The great communicator

Nehru always arrived on the dot and asked what subjects we wanted to discuss.

Written by Inder Malhotra | Updated: November 13, 2014 10:33 am
nehru_m Jawaharlal Nehru’s last press conference took place on May 22, 1964.

In Jawaharlal Nehru’s time, the expression “communicator” hadn’t come into vogue. Yet British political scientist W.H. Morris-Jones said it all when he wrote that Nehru “rules a country of continental size and bewildering diversities with a microphone”. His tryst-with-destiny speech had already been hailed as “one of the best in the 20th century”, and his extempore oration after the Mahatma’s assassination came close to it. Nehru’s awesome record in speaking directly to millions has already been written about. Parliament was, of course, so important a forum for his constant dialogue with the country that it needs to be discussed separately. The written word was also an effective instrument of communication for him. Indeed, he wrote so enormously as to boggle the mind. Fifty-seven volumes of his “Selected Works” — alas, not collective ones — have brought the narrative only up to February 1960. Five volumes of his letters to chief ministers, published only in the 1980s, are a treasure trove for the historian. Someone has wisely decided to bring out a single-volume extracts from these, appropriately titled Letters for a Nation.

To cap it all, there was the Nehru Press Conference, a unique institution, the like of which has never been seen since his passing. With rare exceptions, he regularly held it once a month. The number of journalists being small at that time, until the construction of Vigyan Bhavan, the press conference could easily take place in a committee room in Parliament House, even though a contingent of senior officers from the ministry of external affairs unfailingly joined the hack pack. At Vigyan Bhavan, a commission room was enough.

Nehru always arrived on the dot and asked what subjects we wanted to discuss. He noted them serially and dealt with each at length, answering every question, and then moved on to the next topic. Spiced with humour, his press conferences used to be a combination of enlightenment and entertainment. Some members of the fourth estate used the occasion for self-expression rather than for eliciting information. This often led to hilarity. For instance, during a discussion on some crisis in the Banaras Hindu University, K. Rangaswami of The Hindu demanded that the word Hindu go from the university’s name. Another journalist interjected: “Then so should the entire name of the gentleman’s newspaper.” Nehru joined the ensuing laughter.

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When, in 1957, at the height of the Cold War, the Communist Party of India came to power in Kerala in a free and fair election, Delhi-based foreign correspondents got alarmed. One of them asked at his press conference: “Sir, what will happen when Kerala is repeated in all Indian states?” Nehru smiled and with a brief pause, replied: “When that misfortune overtakes us, we will deal with it.”

After President Kennedy announced the “man on the moon” mission, Lawrence P. Atkinson, an elderly journalist specialising in ferreting out unusual news, asked Nehru: “Sir, not as prime minister…” Nehru interrupted him to say that he had to act as prime minister, whereupon Atkinson pleaded: “Please, sir, don’t spoil my question. All I am asking is that, not as prime minister but as Jawaharlal Nehru, would you go to the moon for the sake of world peace?” Nehru: “For the sake of peace, Jawaharlal will happily go to the moon.” The next day it was front-page news the world over.

On two occasions, however, there was the outburst of the famous Nehru temper at the otherwise genial press conferences. G.K. Reddy, then of Blitz, a Bombay tabloid now defunct, and later a star of both The Times of India and The Hindu, was the first to draw the lightning. After China’s People’s Liberation Army marched into Lhasa and India protested strongly, Reddy somehow took the Chinese side. Nehru was livid. “This man,” he said, “is either a fool or a knave or a combination of both”, and much else. The next day, when the government’s principal information officer sought permission to cancel the allotment of government accommodation to Reddy, the prime minister reprimanded him.

Eight years later, it was my turn to be at the receiving end of Nehru’s fury. K. Subbaroyan, news bureau chief of The Indian Express was also rebuked, but rather mildly, for publishing an extract from Nehru’s monthly letter to chief ministers. My “fault” was “graver”. I had published in my then paper, The Statesman, a top-secret “interim” report of the first Law Commission pointing out that high court judges were being appointed on the basis of “caste, nepotism and other unworthy considerations”. The tongue-lashing Nehru gave me, I haven’t forgotten till today. A senior editor rose to point out that it was wrong to lambast a correspondent who had merely done his job. The PM should punish his cabinet colleague who leaked the document. “You are right,” responded Nehru, “I have already ordered an inquiry into the matter.” For three days, flat-footed jokers from the Intelligence Bureau made my life miserable in rude and crude ways.

On the third evening, there was an investiture at Rashtrapati Bhavan, followed by the usual tea party. At tea time, an aide of the prime minister came and told Subbaroyan and me that the PM wanted to see us both in the adjoining room. There Nehru put one hand on Subbaroyan’s shoulder and the other on mine, and said: “I lose my temper often but never my sense of proportion. I am sorry some fools from the IB have been troubling you. I have therefore called off the inquiry. But for the sake of a scoop don’t overlook national interest.”

Nehru’s last press conference took place on May 22, 1964. A correspondent told him to settle the succession issue within his lifetime. “My lifetime,” replied Nehru, “is not ending that very soon.” Everyone present cheered him lustily. Sadly, he had tempted fate.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator.

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