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Friday, June 24, 2011

Is India Still Paying the Price of Nehru’s Follies?

Mumbai: Criticism of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru is still considered blasphemous by many, who feel his contribution is immense and sacrosanct. But years after his death he has been brought down from the pedestal many a time, much to the chagrin of the Nehru-Gandhi family.
His overriding love for great principles, notwithstanding, his inability to take timely decisions, his failure to work in tandem with iron men like Sardar Patel, and his intimacy with the Mountbattens or Sheikh Abdullah, who had their own axe to grind, worked as a blindfold. So much so that he was hemmed in and could not further India’s interests to the extent he should have. The consequences have been tragic and the muddle created 64 years ago remains just that.
Had Patel been nominated Prime Minister or had more of a free hand and had Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose been around and stayed in the Congress, India’s destiny would most likely have been different. Nehru needed to be more amenable and should have given more credence to colleagues like Patel later and Netaji earlier.
Subhas Bose’s presence then or the lack of it, has never been fully debated and has remained veiled. Infosys chief N R Narayana Murthy’s scathing observations recently, where he said Netaji would have led India past China and would have been a foil to conservative Nehru, throws more light on where the first Prime Minister went wrong.
It was in 1946. The Working Committee and Pradesh Committees of the Indian National Congress (INC) had to make the most critical choice of its history – elect its president – who would become the first Prime Minister of Independent India. There were three candidates in the running – Acharya Kripalani, Sardar Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru. Sardar Patel was the clear frontrunner, with 12 out of 19 Pradesh Committees backing him. None backed Nehru.
However, despite being the popular choices in the INC, first Kripalani and then Patel had to withdraw their nominations on Mahatma Gandhi’s insistence, so that “Nehru could be elected unopposed”. Gandhi unabashedly backed Nehru for the Congress president’s post under the pretext: “Jawaharlal cannot be replaced today whilst the charge is being taken from the British. He, a Harrow boy, a Cambridge graduate, and a barrister, is wanted to carry on the negotiations with the Englishmen.” Dr Rajendra Prasad later said: “Gandhi has once again sacrificed his trusted lieutenant for the sake of the glamorous Nehru.”
Call it an irony of fate. Life came a full circle for Patel. In 1939, when Netaji Subhas Chandra decided to seek re-election to the Congress president’s post, Patel had sided with Gandhi to support Pattavi Sitaramaiya’s candidature. Patel had openly criticised Bose for seeking re-election. But, Bose was not Patel, and he went ahead with his decision, defying the Mahatma’s dictat. He was re-elected with an overwhelming mandate.
Soon, the conflicting aspects in Nehru’s persona came to the fore. On the one hand, he was a democrat and a revolutionary; on the other, he was often carried away by his ‘socialist’ ideals to the point of playing with India’s destiny.
After his election as Congress president, he gave his support to his friend Sheikh Abdullah (he called him his ‘blood brother’) who had been jailed by Maharaja Hari Singh of Kashmir. In June 1946, he decided to go to the valley to free Abdullah. The situation was certainly not shining in Kashmir (as in the rest of India), but to take on the maharaja at this point in time was a serious mistake.
In a letter to D P Mishra, Patel explained: “He [Nehru] has done many things recently which have caused us great embarrassment. His actions in Kashmir … are acts of emotional insanity and it puts tremendous strain on us to set the matters right.”
Things came to a head at the end of October 1947 when raiders from the North West Frontier Province entered the state, killing, looting, and raping along. On October 26, they had reached the outskirts of Srinagar. Hari Singh agreed to sign the Instrument of Accession.
On the same day a historic meeting was held in Delhi with Mountbatten, the governor general, as chairman. A young army colonel named Sam Manekshaw, who attended the meeting, recalled: “As usual Nehru talked about the United Nations, Russia, Africa, God Almighty, everybody, until Sardar Patel lost his temper. He said, “Jawaharlal, do you want Kashmir, or do you want to give it away?” He [Nehru] said, “Of course, I want Kashmir.”  Then he [Patel] said: “Please give your orders.” Nehru was still silent. Patel turned to the general and said, “You have your orders.”
Nehru wrote letters to Edwina every day, after she left India, until her death. In his letters, Nehru often sought Edwina’s advice on matters of governance and strategy, according to British author Janet Morgan who was given access to the correspondence by the Mountbatten family. Morgan was given a small box weighing more than five pounds. The box contained all the letters Nehru wrote to Edwina between 1948 and 1960.  A few of them even had a rose pressed between the pages.
