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Nehru: The Hero That Was

Deena Khatkhate  |  BSCAL 

Illusion, like happiness, decreases with age. The longer you live, you see your dear ones depart. The events and persons you loathe linger on to gnaw at you. You then lose your mental equilibrium. Illusions you harbour about men and women follow the same track with time unfolding new facts and opening ajar the cupboards of skeletons hidden so long. Awakened suddenly to reality, you stroke your conscience and wonder if what you believed hitherto was not an illusion.

Stanley Wolpert's biography of Nehru, published recently, dilates on Nehru's homocrotic proclivity and furtive encounters with Edwina Mountbatten. The book invited the ire of Indians since it contained Wolpert's insinuation about Nehru's "passionate, icy cold and indeed numbing" love affair with a young Englishman. However, this was just a wild speculation based on inferential logic and no hard evidence. His sneering allusions to Nehru's flirtations with Edwina have been in public domain because of Nehru's other biographers as well as those of Mountbattens. What could have made it titillating was the correspondence between Nehru and Edwina which was denied to Wolpert by Sonia Gandhi. In any case, it is not for these fragments of Nehru's life that Wolpert's biography will be remembered.

In a gushing but a nugatory narration of Nehru's life by Wolpert, there are some seemingly innocuous snippets which diminish him as a great Indian, democrat and a secularist. After completing his Cambridge education, Nehru wanted to spend few years in Oxford because "Cambridge is becoming too full of Indians". The same thoughts were echoed in what he told years later to Prof Galbraith that: "I am the last Englishman to rule India" What else could this be if not the hubris of a born aristocrat? His democratic pretensions were torn to smithereens by how he systematically destroyed the line of succession to pave the way for his daughter. His private virtues became public vices and his public virtues were camouflaged private vices. When Indira decided to marry Feroze, Nehru wrote: "I wanted to help you personally and I expected you to help me -- hundreds and thousands of young men and girls have wanted to serve with me as secretaries -- I have never encouraged any one and shouldered my burden alone, for I had

always imagined you to occupy that niche ... no one could take your place ... with this idea ever hovering in my mind I wrote piles and piles of historical and other letters to you. I wanted gently and slowly but surely to train your mind in that wider understanding of life and events that is essential for any big work... I wanted to give you some training which would stand you in good stead in later life... so that when time comes you could tackle any big national job". Thus his entreaty to Indira to dump Feroze and to become instead his amanuensis was to prepare her to take from him the guardianship of the nation. History, of course, had surprises. Indira might have temporarily disappointed him but once Nehru smelt the aroma of office, she sacrificed her marriage and joined him. With hindsight, one can see that Nehru's annoyance at his acolytes' proposing Indira as president of the Congress was an contrived act.

His ambivalent attitude towards Vijayalaxmi's involvement with Sayed Hussain is equally revealing about his secular postures. Far from opposing his father in preventing Vijayalaxmi from marrying Hussain, Nehru in fact tried to dissuade his sister. Years later when this love-lorn couple chanced to have a liaison in Delhi, Nehru shrewdly posted his sister as an ambassador in Moscow, than a High Commissioner in London, where she wanted to go to be near Hussain. Vijayalaxmis wry comment on her appointment summed it all. "For some still unknown reason, I was to leave for Moscow. If Bhai... realized how little importance the Soviet Union attached to this day (Independence Day), we would have been permitted to celebrate it at home.

The same narrow religious and caste calculations figured in Nehru's opposition to Indira's marriage. Feroze was close to his family and at one stage he had nursed Kamala Nehru, during her illness. Even when Indira's distant aunts and Nehru's other sister blessed her decision, Nehru stubbornly persisted to find through friends a suitable match in his high caste. These episodes show how tinsel were his secularist commitments in matters close to him and his family.

Much has been made of Nehru's distaste for power by his coxcombs. Some time in the 1950s, Nehru thought aloud of resigning his helmsmanship of the nation. When beseeched by his partymen, he stooped into their blandishments. This mask of false prudence he often wore and with a telling effect. Once in 1929, he feigned his reluctance to be the Congress president, but when pressed readily agreed. There was a repeat performance at the time of Pethic-Lawrence mission. His close friend and supporter, Azad, saw through his game. "Jawaharlal is... very vain and cannot stand that anyone else should receive greater support than he", Azad said when Nehru agreed to be the Congress president, which was a stepping stone to priministership. Azad also added, rueing his vote for Nehru: "I acted according to my best judgment but the way things have shaped since then has made me realize that this was perhaps the greatest blunder of my life not to stand myself or not support Sardar Patel". The relationship between Sardar and Azad was marked by personal and ideological animosity and yet Azad felt that Patel was a greater statesman.

We are a nation of icons and paid a heavy price for being so. It is time we avoided iconolatry in judging our national heroes and heroines. It is better to start with a "null" hypothesis that no one is great or unblemished until the facts, as they emerge in the course of our search, void that hypothesis.

First Published: Tue, August 19 1997. 00:00 IST