Had Sardar Patel not died in 1950, he would have found it difficult to work with Nehru for much longer
‘It was Patel’s loyalty towards Gandhi that made him work with Nehru. Otherwise, his problem with Nehru was almost the same as Jinnah’s problems with Nehru,’ say Adeel Hussain and Tripurdaman Singh, authors of a new book on Nehru
Jawaharlal Nehru would always remain central to any credible discussion and discourse on modern India. Primarily because he was the first Prime Minister of independent India. And unlike many of his contemporary anti-colonial leaders, he not just actively participated in India’s freedom struggle but also ruled the country for 17 years.
He thus not just created firsthand ideas and institutions, but also was instrumental in putting them into practice.
“Whether we like it or not, the history of independent India is deeply connected with the ideas and idiosyncrasies of Nehru,” say Tripurdaman Singh and Adeel Hussain, authors of Nehru: The Debates that Defined India, a book that has just been published by HarperCollins.
“Since whatever he did, he did it first, he invariably showed others what to do and how to do; even in failures he has his relevance, as a cautionary tale,” they add.
In an exclusive interaction with Firstpost, the authors talk about their new book, what makes Nehru such an enigmatic personality, and the first Prime Minister’s interactions with Muhammad Iqbal, Muhammed Ali Jinnah, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Syama Prasad Mookerjee. Excerpts:
How did the idea of writing this book come to you?
Adeel Hussain (AH): We have been thinking of writing a book on Nehru for a long time. But it was after Tripurdaman Singh’s last book, Sixteen Stormy Days: The Story of the First Amendment of the Constitution of India, which was in a way about Nehru’s betrayal of the Constitution, that we finally thought of giving it a chance. We wanted to look at Nehru’s constitutional ideas outside the narrow confines of either parliamentary or Constituent Assembly debates. After all, many debates that took place outside the Constituent Assembly too shaped the national discourse.
For instance, the Muslim League, one of the main forces behind Partition, was not part of the Constituent Assembly. So, if you have to understand the working of the Constituent Assembly, then you have to look beyond it. To analyse things closely, we narrowed it down to four key debates. One of them was the Muslim question, which very much adds to the Partition of India. And to understand it clearly, one has to understand Nehru’s relations with Iqbal and Jinnah. With Jinnah, it was obvious given his role in the Partition movement. As for Iqbal, it was muted.
Seventy years after Independence, Nehru still remains an integral part of India’s narrative, for right or wrong reasons. How do you see Nehru?
AH: Nehru will always remain central to India’s democratic experience, primarily because he was the first Prime Minister of independent India. The other thing that sets Nehru apart is — unlike other South Asia leaders like Jinnah — Nehru ruled for 17 years. He not just created institutions but also was instrumental in running them. He shaped them with ideas that evolved over decades, especially in 1920s and 1930s Europe.
He initially focused on socialism but later in the wake of the Pakistan movement he started taking more interest in religion. So, whether we like it or not, the history of independent India is deeply connected with the ideas and idiosyncrasies of Nehru. Since whatever he did, he did it first, he invariably showed others what to do and how to do; even in failures he has his relevance, as a cautionary tale.
As you say, Nehru has become a cautionary tale of sorts — how not to run a foreign policy, how not to evolve an economic policy, secularism, et al.
Tripurdaman Singh (TS): This way of looking at Nehru is not wrong. But we should see Nehru as a product of his time. Some of the policies which he pursued were fashionable in those days. Socialism, for instance, was widespread in the Afro-Asian world. Probably Nehru took it too far. One positive contribution by Nehru is that India still is a democracy, while many other countries like Pakistan and Indonesia have had several interfaces with dictatorial regimes. Many of them slipped very easily into dictatorship. Nehru may have pushed the envelope with the Constitution but he never tore it up. He never tried to locate sovereign powers outside of institutional structures.
Nehru’s obsession with socialism stymied India’s economy and growth. How do you see his role on the issue?
TS: For Nehru socialism was a one-stop solution for all of India’s ills — poverty, colonialism, excesses of imperialism and capitalism. But then Nehru was not alone in believing that. In that era, it was fashionable to be a socialist. Where he faltered was he refused to change track even when he saw things were not working.
