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HEPY to see Nehru

A prime minister,a state visit,and a permanent Security Council seat turned down

Written by Inder Malhotra |
November 1, 2010 5:30:59 am

Even before Jawaharlal Nehru started packing his bags for his journey to China in October 1954 (‘Laying out the Red carpet’,IE,October 18) Stalin’s successors in the Soviet Union had started befriending India,and particularly him,with a view to persuading him to visit their country. But he did not want to be seen to be getting closer to the USSR even though this country’s relations with the United States had deteriorated after Washington’s decision to extend military aid to Pakistan and thus bring the Cold War “to India’s doorstep.” He was courteous to Soviet leaders and conveyed to them that he would welcome technical aid from them. But when the Soviet ambassador in New Delhi suggested,and even offered,a draft of a non-aggression treaty including the Five Principles delineated in the India-China agreement on Tibet,Nehru politely declined. He cited India’s chairmanship of the three control and supervisory commissions in Indochina appointed under the Geneva Agreement.

By early 1955,however,things had changed. In February that year a large-scale Soviet economic aid programme was inaugurated with the much-applauded agreement on setting up the Bhilai steel plant. Nehru’s opposition to John Foster Dulles’s “pactomania” to create a circle of alliances,and to the extension of spheres of influence in Asia,was backed by the Soviet Union. So Nehru decided to go there and to several Eastern European countries. On their part,the Soviet leaders,engaged in changing Stalin’s policies slowly and subtly,were appreciative of his general policies,which they considered “helpful” to their own interests.

Thus it was that on arrival in Moscow on June 7,1955,Nehru found that his hosts had organised an “unprecedented” welcome for him. The entire presidium was present at the airport,and huge crowds lined the streets in an obvious attempt to outdo China. The Pravda editorial recorded: “With the very active participation of the Soviet Union and the Republic of India,the flames of war in two Asian areas,Korea and Indochina,have been put out.” As Zhou Enlai had done in Beijing,so in Moscow,Prime Minister Nikolai Bulganin rode with Nehru in an open car. In both cases this was the first and the last occasion that Communist leaders gave up,even temporarily,their bullet-proof limousines. Remarkably,The New York Times’ correspondent in the Soviet capital reported that there was “spontaneity” in the Russian people’s exuberant welcome to the Indian prime minister.

Nehru’s talks with the Soviet leaders were extensive and spread over several days. Interestingly,he began with V. M. Molotov,the veteran foreign minister who was to leave Moscow the next day. For the rest of the time Bulganin was his main interlocutor,though Nikita Khruschev,Anastas Mikoyan and some others joined them from time to time. Of the subjects discussed,quite a few,such as the “sabotaging” by the US of the elections in both parts of Vietnam ordained by the Geneva Conference,have little relevance today. But there were several substantive issues of great import at that point of time,on which Nehru disagreed with his hosts as often as he agreed with them. This made no difference to their deference to him.

For instance,when Bulganin and Khrushchev severely criticised the United States for its “aggressive attitudes”,Nehru first made a double-edged remark — “I don’t see why a strong man should always go about showing his muscles” — and then drew their attention to the “more hopeful elements in the US situation”. He cited the “eclipse” of Knowland and McCarthy (the two virulently anti-Communist senators); the differences between Dulles and Eisenhower,and the more conciliatory attitude of the US president; and so on. He also declined the Soviet offer of the sixth permanent seat on the UN Security Council and told them that some in America were suggesting that India should replace China in the council. This was to “create trouble between us and China.” Nothing,he added,should be done until the China’s admission into the UN and allied issues were settled.

On his visit to the Soviet Union and talks with the Soviet leaders,Nehru wrote two very elaborate notes,quite apart from several other minutes and many letters,most notably to Lady Mountbatten and President Eisenhower. It is impossible to summarise them even cursorily in one article. Let me therefore underscore two of his basic points. First,Nehru had first visited the USSR nearly 30 years earlier,and was much impressed by its economic achievements. As PM he knew that much had gone wrong,too. However,he could not say whether “slave labour” and “concentration camps” existed or not. Yet,having seen millions of people all across the country,he could say that the general look of them was “happy and cheerful.” They looked “well-fed and were adequately clothed.” There was “no civil liberty as Indians knew it”,but this did not seem to be missed “because it had never been known in Russia.”

On Soviet policy,his “general impression” was that a “marked change” had come over it and that this was not a temporary phase which gave him “hope for the future.” He felt that more than at any time in the past,there was “substantial reason to hope for peaceful approaches and settlements.”

Nehru gave this appraisal also to British Prime Minister Anthony Eden and his colleagues in London,where he went for two days at Eden’s invitation in the midst of his East European journey,for consultations on the impending Four Power Conference in Berlin. As he recorded later,the British ministers were not convinced by what he told them,but were “too polite to say so”. After the Berlin Conference,Macmillan told Commonwealth high commissioners in London that his government was “under a debt of gratitude to the Indian prime minister whose assessment of the Russian situation was our guide throughout.. [We were amazed to find how closely the Russian approach followed the line indicated by him.

A lighter side of Nehru’s Soviet visit: in the Cyrillic script,Nehru is written as “HEPY”. A very senior Indian journalist reported to his news agency: “Everywhere Mr. Nehru goes,banners proclaim how happy the Russians are with his visit. But they always misspell the word happy.”

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

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