Scholar, diplomat, parliamentarian and senior Congress leader Dr Karan Singh scarcely needs an introduction. Son of the last king of Jammu & Kashmir, Maharaja Hari Singh, he was a crown prince but chose instead to be an ardent follower of Jawaharlal Nehru. He was first the Sadr-e-Riyasat and then, when the nomenclature was changed in 1965, the governor of J&K. At age 83, he still has a sharp mind and can easily recall events and encounters that unfolded several decades back. In an interview to Pranay Sharma, he speaks at length about his ‘political guru’ Nehru and his legacy. Excerpts:
As we celebrate the 125th birth anniversary of Jawaharlal Nehru, what exactly are we celebrating?
We are celebrating the birth of one of the most remarkable leaders of the last century. A leader who not only played a major role in the ‘freedom movement’—as a chief lieutenant of Mahatma Gandhi—but was also the first Prime Minister of India for 17 years. During that period there was a unique combination of somebody who went to jail; who was in the freedom movement for many years and then also lived down and was able to steady the ship of state. So he really laid the foundations for our democracy. Gandhiji of course, by then, had phased out. There is a Gandhi generation and there is a Nehru generation. My generation was the one that grew up reading the Discovery of India and his autobiography. So he had a profound influence upon us. What we wanted to do was to revisit the Gandhi and the Nehru legacies, particularly for the younger generation so that it is not seen as something that is in the past.
What would you say was his greatest contribution? Was it democracy, liberalism, or say, to encourage a scientific make-up, or to strengthen the pluralistic nature of our society?
It would be a combination of several things. I would simply put it as ‘liberal, parliamentary democracy.” I think all three—there is liberalism, there is a parliamentary system and there is democracy. In all these three he played a very prominent role. This is not to denigrate the role for example of Sardar Patel or Dr Ambedkar or Maulana Azad and other leaders. But Nehru left his mark over every aspect of our public life.
What about the scientific approach?
Yes, the so called 'scientific temper'—he set up the IITs which today have made such a mark around the world, the national laboratories were set up by him, the space research centre was set up by him—all of these were set up during Jawaharlal Nehru’s time.
You had the privilege of meeting him and also knowing him personally. Do you recall the first time you met Jawaharlal Nehru?
Yes, of course. My correspondence with him has already been brought out by Penguin. And in every correspondence he addressed me as “ My dear Tiger”—which was my pet name and the name by which my father called me. To that generation I was introduced as “Tiger.” He was my ‘political Guru.’ But the first time I met him I was in a wheelchair because of a problem I had with my hip. The first time he visited Jammu, I could not see him. I had conveyed to my father that I wanted to meet him and the second time my father brought him to my room.
And which year was this?
This would be 1949—probably November or December. My father brought him to my room and said Tiger is a great admirer of yours. We said hello to each other and that was the first time I met him. I was in bed with the hip problem for months and no one could really diagnose the problem properly. It was thanks to Sardar Patel that I finally got proper treatment. Sorry, I am digressing…..but I think I need to put it on record.
Please tell us what happened?
Well, Sardar Patel, who had also come to our house with Pandit Nehru, asked my father what was wrong with me. My father told him that for six months I was getting treated but there seemed to be no improvement in my condition. It is then that Sardar Patel said that unless I got proper treatment I could be in wheelchair for the rest of time and suggested that I be taken to the US for treatment. After that I was sent to America and it's thanks to Sardar Patel that today I can walk around.
But, coming to Nehru, let me say this that his interest and engagement was over such a vast canvas since he was interested in a lot of things. He was interested in science, in children and their welfare, he loved the mountains—he was really the ‘Renaissance man.’
Let us go back to your first meeting. So what happened when he walked into your room?
He came into the room and there was a certain sense of—it is difficult to describe—but there is kind of energy. He had a beautiful and very charming smile. But it was this energy that seemed to enlighten the entire room and all the others who were present there. You know, there are some people who are half-dead when you meet them; while there are some others who are vibrant and alive. That’s what I found when I met Pandit Nehru.
You were the Sadr-e-Riyasat and also the governor of Jammu and Kashmir. What was it like to be working with Nehru?
