Jawaharlal Nehru’s two speeches “A tryst with destiny” and “The light has gone out” are famous. What is not known is the statement Nehru made at his trial in Gorakhpur on November 4, 1940: “It is not me that you are seeking to judge and condemn, but rather hundreds of millions of the people of India and that is a large task even for a proud empire. Perhaps it may be that, though I am standing before you in my trial, it is the British Empire itself that is on its trial before the bar of the world. Individuals count for little, they come and go, as I shall go when my time is up. Seven times I have been tried and convicted by British authority in India, and many years of my life lie buried within prison walls. An eighth time or ninth, and a few more years, make little difference. But it is no small matter what happens to India and her millions of sons and daughters. That is the issue before me, and that ultimately is the issue before you, Sir.” Here is superb English.
An unseemly debate is taking place — who was the greater man, Nehru or Patel. Both were great. On August 15, 1947, Nehru was three months short of his 58th birthday. Patel was 72. He passed away on December 15, 1950. He was 75. Granted, he would have been a better PM than Nehru. The fact remains that he died in December 1950. Who would have succeeded him? Inevitably, Nehru.
Nehru was certainly a great man. What are the criteria for calling a man great? Isaiah Berlin, the Oxford philosopher, gave this definition:
“To call someone a great man is to claim that he has intentionally taken a large step beyond the normal capacities of men, in satisfying or materially affecting central human interests… permanently and radically alters the outlook and values of a significant body of human beings.” Nehru passes the test with flying colours.
Nehru marked the 20th century with his presence. He radically altered the outlook and values of many people in India and all over the colonial world. The “weapons” he used were truth, decency and sincerity. Nehru, idealist though he was, had an acute sense of reality and an appreciation of the values of our heritage.
Nehru read history, wrote history and made history. But history has been unkind to him. All the ills of contemporary India are attributed to him. The unkindest cut of all is that he was responsible for Partition. This is cant. Sardar Patel, Rajaji and Rajendra Prasad were equally responsible. This is a historical fact and the truth.
Another historical fact is never mentioned. Nehru’s first, 14-member cabinet included six non-Congressmen — B.R. Ambedkar, Syama Prasad Mookerjee, John Mathai, Baldev Singh, Shanmukham Chetty and C.H. Bhabha. The surprising inclusion was that of Ambedkar, who had been a severe critic of Gandhi and the Congress for 25 years. Gandhi made sure that Ambedkar joined the cabinet.
Nehru laid the foundation of a nation-state that would be democratic, secular and pluralistic. He wanted to build a just India by just means. He built dams, steel and fertiliser plants. He made the eastern part of India accessible. He worked 16 hours a day. He sat in the Lok Sabha every day during its sittings. He raised the level of the national political dialogue.
Nehru did not delegate. His selected works run into 58 volumes, each more than 500 pages. He would have saved a lot of time
and labour if he had only delegated. As external affairs minister, he replied and wrote to our ambassadors and high commissioners — something a joint secretary could do.
Nehru was a poor judge of men. The glaring examples are the “whining” Krishna Menon and “insufferable” M.O. Mathai. Both were “shady” individuals, but totally trusted by Nehru, who gave them the benefit of doubt. About Mathai, S. Gopal, the sympathetic biographer of Nehru, wrote, “He exercised vast and irregular power… Nehru was informed that Mathai could not account for his great wealth and without doubt had received from the CIA as well as from businessmen in India. It can be safely assumed that from 1946 to 1959, the CIA had access to every paper passing through Nehru’s secretariat.” [Emphasis added]
Nehru was not a great external affairs minister. Prime ministers should not become foreign ministers. Nehru made two foreign policy blunders — Kashmir and China. He internationalised a purely domestic matter by taking the Kashmir issue to the UN Security Council, under Chapter Six of the UN Charter. He should have gone to the UNSC under Chapter Seven, which addresses itself to aggression. Nehru also promised a plebiscite. It took the IFS 15 years to get rid of this absurdity. The role of Mountbatten was pernicious. The governor-general kept the king and British Prime Minister Clement Attlee informed. He did not use the MEA cipher. He went to the UK’s high commission to send messages to London without informing Nehru.
On China too, Nehru faltered badly. I have no doubt that for the border dispute, there is no solution in the near future. China practices realpolitik. We do not.
The writer is a former minister of external affairs