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September 16, 1999


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Rajeev Srinivasan

Let us now praise famous men

It is unquestionable that the Nehru dynasty has had an enormous impact on India. As the grand-daughter-in-law also rises, and the great-grandson and great-grand-daughter wait in the wings, it is only fair to ask what exactly the dynasty has wrought. For, after all, the entire Congress claim to rule seems to be based on the halcyon days of Camelot, when the dynasty ruled, and God was in His Heaven, and all was well with the world.

And it is not only the Congress. The Economist ran a story in late 1998, saying that India has had not one, but two saints -- Gandhi and Nehru! Perhaps this is a self-serving western view ( The Economist is practically the voice of NATO), for Nehru was the last Englishman to rule India -- as he himself told John Kenneth Galbraith. But I was startled by the assertion that Nehru was a saint, a pure unalloyed Great One to be mentioned in the same breath as a Gandhi.

I must admit to a certain prejudice against the Nehru dynasty. It began with annoyance at the Kim-Il-Jung-like personality cult of naming everything in India after them: the Rajiv public school and the Indira hospital and the Jawahar stadium get on my nerves. The Americans named their new, orbiting, X-ray observatory 'Chandra' after Subrahmanyam Chandrasekhar, the physicist; it occurred to me that if India were to ever send up a space telescope, it would almost certainly be named 'Jawahar'. Apparently no one else in India matters!

It is also my uneasy feeling that not only the dynasty, but Nehru himself was a disaster for the nation in almost every way conceivable. His legacy is a very mixed bag: despite laying some of the foundations of a modern State, much like the Soviets he admired -- absurdly -- Nehru has left behind a corrupt, cronyist, decaying Stalinist ideology.

Nevertheless, I shall attempt to deconstruct Nehru with a modicum of journalistic objectivity. After all, I personally do owe something to what the man did -- I got a world-class five-year undergraduate education at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, for the piffling sum of $1,000 at the then-prevailing exchange rate!

A reader suggested I was merely following a currently fashionable trend of blaming Nehru for everything. That may well be true, but perhaps Nehru was not quite the paragon of virtue we believed him to be. Upon investigation, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Nehru was (admittedly, with 20-20 hindsight) pretty much wrong about practically everything. I am sure he had good intentions, but the results are definitely wanting.

Consider the following: Kamla Chowdhury, chairman of the National Wasteland Development Board writes in The Hindu that 'India has 35 million people who have no access to basic health facilities, 226 million lack access to safe drinking water, half of the adult population is illiterate, 70 per cent lacks basic sanitation facilities, and 40 per cent of the population survives in absolute poverty.'

Contrast this to what Nehru proclaimed in his first Independence Day speech: 'It [Independence] means the ending of poverty and ignorance and disease and inequality of opportunity... it must be clearly understood that the interests of our long suffering masses must come first and every entrenched interest that comes in their way must yield to them.'

Very fine words, but what is the reality? Consider Words like Freedom by Siddharth Dube (Harper Collins India), about a poor rural family that is landless, low caste, living in the badlands of the Gangetic Plain in Uttar Pradesh. After fifty years, nothing has changed for them. Or P Sainath's Everybody loves a Good Drought(Penguin India), the heartbreaking chronicle of poor families caught up in a vicious cycle of poverty, malnutrition and illiteracy.

Clearly, this nation has paid a very big price for believing in Nehru -- we gave him our explicit trust, and he turned out to be, at best, only partly worthy of it. Before I consider why he failed, let me quote a deeply lyrical, but also deeply damning, passage from O V Vijayan's superb Malayalam novel The Path of the Prophet (DC Books). Not very flattering, but poignant and poetic. (Translation mine).

The beloved leader fled, in his solitude, to escape from the screams of the kothwal, from the accusing ancestral voices, from their loving sorrows. The sight of his flight thrilled the illiterate bystanders. Ecstatic, they cried: India's yaga stallion, he who cannot be tied up by anyone!