Well, I worked with him in the sense that he was the Prime Minister and I was the head of a state. I used to correspond with him regularly and meet him whenever I was in Delhi. And once also stayed as houseguest in Teen Murti and, I remember, when I first came, then Rajiv Gandhi was about 9 years old and his brother Sanjay, about 7 years., so I also saw them growing up. But mainly I would correspond with Pandit Nehru regularly and read the fortnightly letters that he used to write to the chief ministers. The letters were unique and reading them was an education.
How are these so different from other letters that we know of and those many leaders write? What was so special about the Nehru letters?
It is the sheer scope of those letters. They were not only directed to us—the wide canvas that they reflected. He wrote prodigiously: we have produced almost 75 volumes of his correspondence. He wrote to almost everybody under the sun.
But you have a lot of interest in spirituality and are a follower of Sri Aurobindo, while Nehru was a committed secular person. Was there never a clash in the two approaches?
There was a divergence rather than a clash. Towards the end of his life, he was a little more appreciative of the ‘Vedanta’—the Upanishads-which are also my main inspiration. As you know Hinduism comes in a whole variety of moods and impulses and manifestation. He was certainly not religious in the strictest sense of the term. But I remember that when he was opening the Institute at Trombay—which is now the Bhaba Reserach Institute—he referred to the ‘Trimurti’ across at the Elephanta Caves and said that this too was part of our heritage. If you read his Discovery of India you will find that he had very high regard for the Sankaracharaya etc. So, it is not that he was anti-Vedanta. But he somehow felt the rituals and all that were part of the religion were something that did not interest him. So it was not that he was anti-Vedanta. He had written somewhere that the anthropomorphic concept of God was something he found difficult to accept. But there was no conflict because I knew that is his interest and he knew that this is my interest.
You always remained the “Crown Prince’ and here was a man (Nehru) who played a key role in ending the King’s role in Jammu and Kashmir and supported actively in its integration with the Indian Union. Did you ever blame him or held him responsible for denying you the opportunity of becoming the ruler of the state?
No, no, never, on the contrary the reverse happened. My father was the last, real, ruling Prince, I was never a ruling Prince. I was a Crown Prince. My father and Panditji, who was against the feudal order clashed. And Panditji’s great favourite was Sheikh Abdullah who was a deadly enemy of father. I, as a young man, found myself torn between the two paths. My father’s path—for which he wanted me to come and live In Bombay and race horses and live happily ever after. And the other path, to which I grew up, was what he called the ‘exciting adventure’ of building ‘new India.’ I was very clear from the very beginning that if it came to a choice I would go with Nehru and not my father for that suited me because I am not a feudal person by attitude. I did not like the idea of sitting around racing horses for the rest of my life.
I wanted to do something for the nation and in my public life, spanning more than 60 year, I think I have been able to do something for the nation. I wanted to travel the world—which I have done. I did not want to get stuck in the feudal quagmire.
You have been a senior member of the Congress party and worked with many leaders from Pandit Nehru to Indira Gandhi and several others including Sonia Gandhi. Do you believe that the legacy of Nehru is alive in the Congress party?
The Congress party is committed to the legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru. Everybody in the party follows and enriches that legacy. I would say broadly, like the Marxist ideology is there at the back of the communist party, the legacy of Nehru, like secularism—which is now a dodgy term—and those like liberalism and democracy—are followed in the party.
Nehru was a committed democrat then how do you reconcile to the fact—which in fact is one of the main charges against him—to encourage ‘dynastic politics.’?
The question is interesting—it is because of Jawaharlal Nehru that this became the ‘first family.’ But a lot of people forget that he did not choose Indira. It was Lal Bahadur Shastri that he chose. Unfortunately, he died within years of becoming the Prime Minister. If he had lived up to serve the entire term the whole equation would have been different. Nehru was such a revered figure and he had been the Prime Minister for 17 years that when there was a vacuum Indira Gandhi moved in and the rest is history as you know. She in turn chose her son and I think that was the beginning of what one may call the ‘instutionalization’ of the family. Because I was much more qualified to be a successor than him, but she chose Sanjay and then it became clear that nobody else will be able to inherit her wigs.
But in subsequent years why wasn’t this trend reversed?
