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September 17, 1999


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E-Mail this column to a friend Rajeev Srinivasan

Let us now praise famous men

See Part I: Let us now praise famous men

India is not theocratic primarily because it is practically impossible in the tolerant Hindu world-view to abuse other religions. In fact, Nehru's brand of 'secularism', which he defined as the oppression of Hinduism and other things Indic, is almost certainly what is behind the backlash from the silent majority that is now making the Bharatiya Janata Party so popular.

2. As regards language, it could be argued that the right choice for India would have been the revival of Sanskrit, just as the Israelis have revived the 'dead' Hebrew into a symbol of national pride and a vibrant modern tongue. Sanskrit, the most scientifically designed language ever invented, with its unmatched -- in the world -- literature, is such a good choice it was only Nehru's disdain for anything Indian that prevented him from seeing that it made sense.

3. Pakistan is not a good analog for India -- Islam, wherever it has gone, has a martial angle; thus their respect for warriors and for military might. Hindus (and Buddhists) have traditionally been the most docile people on earth, usually turning the other cheek. It is arguable, but I don't accept the facile judgement that without Nehru (reminds me of Louis XIV, "apres moi, la deluge") India would have become a military dictatorship. Caudillos wouldn't thrive in the Indian ethos.

4. Yes, it is true that Nehruvian Stalinism built massive steel mills and dams and other such white elephants. Some of these have lost their entire capital base -- I read that the Steel Authority of India Limited lost (I think) 17,000 million rupees in 1998-99 -- and have epitomised colossal waste; in addition to creating substandard goods and services. In hindsight, was this the right choice for the use of precious capital? As a free marketer, I'd say no. Worse, Nehru also neglected agriculture to favour these grandiose heavy industries.

5. It is also true that Nehruvians created excellent tertiary educational institutions such as the IITs, the Indian Institutes of Management, etc. But these are, in the bitingly truthful words of my former professor Anthony Reddy of the IIT, Madras, "finishing schools for the middle classes"; and also, I might add, export-oriented. It might have been better to create a fully educated labour force by focusing on primary and secondary education, as the East Asians have done so successfully.

6. By forcibly isolating India from the world economy, Nehru condemned hundreds of millions of Indians to continuing poverty -- see how the rest of Asia has marched ahead of us. Admittedly, self-reliance was a good slogan, but the implementation was terrible: the combination of a dirigiste state with crony capitalism was the worst of all possible worlds. Yes, East Asia had a hiccup last year, but the region has roared back now; and its citizens are far better off than India's.

7. It is debatable as to whether what passes for 'democracy' in India is indeed worth having. It is in fact organised thievery with the poor public powerless to do anything. Even if this is worth having, democracy was not only a recent Western import nurtured by a Nehru. There is an old tradition of participative village democracies going back at least to ancient Chola times, my trusty A History of South India (Nilakanta Sastri, Oxford India Paperbacks) informs me.

8. The idea of India has existed from times immemorial; it is not, unlike what Churchill claimed, a British invention. It happens to have been a Hindu idea, as exemplified by Sri Sankara setting up monasteries in the four corners of the conceptual Indian territory. Of course, since it is a Hindu idea, it has been devalued and denigrated by the court historians of JNU; yet, as Galileo said famously in a different context, it is still true, and it still exists.

What, indeed, then ailed Nehru? I think there were several things:

1. He was the uber-Macaulayite: the epitome of the brown man with a white interior. As the self-confessed "last Englishman", he was hopelessly mixed up. He could never really empathise with the average Indian, partly due to his childhood spent in British schools. He never realised that, unlike in the materialistic West, religion mattered, and matters, enormously. He thought he could convert the Empire of the Spirit into the Paradise of Dialectical Materialism.