My cherished people, he said, his voice dulled by thirst: I am nobody, I am merely one who has worn the vestments of the king of the starving. I claimed to have discovered India, but all I saw was, like Narcissus, my own aged face in the flowing mirror of the Ganga. Ganga, mother, daughter, sister, lover, why did you not cover up the wrinkles on my face? My god, I did not discover anything, other than myself; and other than the throne I built for my daughter and my grandson. My god, forgive me, a revolution cannot exist without self-glorification; the glimpses of world history that I have seen frighten me.

With the anguish of the prophet, he hastened down the path covered with rocks and thorns and obstacles. The herds of goats on either side of the path became curious. Their unlettered tongues made odd sounds that turned into words. They said, India's man of the millennium, our king of the goats!

The fleeing recluse cried, my fellow beings, I am nothing; I am running away from my grandfather's outcry, his poverty, from the sweat-scent of his police uniform. Not only from that, but also from the untold generations of poor ancestors -- they who came from somewhere, who knows where, and settled on the banks of a river. My forebears, who accepted the name of the river as their family name: ferrymen, fishermen, those who filled their stomachs with dreams. I turned their hunger into the sweetness of banquets. Those who stood on either side of the path applauded. They said: king of the starving, please host more banquets, let us understand how emperors taste sweetness.

When finally, he fell, exhausted, broken-hearted, the crowds grieved for him. When that beloved corpse began its final journey, the black sky rained gently, like mother's milk; and the earth quaked.

Vijayan, with his novelist's insight, has captured the essence of what was wrong with Nehru: he lived an illusion -- the discoveries of India that he thought he made and the glimpses of world history that he thought he had seen were mere mirages. In the end, after 1962, Nehru realised that he had understood little, and that he had led this beloved country catastrophically astray. He was a good man, so he had the decency to die of a broken heart.

The kothwal reference is intriguing -- I had never realised this before reading Vijayan, but it is not as though the Nehrus were traditional aristocrats; Motilal Nehru's father was a kothwal, a minor functionary in a police station. Those who succeed should be proud of their humble origins, yet how many of us know that Jawaharlal's grandfather was a lowly kothwal? Why is this hidden? What else, I wonder, is similarly hidden?

The official hagiography propagated by the pliant historiographers of the Jawaharlal Nehru University and the Indian Council of Historic Research suggests that Jawaharlal came from immense wealth, that he was more or the less the uncrowned prince of India; and that the British crown prince, at college with him, was allegedly jealous of him and of his Saville Row suits and his laundry being sent to Paris! Laughable, indeed.

Further, the hagiographers would have it appear that Nehru single-handedly brought freedom to India. Well, maybe Mahatma Gandhi helped a little, too. A veritable army of great patriots like Netaji Subhas Bose, Sardar Vallabhai Patel, et al have had their contributions downplayed. As a child growing up in India, I was told to hero-worship "uncle" Nehru. Classic Orwellian tactics.

In fact, I think, in the dynasty, the genius was Motilal, a self-made millionaire and visionary; Jawaharlal was an impractical dreamer; Indira was a street-smart fighter; Rajiv an average Joe who had power thrust on him. Sonia has no demonstrated talent; and Priyanka/Rahul have not distinguished themselves at anything whatsoever. I guess dynasties deteriorate rapidly.

What, then, was Nehru's contribution to India? I asked several people who disagree with my evaluation of the man, and this is what they suggested to me:

1. Nehru's secularism prevented India from becoming a theocratic Hindu state.

2. Nehru prevented India from becoming a Hindi-dominated state. He insisted on keeping English alive.

3. If it weren't for Nehru, the army would have taken over, as in Pakistan.

4. Nehru established the heavy industry that is India's backbone today.

5. Without the educational system Nehru created, India wouldn't have its capability today, for example in Information Technology.

6. Nehru isolated India from the world economy, and that is why India didn't suffer from Asia's crash of 1998.

7. Without Nehru, Indian democracy would never have lasted.

8. Nehru sustained the 'idea of India.' (as in Sunil Khilnani's book of the same title).

All these sound plausible, but I think they are all far from axiomatic.

Concluding Part: Let us now praise famous men

Rajeev Srinivasan

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