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Remembering Nehru, the great communicator

On his 131st birth anniversary, we ask how Jawaharlal Nehru would have dealt with covid-19 and the India-China stand-off in 2020

Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi in 1946.
Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi in 1946. (Alamy)

When Jawaharlal Nehru died in May 1964, the academic Purushottam Agrawal was a boy living in a Gwalior neighbourhood that was a bastion of the Hindu Mahasabha. Yet Agrawal recounts that the mahant of the main temple, ordinarily a staunch critic of Nehru, was grief-stricken. “We will criticise many of his actions but how can I forget his sufferings for the nation. He should have lived longer but for this wretched, perfidious China,” the head priest lamented. The priest repeated a then widely told yarn that Nehru had been a great yogi in his previous life: “Such people are not ordinary human beings.”

In his autobiography, Nehru confesses that he was so embarrassed by the “flowery” hyperbole of so many speeches about him that he was tempted to stick out his tongue or stand on his head in response. “Only a saint or an inhumane monster”, he complained, could survive such adulation. Decades on, the social media myth-manufacturers of the Hindutva project have created fake news about him of an altogether more vicious order. “Nehruvian” has been made lazy shorthand for almost anything wrong with India.

Agrawal’s Who Is Bharat Mata?, a compendium of writing by Nehru and about Nehru by luminaries such as Vallabhbhai Patel, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Martin Luther King, published in paperback this summer, is a high-minded rebuttal. He lets these great leaders make the case for Nehru. Patel’s speech on Nehru’s 60th birthday moved me to tears because such generosity of spirit and nobility in politics is so conspicuously absent today. “It is difficult for people to imagine how much we miss each other when we are apart and unable to take counsel together,” Patel said. “(His) noble record and great achievements are an open book, hardly (needing) any commendation from me.”

Agrawal’s introduction burnishes Nehru’s reputation as the maker of modern India. The selections elaborate on Nehru’s idea of India as an inclusive, secular nation while underlining his deep love of its culture and history. Agrawal recounts how Nehru’s quick temper was exercised by a boisterous crowd at a public meeting in Bihar, and how he silenced them with a spontaneous yet relevant reference to the state’s history. In a manner similar to Ramachandra Guha, Nehru’s de facto contemporary biographer in countless essays and works such as India After Gandhi, Agrawal credits Nehru with building strong foundations for democracy in a multi-religious and multilingual country that also happened to be pre-industrial.

The title of the book draws on Nehru’s response to repeated cries of “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” when he arrived to address large crowds. He would famously ask people what they meant by Bharat Mata. On one occasion, a Jat peasant replied that they meant the land around them. Nehru offers them an alternative definition, a concise political science lesson: “These millions of Indian people” are Bharat Mata. “Victory to Bharat Mata can only mean ‘victory to these people’.”

Given that Nehru was usually met with loud cheers of “Jawaharlal ki Jai” and lassoes of garlands, these musings are of a passionate democrat, determined to build an egalitarian ethos in one of the world’s most unequal countries. In another passage, Nehru explains in a speech in Hindi that a prime minister is more a servant than a raja; if the people were ever displeased, they could take him “by the ear and unseat him”. Contrast this with the hate speech in January that characterised the Delhi elections; in India, the past really is a foreign country.

2020, a tumultuous decade conflated, is thus a poignant time to reread Nehru. India is witnessing both a once-in-a-century pandemic and a build-up of tens of thousands of troops at the border with China, almost 60 years after the Indian Army was routed in 1962 when Nehru was prime minister. What progress has been made in health and defence since and how might Nehru have responded?

Nehru had a degree in natural sciences from Cambridge University. He pushed for institutes of fundamental research as well as the Indian Institutes of Technology. He would have applauded the 300 Indian scientists who banded together in April to fight the fake news pandemic about covid-19 and such canards as cow urine being a cure. Nehru, the great communicator, would have explained in copious detail how the virus spreads.

It is not coincidental that the countries with measured policies to combat covid-19 have been led by scientists such as Angela Merkel in Germany (where, despite a recent spike, overall infections have been well below other large European countries) or Chen Chien-jen, an epidemiologist and former vice-president of Taiwan, which has had more than 200 days without a new case.

But India’s meagre allocation of resources to public health, about 1.5% of GDP, has handicapped its responses to covid-19. This neglect of public health dates back to Nehru’s era. Mao’s China relied on legions of barefoot doctors in the late 1960s to substantially raise primary healthcare standards. Guha has argued that Nehru could have drafted former freedom fighters to improve primary education. Economists Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen have critiqued early five-year Plans—but also governments in this century—for not spending nearly enough on both health and education. Then and now, India’s is a “socialist” government mostly only in its disdain for business.

Paradoxically, India’s ratio of defence spending to GDP has remained low decades after 1962. The defence analyst Ajai Shukla told me that when one factors in that a good proportion of India’s armaments in the 1950s were subsidised by countries such as Britain selling, say, aircraft carriers second-hand, India’s relative spending on defence has not moved perceptibly.

Nehru was certainly naive in his dealings with the Chinese in the 1950s; his reflexive anti-imperialism made him foolishly believe the two populous Asian nations were compatriots. Nehru and then defence minister Krishna Menon bungled terribly in sending an under-funded and ill-equipped army to war but viewed through a contemporary prism, Nehru’s misunderstanding of China seems less unique—and more a repeated pattern of India-Chinese and, indeed, of Sino-US relations. Early this month, chief of defence staff Bipin Rawat warned that India is at risk of a prolonged conflict with China, months after extensive incursions along the Ladakh border. Prime Minister Narendra Modi met President Xi Jinping 18 times in six years, but this summitry from Wuhan to Mammallapuram has yielded little.

China is much more widely covered today than it was in Mao’s time; for years now, Xi and China’s aggressiveness has been as apparent as the Great Wall, yet, once again, India was taken by surprise. A more compliant media has kept the conflict mostly off the front pages; pseudo-nationalist TV channels have waged a war against marijuana in Bollywood. In 1962, Indian women knitted sweaters and donated gold for soldiers at the front; in the third quarter of 2020, China’s Xiaomi, Vivo and others made up five of the six best-selling mobile phones in India.

Unlike in Nehru’s era, perceptions of leadership today matter more than the reality, by political leaders’ event management and mastery of social media rather than their ethics or abilities. President Donald Trump’s strong showing in the US election despite his racism, and presiding over a shambolic response to the pandemic, is one example.

By contrast, Nehru believed “nation-building (demanded) infinite patience; processes and institutions could only endure through cumulative acts of consolidation”, as Madhav Khosla eloquently argued in Letters For A Nation. The book is a compilation of wise, wide-ranging letters of statecraft that Nehru wrote every fortnight to chief ministers, the antithesis of today’s tweets. He wanted a “united India in the real sense of the word, a psychological integration of our people”. This was why supporters who chanted “Bharat Mata ki Jai” needed to understand that they were cheering for their fellow Indians. It explains his tireless repetition in prescient letters to India’s chief ministers that they should stand guard against bureaucracy and police displaying a majoritarian bias. As the head priest in Gwalior put it, “Such people are not ordinary human beings.”

Rahul Jacob is a former South China correspondent for the Financial Times.

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