Video Editor: Deepthi Ramdas
Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, still finds a mention in India's political debates, decades after his death in 1964. Be it the Partition of India, the Indo-China War of 1961, or Kashmir, there's a lot that the current dispensation blames on Nehru's policies.
As the country observes his birth anniversary on 14 November 2021, authors Tripurdaman Singh and Adeel Hussain reflect upon 'Nehruvian' India in their book Nehru: The Debates that Defined India.
Here are some excerpts from our interview with them.
What debates is the book based on?
Adeel: The way the Indian Constitution turned out contains debates that are not directly linked to the conversations that are happening in the constituent assembly. And then we thought where do these debates take place? We found that they take place throughout the life of one of the primary constitutional fathers of the Indian Constitution, Nehru and we find that they come into being through his interactions with the key leaders in the run-up to the foundation of the Indian Republic and then in the decades that go on and transform the constitution to what it is today.
How was the equation of Nehru and Jinnah?
Adeel: There was genuine respect that Nehru had (for Jinnah) as he respected everybody from that generation of Indian leaders.
I think that disagreements, and there were many disagreements primarily came from the time when Nehru tried to understand the problems of Indian Muslims through his specific lens which of course had instances of specific secularism and socialism and he tried to understand the problems of Indian Muslims through that lens; and he wanted Jinnah to lead him through that.
Jinnah gets more and more frustrated with Nehru as years go by. Initially, he thinks that Nehru is maybe mocking him, so maybe he is just refusing to acknowledge the very such thing as communal outlook to the way which India’s economic problems could be alleviated. And on the other hand, he is also thinking that Nehru may have risen through the ranks of the Congress party too quickly. He sees Nehru as some type of spoiled brat who is catapulted into these higher ranks of the Indian National Congress.
What was Nehru's idea of religion?
Tripurdaman: For Nehru, religion as a category is not worth engaging with. And so, he just assumes (it is) something that will go away. That assumption never leaves him and that underplays his conversations with Jinnah and then even after what happens in Partition actually, that assumption never leaves him, because he thinks that okay, now that we have had Partition, it’s not a category worth engaging with. He thinks that the basic problem is economic and the basic solution to that economic problem is socialism.
How was Nehru's idea of a nation different from Jinnah's?
Adeel: Jinnah is acknowledging a specific fact about the Indian society, he looks about and sees the people structure their lives according to religious rituals. Nehru looks at this and he says that in order to alleviate poverty, religion doesn’t really play a specific factor. So, I do think that the end game for both of them was the same – both wanted to alleviate poverty that had been caused by a couple of centuries of colonialism.
And then later on (Jinnah) abandons the Constitution, he doesn't believe that the Constitution would be able to protect the Indian Muslim minority and then he says that the only thing that can is the state structure that is majoritarian.
Not taking religious identities seriously as he did for the 17 years that he ruled also led to the rise of a new party which was outspokenly identitarian, so what we see now with the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) is also the consequence of many of Nehru’s policies and Nehru’s ideas and it is a specific form of backlash.
What is your take on this whole idea of “Sab Nehru Ki Galti Hai” that goes on social media these days?
Tripurdaman: That’s obviously not true, that everything is a consequence of Nehru’s mistakes, many of which were also genuine mistakes right... it’s a caricature of Nehru as a complete villain... it is just that... it’s a caricature. I think in a way this is a backhanded compliment. It's effectively saying that this man single-handedly shaped the country.
What would Nehru tell his great-grandchildren today?
Tripurdaman: The political strategist Prashant Kishore made a statement saying the BJP is here to stay and Rahul Gandhi’s problem is that he doesn’t acknowledge it.
In some ways it reminds me, in many ways of what Nehru does, is the way he approaches the communal question, or the way he approaches China, I mean the basic assumption is completely off the mark but at no point, even when things go wrong, is that questioned. Nehru was actually a very formidable politician, we can’t forget that.
Nehru had an instinctive, I guess, grasp of how power was wielded and could be acquired or buttressed and I think that’s probably one of the lessons that he would have taught to his descendants.