AH: Nehru’s socialist attachment had also to do with the global dynamics. When India got Independence, the erstwhile Soviet Union and China said that its freedom was not real. They kept insisting that imperialist powers continued to rule India and that Nehru was only the mask. They accused Nehru of acting as a tool of colonial powers to seduce other socialist nations into their sphere of influence. So, Nehru pursued extreme socialism and non-alignment just to prove his anti-colonial credentials. Also, Nehru was very sensitive about his global reputation. He thought that any flirtations with capitalism would break what he saw as a third world alliance. To add to them all, Indians in general had discomfort with and disdain for capitalism, given their harrowing experiences at the hands of the East India Company.
You begin the book with a chapter on Nehru and Iqbal. There’s an interesting quote in the book where Iqbal calls Nehru a patriot while Jinnah a politician?
AH: First of all, it’s a disputed citation. Nehru introduced it later in his book, The Discovery of India, when he was trying to create some sort of intellectual connection with Iqbal. Nehru wanted to show that he was dealing with key intellectuals of his time, Iqbal being one of them. During his last visit to Iqbal, just before the latter died, Allama called Nehru a patriot while adding that Jinnah was a politician. It was not necessarily a compliment. Because at that time India didn’t need a patriot but a politician who would engage in high-level engagements and debates. The other thing is Iqbal never really gelled well with Nehru’s idea of socialism. For Iqbal, the role of religion was central. They both hailed from Kashmir, they both went to Cambridge, but they disagreed vehemently on the role of religion in politics.
Jinnah was stark opposite to Iqbal, though the two were the architects of the Pakistan movement. How do you see Jinnah? This question is important because there has been a long-standing ideological battle in India on who Jinnah actually was.
AH: Jinnah is presumed to be a cold-hearted lawyer obsessed with his objectives. But the Jinnah that emerges in our book is quite different, he is humane. The Jinnah which we come across is not the one who is sticking to rules and norms, but the one who is trying to be open and ready to make sacrifices to keep India together. What comes out from the letters between Jinnah and Nehru is the picture of a Jinnah who is an emotional character, who is willing to make sacrifices to advance the role of Muslims in the Indian republic.
TS: I think this image of Jinnah as a cold, calculating politician was the handiwork of Lord Mountbatten and Nehru. What also comes out from the letters is Jinnah’s visceral hatred for Nehru. Jinnah was the first-generation Indian nationalist, while Nehru was much younger to him. The differences also showcase the differences between the politics of first and second generation nationalists. So, the things that Nehru would disagree with Jinnah, he would also disagree with other nationalists of the first generation — Mahatma Gandhi, his own father, Motilal Nehru, and Sardar Patel. Jinnah was active in Congress politics before even Gandhi arrived on the scene. He was the Congress’ rising star of the 1910s when suddenly Gandhi appeared on the scene and pushed him in a corner. So, some of the problems between Nehru and Jinnah are generational problems.
The book has interesting interactions between Nehru and Patel. One understands that till the time Patel was alive, Nehruvianism was under check and it spiralled out of control only after his death in 1950. Your take…
TS: Very much so. Nehruvianism was under check when Patel was alive. Their relationship is interesting. Patel checked Nehru at crucial points but he stopped short of overturning Nehru’s position. He could have done so by walking out of the government, but he didn’t — though they both threatened each other several times. In 1950, Patel drew a ‘red line’ when he said that everything is okay but putting the security of the state at risk was non-negotiable. He didn’t agree with Nehru’s foreign policy, especially his handling of China. Unfortunately he died soon after and no one was left in the Congress to check him.
AH: I think it was Patel’s loyalty towards Gandhi that made him work with Nehru. Otherwise, his problem with Nehru was almost the same as Jinnah’s problems with Nehru. While Jinnah didn’t abide by the spiritual authority of the Mahatma, Patel did. So, Gandhi was an important cog in Patel’s relations with Nehru. These are all counterfactuals and now we are entering into ‘what-if’ history, but had Patel not died in 1950, he would have found it difficult to work with Nehru for much longer.