There is some irony, and a lot of hypocrisy, when a person like Modi chooses to disdain Nehru’s popularity. Does this man, who is considered India’s most popular leader as of today, believe that popularity is of little concern when it comes to choosing leaders, asks Amberish K Diwanji.
It is fashionable of late to abuse and accuse Jawaharlal Nehru for everything that ails India, real or imaginary. Thus, right-wing nationalists blame him for India’s 1962 humiliation at the hands of China, taking Kashmir to the United Nations and not pushing Pakistan out, appeasement of Muslims, curbing the private sector (and thereby India’s industrial growth), and so forth.
The left wing blames him for India’s still abysmal human development indices, such as the lack of universal healthcare and primary education, incomplete land reforms, inability to eliminate poverty, and so forth.
But of all the criticism, none is more odious than the latest Nehru versus Vallabhbhai Patel comparisons, which has taken on a life of its own ever since Narendra Modi became prime minister. To believe that if and only if Patel had become prime minister, would India have become a land of milk and honey isn’t just pure naivety but downright stupidity.
The first criticism that Mahatma Gandhi erred in anointing Nehru as his heir over Patel misses the most crucial point of Nehru’s immense popularity. Nehru had that ‘X’ factor called charisma. He was popular and ages to come will wonder why. Here was a man who preferred to speak in English, whose breakfast comprised eggs and bacon (while others in jail with him like Gandhi had ‘Indian’ food); he was an aristocrat who despised all that was wrong with India (excessive religion, superstitions, traditions, feudalism, communalism…), and did not hesitate to say it. So why did the people love him so much?
Actually, that very same question should be asked of Gandhi. As some historians have remarked, when “civilised” Europe turned towards murderous dictators (Franco, Mussolini, Stalin, Hitler), the awesome genius of India saw millions turn towards a certain Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, whose fads and contradictions were enough to exasperate the calmest individual.
Why do some men emerge as leaders is a question that no historian or philosopher has been able to answer. But what is clear is that the best leaders are those who capture the imagination of their people at a given time. Gandhi did that. As did Nehru.
Perhaps it was Nehru’s very disdain for religion, his agnosticism (rather than atheism), his dream that India was too great a nation to play a middling role in the world that made so many religious Indians hail him as their greatest leader after the Mahatma. Nehru was India’s second most popular leader from the 1930s, and post-Gandhi’s assassination, the most popular leader. That cannot be denied.
It was the genius of India, the brilliance of our grandfathers, that they chose Gandhi and Nehru.
So when Gandhi anointed Nehru as his political heir, he was merely blessing the person chosen by the people of India. Even Sardar Patel acknowledged this when, at a huge public rally, he once grudgingly remarked that “the people have come to hear Nehru”!
For Gandhi to have chosen Patel over Nehru would have been going against the very wishes of the people, and would have led to intense turmoil at best or a downright split in the party at worst, at a time when Congress unity was essential for India.
There is also no doubt that Gandhi was happy to choose Nehru, who was his most ardent disciple. The 20-year gap between them gave them a filial relationship, unlike Gandhi’s relation with Patel, who was just six years younger and was more like a younger brother. But Gandhi’s fondness wasn’t simply because Nehru was obedient but also because Nehru was a towering intellectual with a worldview and strong beliefs, a man who genuinely cared for the masses of India.
There is some irony, and a lot of hypocrisy, when a person like Modi chooses to disdain Nehru’s popularity. Does this man, who is considered India’s most popular leader as of today, believe that popularity is of little concern when it comes to choosing leaders?
Was it not Modi’s phenomenal popularity that made him shoot ahead of taller leaders within the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, made him become prime minister over the likes of L K Advani or Rajnath Singh or Nitin Gadkari?
It is no secret that the RSS would have preferred Rajnath Singh or Gadkari as PM, but even the RSS is aware that in the end, democracy is about people’s choice, and the primary (perhaps only) reason why the RSS “blessed” Modi to be India’s PM is because the people of India, in their wisdom, voted for Modi.
Few people, whether in the RSS, BJP or the Congress, would have missed that in the 2014 elections, millions of Indian voted for Modi and in the bargain, gave BJP a majority.
Modi is PM today because he is the people’s choice; Nehru became PM because he was the people’s choice back then. Modi may not like that choice and believe Patel would have made a better PM. Perhaps. But that is Modi’s opinion. Just like the opinion of those who believe that Modi as PM is a wrong choice.
Then there is another aspect, often ignored. Gandhi could never have missed the point that both he and Patel hailed from what is now Gujarat. Given India’s size and diversity, it was only fair that a person from another part of India deserved to be his successor.
The men of that generation were never parochial. They understood how important it was to take along the whole of India. Patel was popular, but just not as much as Nehru, and that was a reality everyone realised.
If Gandhi had pushed for Patel over the much more popular Nehru, it would have smacked of parochialism much the same way Amit Shah becoming BJP president smacks of Gujarati regionalism.