In 1937, an article published in Modern Review, written by Chanakya, described the then president of the Congress as having “all the makings of a dictator in him — vast popularity, a strong will directed to a well-defined purpose, energy, pride, organisational capacity, ability, hardness, and, with all his love of the crowd, an intolerance of others and a certain contempt for the weak and the inefficient.” Ten years later, Jawaharlal Nehru became the first Prime Minister of India. Chanakya’s fears and doubts about Nehru’s liberal and democratic character turned out to be largely unfounded. Or, given that Chanakya was Nehru’s pseudonym, it is perhaps the ability to reflect on his own shortcomings that kept them from consuming the man and the young democracy he led.
It is hard, today, to imagine India as anything other than a democracy. But all around the young nation, other newly-decolonised countries crumbled to dictatorships, military and political, and the promise of freedom gave way to despondency as the leaders of freedom struggles did not brook opposition. Curiosity, erudition, decency, diversity — these were the underpinnings of India’s first prime minister’s personality and for long, and in no small part, they influenced the country of which he is a founding father.
Chanakya also wrote: “A little twist and Jawaharlal might turn a dictator sweeping aside the paraphernalia of a slow-moving democracy. He might still use the language and slogans of democracy and socialism, but we all know how fascism has fattened on this language and then cast it away as useless lumber.” In its first 17 years, the Indian republic was fortunate to have a check over executive power that was more than just constitutional — it stemmed from the personal and political morality of a flawed and yet great man. Perhaps India, on his 130th birth anniversary doesn’t need a Nehru — its political landscape is painted in colours too stark for his complexities, it is too inebriated by a politics of identity. But Nehru’s alter ego, Chanakya, remains an example of how politics can be a space more capacious.