According to Morgan, in one of those letters, Pandit Nehru apparently wrote about the embarrassment VK Krishna Menon, India’s first high commissioner to the Court of St. James, had become. In another letter, Nehru apprised Lady Mountbatten about how difficult it had become to deal with colleagues in the Congress party. Edwina’s reply could not be known as the Nehru-Gandhi family preferred to keep those letters under wraps.
Such letters bear testimony to the fact that Edwina often had a piece of advice for Nehru on political matters. When Edwina died, Nehru’s letters were found scattered on her bed. Nehru had sent a wreath of marigolds to be dropped in the English Channel.
Pamela Mountbatten, daughter of Lord Mountbatten and Edwina, in an interview to Karan Thapar on Devil’s Advocate, said that the Edwina-Nehru relationship was also of use to her father. And that Lord Mountbatten often appealed to Panditji given the influence Edwina had; this was particularly useful while handling tricky situations like Kashmir.
“He (Lord Mountbatten) did use her (Edwina Mountbatten) in such ways. But he certainly wasn’t going to throw her, he didn’t say to her ‘go and become the Prime Minister’s (Nehru) lover, because I need you to intercede.’ It was a by-product of this deep affection.”
When asked to comment on many people’s belief in India that the decision Nehru took to refer the Kashmir issue to the UN was taken under her father’s advice. Could that have been an area where Edwina’s influence had been particularly useful?
“I think it could have been. Because Panditji, being a Kashmiri, of course, inevitably the emotional side comes in from one’s own country, doesn’t it? And my father just in dry conversation might not have been able to get his viewpoint over, but with my mother translating it for Panditji and making, you know, appealing to his heart more than his mind that he should really behave like this. I think probably that did happen.”
Pamela added, “But what was the important outcome of it all, was really for the good of India. And I think Ms. Gandhi, when she became Prime Minister; she was a very clever politician, an amazing woman. But Panditji was a real statesman, it never occurred to him to make anything out of his position; he never made money out of it. He was the real idealist, for the good of India, always.”
Although it is quite hard to believe that Nehru had abandoned principle and patriotism in deference to Edwina’s charms, even Patel said: “but in spite of all these innocent indiscretions he has unparalleled enthusiasm and a burning passion for freedom”, there is little doubt that he did commit a series of historic blunders. In fact, one of Nehru’s biggest blunders was to retain Lord Mountbatten as the Governor General of independent India. Probably, he could not trust any Congress leader for that role, and preferred to rely on a person he “admired” a lot.
The next month Lord Mountbatten put himself in a strange situation, where he as the titular head of India decided to go to Karachi to negotiate a solution to the Kashmir issue with Mohammed Ali Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan under the instructions of his ‘employer’ based in London. For strategic reasons, Britain was inclined towards Pakistan and Mountbatten was reportedly given the responsibility to ensure that India did not take any steps to flush out the infiltrators from Jammu & Kashmir. By the end of 1947, Mountbatten had convinced Nehru to refer the Kashmir issue to the UN. He made Nehru believe that it was the “only solution”.
On 20 December 1947, Nehru reluctantly accepted the idea, amid strong opposition from a large section of the Congress leadership, including Sardar Patel. Mountbatten succeeded in implementing the designs of the then British Prime Minister Clement Attlee. On one hand, he continued to highlight the dangers of military escalation to Nehru, on the other, he smuggled confidential information to Attlee. It was during those days when Edwina probably managed to make it “appealing to his heart more than his mind”. The events that followed are well known. India’s case was buried in the bureaucratic corridors of the UN; the infiltrators were allowed to remain on Indian soil, what later came to be known as Pak Occupied Kashmir (PoK).
The latest veiled criticism of Nehru comes from N R Narayana Murthy, Infosys chief. He said on January 23, the 114th birth anniversary of Netaji that India would have seized its opportunities better and faster than China and climbed to the second spot on the world economic ladder by now had Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose played a role in building the nation. “He would have been a perfect foil to Jawaharlal Nehru’s more conservative approach to industrialization, opposed the licence raj and might even have prevented Partition.”

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