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T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan: The two phases of Nehru

Historians ought to examine the pre-1947 Nehru independently of the post-1947 one

T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan 

T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan

Much to the consternation of the Congress party, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken over four dates that were politically important to it. They fall in October and November.

The first is October 2, which is Gandhiji's birthday. Mr Modi launched his Swachh Bharat campaign on that day. The Congress has howled "foul", but the people have applauded.

The next three dates fall within three weeks of each other. One was on Friday, October 31, which is Sardar Patel's birthday that Mr Modi has announced is "National Unity Day".

But it is also Indira Gandhi's death anniversary. Since 1985, the Patel anniversary had taken a backseat. Now it will take the front seat, though not as an anniversary. It has been dedicated to the nation.

The second date is November 14, which is Jawaharlal Nehru's birthday. The third is November 19, which is Indira Gandhi's birthday.

Mr Modi has taken these over as well. The week will be dedicated to launching a much-needed cleanliness campaign.

Judging the four

All four leaders were members of the Congress. All four are held in great esteem by Indians. However, except for Indira Gandhi - who turned the party into a private army of sycophants - the other three transcend the Congress.

Of the four, two - Gandhiji and Patel - died within three years of independence in 1947. So naturally historians have judged only their role in the freedom movement.

One, Indira Gandhi, played virtually no role in the movement. She was briefly the leader of something called the Vanar Sena (Monkey Brigade) but it has rightly been ignored by historians.

That leaves only Nehru who straddled both sides of 1947 - 30 years before and 17 years after. He has, therefore, been the subject of intense scrutiny by historians, political scientists and experts on international relations.

The last two have focused on Nehru as prime minister, while historians have focused on him both as nationalist leader and prime minister. But they have tended to wear the same lens for these two roles, namely, of doting admiration, only some of which is warranted.

Two Nehrus

The truth, however, is that there were two Nehrus. Pre-1947 and post-1947.

Before independence, unlike many of his colleagues, he was a docile follower of the party high command, which was Gandhiji. To be sure, he argued and objected. But in the end he always fell in line.

After independence he was an assertive leader who expected others to fall in line. He systematically quelled all opposition and built up his own lackeys.

V K Krishna Menon and T T Krishnamachari were two of them. Menon, as defence minister, is widely held to be responsible for India's debacle with China in 1962. TTK as finance minister wrecked the economy with high taxes and later had to quit over a financial scandal.

It is this pre- and post-independence aspect of Nehru that needs some more examination. Hopefully, now that his descendants' hold over the Congress party is loosening, and the need for historians to please them is, therefore, diminishing, some young historians will make the necessary effort of wearing different glasses for the two phases.

Before 1947

There are two questions that need answering properly on his role before independence. One, on policy issues, was he always faithful to his beliefs and convictions, or did he set them aside to please the high command? And, two, when it came to making political choices, was he as secular in practice as he sounded in his speeches and writings?

It is entirely possible that, one or two glaring episodes notwithstanding - as in 1937, when he chose to ally with the communal Jama'at rather than the more secular Muslim League and as when he imposed impossible conditions on Leaguers (like Chaudhry Khaliquzzaman) who wanted to defect to the Congress - the answer to both is yes.

But, equally, a lot more evidence than has been trotted out so far should be adduced in favour because otherwise, given what he did when it came to practical politics, doubts will remain.

Why? Because, as is well known, but for Gandhiji's protection, the deep differences he had with every single major leader of the time - Patel, Bose, Ambedkar, Rajendra Prasad, Maulana Azad, Jinnah - would have put paid to his career long before 1947. All of them regarded him poorly.

That he survived was probably wholly, and only, because of Gandhiji who liked him because he never, ever went against him. Those like Netaji who defied Gandhiji soon realised that they had made a mistake. Even Azad and C Rajagopalachari attracted his ire during 1942-45.

It was perhaps no accident that the two men who never defied Gandhiji became his favourites and are at the top of the totem pole.

Their names? Patel and Nehru.

First Published: Fri, October 31 2014. 21:49 IST