Reviews of JawaharLal Nehru Letters to Chief Ministers 1947-1964, Vol. 4. Ed. by G. Parthasarathi


    At a time when we are been inundated with Nehruvian, another volume on our first Prime Minister might appear not exactly welcome.  However, we need to distinguish between the Government sponsored propaganda on television and the more serious works being produced such as the present series.  Because we must remember that there was indeed a person called Jawaharlal Nehru, quite independent of the Government sponsored images of him, who was certainly one of the great figures of this century.  It is important to remember that we still have a great deal to learn from him and his legacy to India, even if we want to disagree with him and question his greatness.  The easiest and the most dangerous thing would be to simply turn ourselves off Nehru because the Government's propaganda is so disgusting.

    The volume under review belongs to a series which will make available to us a whole set of important documents on Nehru.  The series covers the crucial years of independent India, a period when the foundations of our nation were being built.  In a sense, all our present achievements and most of our present troubles can be traced back to those years.  These letters of Nehru are a remarkable record not only of the personality, the hopes, the aspirations, the failures, and the lack of foresight of one of our greatest and most charismatic of modern Indians, but also an equally remarkable glimpse into the whole process of nation making.

    The present volume covers July 1954 to December 1957.  It contains a total of 77 items, which can be divided into roughly two groups:  45 fortnightly letters and 32 special letters and notes.  This period was important because both the successes and limitations of the first decade of independence were becoming evident.  In the Avadi session of the Indian National Congress, for the first time the objective of Socialism was laid down as a desirable goal for the nation.  Looking back, how ironic it seems that Nehru thought that by foregrounding this goal, the major problem of social transformation could be affected.  In letter after letter, he laments about the backwardness of the rural people and need to press through land reforms so the poorest of the poor could lead a life of dignity.  However, already it is evident that the country was set on a path of paying lip service to high-sounding principles, while actually going in the opposite direction.  Was Nehru deceiving himself?  Or did he really believe that the whole country would second him once he gave the call for socialism?

    While calling for socialism, Nehru was pursuing infrastructural development all along.  The second Five Year Plan continued on this path. It is amazing how Nehru seldom analyses the cause of the backwardness and poverty of the villages in terms of a lack of investment in these areas. What would have happened if instead of steel, coal, and power, Nehru had affected 100% literacy?  Such questions seldom cross his thoughts in these letters.

    The third major happening during these years was the reorganization of the states, the bill for which was passed on 13 September, 1956.  The letters of this period are largely informative, containing almost no discussion of the merits or demerits of this move.  This is understandable because the controversy was then rife and such discussions must have dominated the minds of thinking people.  But today, we can only say that it not just the Punjab crisis, but the Gorkhaland, the Bodo, the Vanniyar, or the Jharkhand movements and others like them have their seeds in the reorganization of states.

    Also relevant are Nehru's repeated notes on various types of internal disturbances, especially communal riots.  Nehru's secularism cannot be doubted and must be emulated today, but his analysis of these riots as Hindu-engineered does appear a little too naive today.  The contradiction between an opposition to communalism and a policy that favors it is noticeable then and today we know only too well how disastrous it has proved to be.

    An astonishing feature of Nehru's letters is the degree of emphasis he places on "foreign affairs" in these letters to Chief Ministers.  It seems that he is not only educating them about the larger happenings in the world, but actually expects them to share his vision of a world community of nations in which India has a leading role to play.  There are special letters and notes which inform the Chief Ministers about what transpires during Nehru's numerous foreign junkets.  The problems of China, of Vietnam, and especially the creation of a non-aligned movement after the Bandung conference get extensive coverage in the letters.  So does the politics of cold war.  Of special interest is his note on his visit to Japan (pp. 565-589).  Nehru does observe the industrial and material development in Japan, but, amazingly, he is more impressed by their courtesy, dedication, aesthetic sense, tea gardens, and such more or less superficial traits.  He observes that the road in Japan is bad and that the buildings in Tokyo are not really impressive.  There is a slight note of condescension in his views.  Certainly, Japan was not the object of his admiration as the Soviet Union was.  Was Nehru aware of the tremendous revolution that was taking place silently in Japan--or at least of the foundations of such a revolution which were being laid then?  If so, wouldn't he have thought that there was much more to learn from the Japanese than how to make miniature landscape gardens and serve tea? Today, India is leagues behind Japan in every sphere of development and Nehru's blindness is a telling comment on his inability to accept any other pattern of development other than the Soviet model.

    The letters, in conclusion, do not really offer fresh insights into Nehru's character, but augment and confirm what we know about him from other sources.  His range, his astonishingly capacity for knowledge and work, his stamina, sincerity, and vision are as evident here as elsewhere. Here was a Prime Minister who knew his mind and spoke in his own voice. What a far cry from the present situation when our leaders show very little evidence of going beyond their speech-writers' cues.  The sheer achievement of these letters is amazing:  how did Nehru find time to write them at all? Obviously, they are the work of a very special, even superior intellect.

    However, the other side of Nehru's personality is also evident in these letters.  We don't, of course, have the Chief Ministers' responses to these letters.  But, that's precisely the point.  With Nehru, it was a one-way traffic.  He pontificated; the others listened.  He gives us and his readers’ ample opportunities to admire his prodigious talents, but is there any evidence of a truly democratic give and take, of collaboration, if not consultation?  Nehru usually talks down to his audience, thinking that they need to be educated by him.  He rarely ceases being school marmish. Unfortunately, his tone suggests--despite its overt humility and humaneness--that he knew he was right about his blueprint for India.  There is little self-criticism of a fundamental kind, little space of a genuine feedback from the people.  In these letters, as in his politics, Nehru remained the Olympian, isolated from the masses, up in his own cloud.  The aloofness, this alienation is underscored in his romanticism: several letters are records of his wishful thinking.  For instance, his unalloyed enthusiasm for China, though their stand on Tibet was against Indian interests.  This same China would shatter Nehru ten years later.  The letters show repeatedly how misguided Nehru was, how impractical, and how naive in his assessment of the real politic that controlled the world.  We now know only too well that nations are evaluated not by their morals but by their power--economic and military.  Nehru, the great internationalist took himself and his role more seriously, perhaps, than did most other people.

  Copyright © 2005 - Makarand Paranjape