to greatness was his lasting respect for parliamentary democracy, with all its conventions imported lock, stock and barrel from Westminster, despite the curbs this placed on his own powers. Of course, his opponents, too, deserve credit for leaving the comforts of the Congress fold in what was effectively a one-party state. In the 1962 General Election, the Swatantra Party, founded by my father and Rajaji, emerged as the largest opposition party in Parliament, advocating free market economic policies and a pro-Western foreign policy. I remember watching from the Lok Sabha visitor’s gallery as Father crossed swords very amicably with the Prime Minister on the floor of the House. After one such chivalrous exchange, Acharya Kripalani called out: “If you have such a high opinion of Masani, why don’t you take him into your Cabinet?” Nehru cheerfully replied: “Because he would try to stop me doing what I wanted, and I would do the same to him. Now we’re both free to do as we please.”

In its plea for economic liberalisation, Swatantra was three decades ahead of its time. In the 1960s, Nehru’s Permit-Licence Raj, despite widespread cronyism and corruption, proved unassailable and was taken to new extremes by his daughter Indira in the 1970s. But one positive legacy is India’s scientific and technological progress, epitomised by the thriving Indian Institutes of Technology. I was reminded of this when I interviewed the new vice-chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University, Professor Jagadesh Kumar, for my BBC programme. As a BJP appointment, he’s been under fire from the left, so I was surprised to find him defending Nehru the moderniser. “As a scientist, I would consider his greatest legacy to this country is its scientific spirit,” said the vice-chancellor. He went on to tell me that he came from a village in Andhra and had graduated to the world of science via IIT Delhi, a career that would never have been possible but for Nehru’s technological revolution.

The downside was the suppression for half a century of India’s private capitalism, despite its longstanding entrepreneurial and trading skills. Nehru inherited a peculiarly British, aristocratic disdain for the world of private commerce and moneymaking. Combined with his socialist view of profit as greed, this made him deeply distrustful of Indian businessmen as a class, although he made unwise exceptions for his own particular favourites like the shady shipping tycoon Jayanti Teja and the corrupt Calcutta financier, Haridas Mundhra. The Mundhra Affair rocked the Nehru Government in 1958, when financial scams involving the newly nationalised life insurance industry were exposed embarrassingly by Nehru’s own estranged son-in-law Feroze Gandhi and forced the resignation of his favourite Finance Minister, TT Krishnamachari. Nehru’s own preferred Soviet-style command economy proved not only corrupt but largely ineffective at tackling the poverty it was designed to eradicate. Despite massive state investment in hugely inefficient ‘temples of steel’ and other heavy industries, and partly because of them, economic growth remained stagnant. Under both Nehru and his daughter, despite all the socialist slogans, poverty actually increased in both absolute and relative terms until the slow economic liberalisation that began in the late 1980s.

RAJAJI AND MY father would have celebrated the discarding of the remnants of Nehru’s socialist baggage by the present BJP Government, but they might also have mourned the secular baby being thrown out with the socialist bathwater. The rational, scientific spirit of a multicultural, inclusive India is being supplanted by an increasingly chauvinistic brand of Hindutva, anxious to reject all the progress achieved under the Mughals and the British and return to some mythical age of Hindu purity. Why, half a century after he died, is Nehru still such a live target for these forces, with attempts to erase even his name from school textbooks? The answer must lie in the extent to which he, more than any other leader, still epitomises the idea of India as a pluralistic, hybrid civilisation that traditionally welcomes and assimilates cultural differences.

Ironically, the worst challenge to Indian democracy so far has come not from Hindu chauvinists, but from Nehru’s autocratic daughter, Indira Gandhi, during her failed attempt to impose emergency rule in the mid-1970s. Without the foundations laid by her father, Indian democracy would not have survived. Nehru’s socialist baggage has now been rejected even by his own Congress Party, and his global non-alignment became irrelevant at the end of the Cold War. But his modern, secular outlook, his rational, scientific thinking and his commitment to the Westminster parliamentary model are as relevant as ever. These were the promises that Nehru kept, to echo the poem on his desk.