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Busy till the end

Nehru did not,in the end,‘defeat time’. But he utilised every minute he had

Written by Inder Malhotra |
April 30, 2012 12:01:25 am

Nehru did not,in the end,‘defeat time’. But he utilised every minute he had

It goes without saying that “China’s perfidy in 1962”,as most Indians called it then,had shattered Nehru in more ways than one. Yet,the physical impact of the trauma hadn’t become noticeable for a rather long time. Strangely,even the after-effects of a viral infection in his urinary tract in the spring of 1962 had not registered with his countrymen. They continued to believe what A.J. Toynbee had said in 1957: that Nehru “seemed to have defeated time”. This impression was perhaps strengthened when for nearly a year even after the debacle in the border war with China he went about performing his duties vigorously,often being combative with critics he thought were unfair.

However,age,strain and accumulated fatigue of years were bound to take their toll some day,and that happened on January 6,1964,when he suffered a stroke at Bhubaneswar where he had gone to attend the annual Congress session.

Both the Congress leaders on the spot and the top functionaries of the government in Delhi bent over backwards to downplay his illness. The official word was that the prime minister was suffering from “high blood pressure” and had been advised complete rest for a few days. Though aware that this would not pass muster,the ministry of external affairs sent strict instructions to all Indian embassies that any suggestion by foreign governments or press that Nehru had had a stroke must be “refuted firmly”. Phone calls to South Block by Delhi-based diplomats got the same curt answer. But how long could the truth have been suppressed?

In any case,the Congress session over,top leaders had to return to Delhi. All that we,the hack pack,were told was that the PM’s plane would arrive around noon. A record gathering of journalists assembled at Palam and waited with bated breath as the IAF aircraft landed. Only the then home minister,G.L. Nanda,and some others came out. About Nehru’s whereabouts nobody was prepared to say a word. Dejected we drove back. Some distance away,we were stopped. From another road was coming the car of the prime minister who had landed at Palam’s air force base and been taken to his car in a wheelchair.

Whoever had organised this operation — reportedly it was the intelligence czar,B.N. Mullik,with some help from the then army chief,General J.N. Chaudhuri — had done a tremendous PR job. Far from whizzing past us,Nehru’s car stopped. We were asked to assemble around his vehicle in an orderly manner. Smiling wanly he told us,through the car window,that he had been taken ill but was now recovering and would be back to work “very soon”. From then onwards the “state of Panditji’s health” became the biggest news.

In an earlier column (‘Kamaraj’s formidable power’,IE,April 2) a full account has been given of Lal Bahadur Shastri’s appointment as minister without portfolio to assist the ailing prime minister and he did the best he could. But this did not prevent Nehru from insisting that all official papers requiring a decision should be sent to him as in the past. When his principal aides tried to reduce the burden on him,he called in secretary-general M.J. Desai and foreign secretary Y.D. Gundevia and rebuked them sharply.

In a few days,the prime minister was able to stand up though with a limp on the left side,and this photograph was flashed across the world. He also started taking walks in his garden,although sometimes these became too tiring. On January 22,he conveyed to the MEA that he would be attending office the next day and he duly did so. None of the senior officials wanted to embarrass him by receiving him at the entrance because they knew not in what state he might be.

Some of them hid behind doorways,however,to watch his progress,and nearly wept. For here was the man who had always strode rather than walked,had never used a lift and had run up the broad, red-stone stairs two at a time,but was now dragging himself painfully slowly. He also had to take the lift. Two securitymen never left his side,just in case.

Only after he had sat down behind his desk did his aides troop into his room to welcome him. He had a question for each one of them. What had happened to a particular matter he had discussed with them before going to Bhubaneswar? Had any progress been made? If not,why not?

One issue that appeared to be weighing rather heavily on his mind was the inauguration of the Indo-Nepal Gandak project by King Mahendra of Nepal at a small place on the border between the two countries with the charming name Bhainsalotan. He and the king had spoken about it just before he had fallen ill. He therefore ordered the foreign office to instruct the ambassador in Kathmandu to arrange the function on the earliest possible date convenient to the king.

Gundevia dragged his feet in the hope that he would thus save the prime minister an extremely hazardous journey in a small aircraft. A furious Nehru rang for a stenographer,dictated a “most urgent” telegram to the ambassador in Nepal and told the foreign secretary that he wanted an answer to it at once. May 5 suited King Mahendra. In the terrible heat and dust of the season,Nehru undertook the journey and saw to it that the function went through smoothly.

Returning home,K.L. Rao,his minister of water resources and an eminent irrigation engineer himself,embarked on “briefing” the prime minister on the Gandak project and went into dreary details. He had been in full flow for nearly 15 minutes when he looked up and saw that the prime minister was in no position to pay him any attention. This problem was to torment many an interlocutor of the great man in the next three weeks.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

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