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Reading the Russians

When Bulganin and Khrushchev visited India,Nehru was candid about his communist problem

Written by Inder Malhotra |
December 13, 2010 2:53:16 am

So pleased were the leaders of the Soviet Union with Jawaharlal Nehru’s sojourn in their country in June 1955 (‘HEPY to see Nehru’,IE,Nov 1) that within four months they decided to return the visit. Nikolai Bulganin,the then prime minister of the USSR,was nominally the leader of the Soviet delegation. But it was Nikita Khrushchev,first secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union,who wielded the real power,though it took the Indian hosts some time to tumble to this conclusion. In any case,of the B&K duo,it was the ebullient K who did most of the talking.

Independent India did not yet have the infrastructure for hosting world leaders. What made the logistics even more difficult was that the Soviets brought a stunningly huge contingent. Hotels in Delhi were few. However,everyone was accommodated comfortably enough in various government guesthouses and even in some newly-built bungalows,hurriedly furnished. The leaders stayed,of course,at Rashtrapati Bhavan.

On November 18 when the visiting dignitaries arrived,all roads led to Palam since early morning. Excited crowds far exceeded the expectations of the authorities concerned,and since the standards of discipline in Moscow and Delhi vary widely,Delhi got its first taste of virtual chaos. Surging crowds indeed became the hallmark of the entire journey of B&K across the country,including Kashmir,which rattled Pakistan. Perhaps inevitably,the apogee was reached in Calcutta,now Kolkata.

In Nehru’s own words,the gathering that welcomed the Soviet leaders in that city was the “largest anywhere in the world”. He estimated that at least two million people had made the city’s famous maidan unimaginably congested. No wonder the open car carrying the Russian leaders broke down. So,unfortunately,did West Bengal’s top cop. General I. A. Serov,the KGB chief,panicked and demanded that the troops be called out and the crowds converging on his leaders be fired upon. He had to be restrained. Ironically,it was in a police van that B&K eventually reached Raj Bhavan.

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Nehru’s explanation for the mass enthusiasm for the visitors — as articulated in letters to various people,including Lady Mountbatten,as well as a long note he recorded — was twofold: that this was no endorsement of communism but an expression of friendship with the Soviet Union; and a feeling among the Indians that they must reciprocate the very warm reception the Soviet people had given him.

Popular emotion apart,the Soviet leaders’ visit was undoubtedly a path-breaking event. For the first time since the start of the Cold War,top Soviet leaders were visiting a developing country that was not socialist. Moreover,non-aligned India provided B&K with an appropriate forum for hinting to the world that important changes were in the offing in the post-Stalin Soviet Union even though the extent of these became obvious only after Khrushchev’s famous secret speech at the 20th Congress of the CPSU.

The core of the historic visit,however,were the long talks between Nehru and his two guests on three separate days. The tour d’horizon they had was substantive and shorn of any disagreement,except that Nehru was not uncritical of Soviet policies,and advised his guests to take note that whatever John Foster Dulles’s approach,President Eisenhower wanted peace.

Nehru’s decision to take the bull by the horns,so to speak,and take up with the Soviet leaders his problems with the Communist Party of India was the piece de resistance of the entire exchanges. Politely but candidly,the prime minister made three pertinent points. First,that the role of the CPI because “it was often coming in conflict with nationalist sentiment” bred ill-feeling in the country and even came in the way of Indo-Soviet relations.

Secondly,the communists who until a year earlier were saying that India was not independent and were engaged in insurrection in 1948-49 also stated openly that whenever in doubt about the “right line of action”,they took instructions from the Soviet Union. On one occasion in 1951-52,Nehru added,four communist leaders had gone to Moscow “illegally and without passports”,and on return had said they had got “directions from Mr Stalin”. Last September,one of their “principal leaders”,Ajoy Ghosh,went to Moscow and said he had come back with “fresh instructions” to “play down opposition to the government” but remain “ready to start insurrection again when necessary”. Thirdly,Nehru said,the communist party got “considerable sums of money from outside”,that Indian communists wrote “misleading” articles in Soviet magzines like New Times about their country,and so on.

The minutes of the conversations,now mercifully in the public domain,show clearly that Khrushchev was,for once,on the back foot and chose to be either evasive,or in denial mode. He began by saying that it was “difficult” for him to say anything on the subject because there was “exaggeration in regard to the part which the Soviet communist party was supposed to be playing in leading the communist parties in other countries”. He did not know where the CPI got its money from,nor had he seen the articles the prime minister had spoken about. Indeed,Khrushchev said at one stage,“on his word of honour”,that the CPSU had “no connection with the Indian communist party”. It knew few communist leaders in India except those who went to attend the CPSU Congress,and he personally knew Ghosh only by name and had never met him.

Nehru was greatly irked by Khrushchev’s habit of making “propagandist” speeches in which he attacked countries that had friendly relations with India,but was too polite to tell him to desist. However,the reaction this evoked in the West,especially in Britain,was so venomous that Nehru was constrained to write to Lady Mountbatten: “I have been wondering if there has been a basic change in the character of those who write in the newspapers in England. I associated some restraint and some balance of mind with them but evidently this is lacking now. I am distressed because this kind of thing has big reactions on our own people and,out of anger and bitterness,little good can come.”

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

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