The legacy of Nehru

THE first months of independence were anything but easy. Often emotional, Jawaharlal was caught up in the human drama of the times. He was seen weeping at the sight of a victim one day, and erupting in rage at a would-be assailant hours later. Friends thought his physical health would be in danger as he stormed from city to village, ordering his personal bodyguards to shoot any Hindu who might attack a Muslim, providing refuge in his own home in Delhi for Muslims terrified for their lives, giving employment to young refugees who had lost everything. In one typical incident of the period, Jawaharlal emerged from a visit to a fasting Mahatma Gandhi in mid-January 1948 and confronted a demonstration of refugees chanting "Let Gandhi die!" He leapt from his car and dashed towards the demonstrators shouting, "How dare you say these words! Come and kill me first!" The demonstrators immediately ran away.

Affairs of state were just as draining. The new Prime Minister of India had to deal with the consequences of the carnage sweeping the country; preside over the integration of the princely states into the Indian Union; settle disputes with Pakistan on issues involving the division of finances, of the army, and of territory; cope with massive internal displacement, as refugees thronged Delhi and other cities; keep a fractious and divided nation together; and define both a national and an international agenda. On all issues but that of foreign policy, he relied heavily on Patel, who welded the new country into one with formidable political and administrative skills and a will of iron. A more surprising ally was the former Viceroy, now Governor-General of India, Lord Mountbatten.

For all his culpability in rushing India to an independence drenched in blood, Mountbatten made Nehru partial amends by staying on in India for just under a year. As heir to a British government whose sympathy for the League had helped it carve out a country from the collapse of the Raj, Mountbatten enjoyed a level of credibility with the rulers of Pakistan that no Indian Governor-General could have had. This made him a viable and impartial interlocutor with both sides at a time of great tension. Equally, as a Governor-General above the political fray, he played a crucial role in persuading maharajahs and nawabs distrustful of the socialist Nehru to accept that they had no choice but to merge their domains into the Indian Union. When fighting broke out over Kashmir between the two Dominions (whose armies were still each commanded by a British general), Mountbatten helped prevent a deeper engagement by the Pakistani Army and brought about an end to the war. And the Governor-General and his wife distinguished themselves by their personal interest in and leadership of the emergency relief measures that saved millions of desperate refugees from misery and worse. In 1950, when India became a Republic with its own Constitution, Jawaharlal arranged for it to remain within the British Commonwealth, acknowledging the British sovereign no longer as head of state but as the symbol of the free association of nations who wished to retain a British connection. Mountbatten's influence was decisive in prompting Jawaharlal to make this choice. Nehru's close relations with Edwina Mountbatten have been the stuff of much posthumous gossip, but his relationship with her husband was to have much more lasting impact on India's history.

As Prime Minister, Jawaharlal had ultimate responsibility for many of the decisions taken during the tense period 1947-49, but it is true to say he was still finding his feet as a governmental leader and that on many key issues he simply went along with what Patel and Mountbatten wanted. Nehru was the uncontested voice of Indian nationalism, the man who had "discovered" India in his own imagination, but he could not build the India of his vision without help. When the Muslim rulers of Hindu-majority Junagadh and Hyderabad, both principalities surrounded by Indian territory, flirted with independence (in Hyderabad's case) and accession to Pakistan (in Junagadh's), the Indian Army marched in and took over with scarcely a shot being fired. In both cases the decision was Patel's, with acquiescence from Nehru... .

Apart from handling weighty matters of state, Jawaharlal had to deal with issues of domestic politics. He had surprised some of his most ardent supporters by his reluctance to embrace radical change, and his willingness to retain, and indeed rely on, the very civil servants and armed services personnel who had served the British Raj, the "steel frame" of which continued as the administrative superstructure of independent India. The Government proved its worth in handling the absorption of some seven million refugees from Pakistan, a colossal political and administrative feat. But the civil service continued in the traditions of colonial governance learned from their British masters; Nehru did little to instil in them a development orientation or a new ethic of service to the people. Continuity, not change, was the watchword. Many of the freedom fighters, who had gone to jail while these officials prospered under the British, were dismayed ...

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The legacy of Nehru

... Gandhi's assassination by a Hindu fanatic strengthened his hand on the communal issue. Even Patel agreed to the RSS being banned, though the ban was lifted after a year. On other questions, ranging from the grant of "privy purses" (or annual subventions to the erstwhile maharajahs to compensate for the loss of their princely states) to the clash between the right to property and the need for land reform, he found himself outmanoeuvered by the party's right wing. Patel ran his Home Ministry as firmly as he administered the country as a whole, and he brooked little interference from Nehru.