Why should it be reversed? She was winning the votes, she won in 1967; she won in 1972 and again in 1980. In 1984 when she was nearing the end of her term she was assassinated. That in turn created a sympathy wave for Rajiv and he automatically stepped into her shoes and won over 400 seats for the party in the parliamentary elections. And Rajiv was assassinated; Sonia immediately did not come in and was engaged for several years in social work and other activities running the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation etc. It was only when Sitaram Kesri took over and the party begun to erode that she came in.
So that was a gradual process?
Yes, first time she got 114 in 2000, in 2004 she got 145 and got a government for which she chose Manmohan Singh, and then in 2009 she got more over 200—so you see, they get votes. It is not as if they are brought in by chance. Right now there are no other leaders in the party who have a pan-Indian image and charisma and someone, who everybody else will be prepared to follow. There may be regional satraps but at the national scene, fortunately or unfortunately, there are no leaders with a national appeal.
And, therefore, it stays that way?
This is how the dynasty has come so far. It is because of the overwhelming personality and work of Jawaharlal Nehru. It is like you know how John F. Kennedy had done it and after him his brother Robert Kennedy etc. Also the same thing about the Bush family—the father was there, then the son and now there is talk of Jeb Bush coming into the scene. There are political families all over the world and this one particularly has been there for a long time.
Do you see that under the present dispensation and Prime Minister, who too has come to power with a massive mandate, the Nehru legacy being kept alive?
Basically, the Nehru legacy of parliamentary democracy, that has worked its way into the constitution of India, that is part of India. What was once described as the Abraham Lincoln legacy is now the American legacy. In a similar way Nehru’s contribution and legacy have permeated in the DNA of India.
So what are the things likely to change?
I think three things will change—socialism, the old concept of state-run industry etc has now become redundant and that I think has changed and will change. The second is the Non-Alignment Movement—which at that time was a very important movement but has now collapsed since there is no Soviet Union and a cold war. Secularism is also now being questioned. It is not that the individual aspects of his thoughts are unquestioned and we say no just because he said that it cannot be questioned. But his legacy remains—or at least I hope so.
What about the pluralistic nature of our society? Isn’t there an attempt to question and is it not coming under stress?
Yes, certainly it is under stress. You see the pluralistic nature of our society has been there for thousand years, particularly after the Muslim advent. All the great religions of the world here—the Indic religions—Hindusim, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhims and we also have the Semitic religions—Judaism, Christianity, Islam and also the Bahai faith , the Zorostrianism and others. And that will continue, of course, the emphasis may change with a certain more emphasis on the Hindu-factor.
But what we learnt from the Rig Veda and some of our older tradition of accommodation and leaving space for others—the room for different narratives now seem to be changing. There is an attempt to bring one dominant narrative? Do you think the old traditions are likely to change?
For that we will have to wait and see. I think what we saw so far was part of the electoral rhetoric which points in that direction. But I think our democracy is well enough entrenched really to prevent any unilateralism.
So will Jawaharlal Nerhu survive Narendra Modi ?
Yes, with Modi having started wearing a Nehru jacket... and I saw that cover picture in the Outlook of Modi in Nehru jacket with a rose ( laughs).. Nehru will always survive. Gandhi was the Father of the Nation. But I think it will be correct to say that Nehru was the Father of the Indian state. Between Nehru and Sardar Patel, they worked and stabilized the Indian nation. People of this generation have no idea about the situation that prevailed after Partition. How millions were massacred and uprooted. The whole of Delhi was a refugee camp. In that situation the whole country was patchwork quilt of 500 Indian states and British India was partitioned. At that time these two ‘Titanic figures’—Nehru and Patel stabilized the ship of state. Patel lived only till 1950 while Nehru went to live for several more years and gave continuity for another 14-15 years after that.
This is interesting because a lot of people feel that Nehru and Patel were always at loggerheads…
You see, they had there differences. Sardar was the senior person and also senior in the Congress organization. He was the organization man and was supported by many of the PCC chiefs. But the decision of choosing Nehru over him was that of Mahatma Gandhi—he was the man with the vision. With all his greatness Sardar Patel was never out of India, while Nehru was known around the world, he was charismatic, he had been in England and Gandhi thought he could be the man who could lead India. So he was the one chosen by Gandhi and you cannot blame Nehru for that. Twice he did that, once over Subash Chandra Bose and the other time over Patel. I think he lived up to it and justified the choice.
A shorter, edited version of this appears in print