He never understood what Swami Vivekananda said: "On one side, new India is saying, 'if we only adopt Western food, Western language, Western dress and Western manners, we shall be as strong and powerful as the Western nations'; on the other hand, traditional India is saying, 'Fools, by imitation, others' ideas never become one's own; nothing, unless earned, is your own. Does the ass in the lion's skin become like the lion?' "

2. He was foolishly enamoured of the Soviet model and of the Chinese. At the time, I suppose it was not unreasonable to believe that the Soviet model was a good choice. But his love for China is harder to understand. Especially when he betrayed the Tibetans, in the process allowing the buffer state to disappear, not to speak of millions of Tibetans being colonised and brutalised. I am reading a remarkable book, The Fate of Tibet by Claude Arpi (Har-Anand Publications), and it is unbelievable how Nehru colluded, blindly, with the Chinese rape of Tibet.

3. He thought he, and only he, knew what was good for India. I read, for example in Stanley Wolpert's mostly appreciative biography Nehru: A Tryst with Destiny (Oxford University Press), how Jawaharlal was imperious, brooking no opposition. For instance, in 1923, the Moderates in Congress had almost brought to fruition a possible Dominion status for an undivided India (much like Canada and Australia have). Nehru single-handedly torpedoed this. The result? Partition, and the never-ending Pakistan problem.

4. He had a severe inferiority complex about whites and was always seeking their approval. Possibly because he was humiliated as a child at his English public school -- they are brutal places anyway; it must have been hell for a little brown boy tormented by racist/imperialist little white boys. Nehru carried this lifelong chip on his shoulder -- this explains his fascination with white women (eg. Edwina Mountbatten); and the attempt to gain whites' pat on the back by taking Kashmir to the United Nations instead of wiping out Pakistani invaders in 1948. Even the Non-Aligned Movement was probably an attempt to prove to whites that he was somebody.

5. He was a megalomaniac, conversely, when it came to Indians. He felt that he was destined to rule Indians, and he wanted to be emperor. Unfortunately, Mohammed Ali Jinnah also wanted to be king. To accommodate two kings, you needed two kingdoms. Lo and behold, the Partition of India, perhaps the most senseless and tragic event in our long history. Mahatma Gandhi's weakness was Nehru; if only he had not put Nehru's interests above India's interests! Of course, "if only" are supposed to be saddest words in the English language.

6. He presided over the debasement of the Indian politician. He encouraged the personality cult at least tacitly by never allowing anybody else in the Congress to come up. And he did not put in place effective structures to prevent the endemic corruption and criminalisation that is today the cornerstone of politics.

It really was our fault; collectively, because of our feudal attitudes, we allowed this man free rein. He should never have been made an executive prime minister. Instead, he would have made a terrific titular president: a good writer, a charming speaker, one with undoubted personal integrity. He was the right man in the wrong job.

Finally, the ironic title of this essay, "Let us now praise famous men," is that of a touching Depression-era book by James Agee about very unfamous ordinary men, poor Southern sharecroppers in the United States. I was reminded of them when I read about the deaths of scores of poor Andhra cotton farmers who committed suicide because of crop failure and unbearable debt. In the deaths of these ordinary Indians, fifty years after 1947, lies the gravest indictment of Jawaharlal Nehru. He was truly Shakespearean, a fatally flawed hero; alas, we are still paying for his folly.

Postscript: A couple of readers asked why I hadn't written a column on the barbarians within India with regard to Kargil as I had promised to. I did, but sadly,'s editorial board did not think it suitable to publish. I did abuse quite a few people therein, in particular one of the 'progressive' professional whiners. Perhaps they wanted to protect certain tender sensibilities; or maybe they were wisely avoiding libel. Discretion being the best part of valour, I did not protest.

Some readers also suggested that I shouldn't talk about Sonia Gandhi's father the Fascist, as she should be considered as an individual. However, she has no individual qualifications, other than her 30-year association with the Nehru dynasty, from which she must have absorbed a lot. Therefore, it is only fair to consider what she absorbed in the impressionable first seventeen years of her life that she spent in the Maino household. After all, she still has her accent from those days (and even her daughter appears to have an Italian accent!). So if she can claim family-related credentials on one side, I can surely consider her family-related credentials on the other side.

Rajeev Srinivasan

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