Lord Mountbatten left India for good on 21 June 1948, ten months after he had presided over its freedom — and its dismemberment. He was succeeded as Governor-General of the Dominion by the man who had once been thought more likely than Jawharlal to be Gandhi's heir, C. Rajagopalachari. Though temperamentally a conservative, "Rajaji" had no patience for the communal sympathies of the Congress right, and so in his own way complemented Jawaharlal as head of state. But when the time came for that position to be converted to that of President of the Republic (upon the adoption of independent India's new Constitution on the symbolic date of 26 January 1950, the old "Independence Day" becoming the new Republic Day), Patel engineered the election of his crony Rajendra Prasad as the Congress candidate. Jawaharlal had been completely bypassed; he was so surprised that he actually asked Prasad to withdraw and propose Rajagopalachari's name himself. Prasad cleverly suggested that he would do whatever Nehru and Patel agreed upon, at which point Nehru understood and threw in the towel. One of Prasad's first acts upon election was to ask that 26 January be changed to a date deemed more auspicious by his astrologers. Jawaharlal flatly turned him down, declaring that India would not be run by astrologers if he had anything to do with it. This time, Nehru won.

Nehru and Patel came dangerously close to a public clash only once. In 1950, under pressure from the right to intervene militarily in East Pakistan where a massacre of Hindus had begun, Jawaharlal first tried to work with his Pakistani counterpart, Liaquat Ali Khan, on a joint approach to communal disturbances and then, when this had been ignored, offered President Prasad his resignation. (Stanley Wolpert has speculated that Jawaharlal, exhausted and heartsick, was contemplating eloping with Edwina Mountbatten, who had just been visiting him at the time.) But when Patel called a meeting of Congressmen at his home to criticize Jawaharlal's weakness on the issue, Nehru fought back, withdrawing his offer of resignation, challenging Patel to a public debate on Pakistan policy and even writing to express doubt as to whether the two of them could work together any more. The counter-assault was so ferocious that Patel backed off and affirmed his loyalty to Jawaharlal, supporting the pact Nehru signed with his Pakistani counterpart (which had even prompted the two Cabinet Ministers from Bengal to resign). The entire episode marked the closest the Congress would ever come to repudiating Nehru in his lifetime.

But in those early days Jawaharlal was not always a successful political infighter. His setback over Prasad's election was echoed in the elections to the Congress party presidency a few months later. Having withdrawn from the race himself on the grounds that it would not be proper for him as Prime Minister to also serve as party President, Jawaharlal supported his old rival Kripalani against the rightist Purushottamdas Tandon (the very man whose inability to win Muslim support for the chairmanship of the Allahabad municipality had given Jawaharlal his experience of mayoralty in 1923). But Tandon had Patel's backing, and despite Jawaharlal's open opposition, won handily, with over 50% of the votes in a three-man field. Nehru publicly grumbled that the result would only please communal and reactionary forces in the country, and refused to join Tandon's Working Committee. When finally cajoled into doing so he made no secret of his reluctance. He spent the next year undermining Tandon much as his mentor Mahatma Gandhi had undermined Bose thirteen years earlier. In September 1951 Jawaharlal brought matters to a head by resigning his party positions and making it clear that he and Tandon could not co-exist: one of them had to go. Tandon did. Jawaharlal himself was elected Congress President, his earlier scruples about the Prime Minister serving in such a position completely forgotten.

There was another reason for the decisiveness of his victory. By this time Nehru's greatest rival, Sardar Patel, was dead. He had suffered a heart attack a few months after the Mahatma's assassination; then stomach cancer struck, and in December 1950, having fulfilled his historic role of consolidating India's fragile freedom, he passed away, aged 76. Patel and Nehru had also served as a check upon each other, and his passing away left Jawaharlal unchallenged. If ever there was a moment when he might have been tempted by the prospect of near-dictatorial authority, this might have been it, but Jawaharlal remained a convinced democrat. He was not, however, a native one. He realized that the Home Ministry, with its control over the institutions of law and order, was a valuable tool for a potential competitor. He was therefore careful after the Sardar's death to appoint only trusted associates — with no competing political ambitions or agendas of their own — to the Home Ministry.

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Nehru: The Invention of India, Shashi Tharoor, Penguin Viking, Rs. 295.

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