Bhagat Singh, a 21-year-old revolutionary, writing in 1928 makes an interesting comparison between Subhash Chandra Bose and Jawaharlal Nehru. Describing Bose as a narrow, emotional nationalist, he advises the youth of Punjab to follow Nehru, a rational internationalist, as he alone could give them the right kind of intellectual nutrition. Nearly 90 years later, he would be censored by his followers for such retrograde views.
Bhagat Singh became a martyr symbolising eternal youth, Bose remains the ever-living guerrilla fighter and Gandhi, Nehru’s mentor, was killed by an independent India and elevated to sainthood. Nehru would outlive them all, moving past the romantic phase of nationalism to perform the prosaic task of state-making. His once-lovable face, which had attracted Amrita Sher-Gil for its sensitivity, was to suffer the blemishes of age. Disappointments and failures as an administrator were to further dent his image.
It is amusing that Nehru is singled out for every perceived abomination; Partition, Kashmir, illiteracy, the Hindu rate of growth, non-arrival of socialism, communalism, and, of course, dynastic succession. He is seen as an ambitious man who, by cunningly winning the Mahatma’s trust, deprived worthier leaders like Sardar Patel, Rajaji, Rajendra Prasad and J.P. Narayan of their due. They are, in popular imagination, the wronged.
H.Y. Sharda Prasad felt Nehru to be the most loved figure after Krishna in this land. The affair was not to last long. Once a heart-throb of the masses, prime minister Nehru created unease, especially in educated Indians. His insistence on not using force as a first resort to resolve conflict was seen as a sign of weakness. Hindus have not been able to forgive him for his idea of secularism and insisting on treating Muslims as equal citizens.
Nehru presided over the business of lawmaking, seeking to replace the communitarian conventions governing the lives of the people. It was bound to challenge their belief system and hurt them. There was no Gandhi to support him. The Congress, a party of Hindu patriarchs, wasn’t convinced of his scientific-rationalist outlook and refused to play the role of social educator. He had little help from the Communists, who faulted him for not being revolutionary enough. JP, who held a special place in the hearts of the masses, refused his invitation to play a role in this transformatory, post-romantic nation-building process. Ram Manohar Lohia, once his favourite, turned into an eternal rebel. Ambedkar did work with him for a while but, in the face of stiff resistance from Parliament on the Hindu Code Bill, gave up. Faced with the prospect of a long-drawn battle with a conservative Hindu society, Ambedkar took his followers to Buddhism, a religion, and turned into a god himself. Nehru’s scientific-rationalist views and training didn’t permit such easy ways out.
Rajni Kothari, writing in 1964, recognised the enormity and complexity of the task history had bequeathed to Nehru. Nehru, wrote Kothari, “taught leaders the art of managing men and institutions and based political solidarity on the complex mechanics of secular relationships rather than on neat notation of sacrifices and transcendental nationalism”.
It required patience, perseverance and hope in the human capacity to communicate and reform, to be able to survive the tardiness of this process. There was also a need to overcome the neat divide of Left and Right and create an ideological consensus in society to enlarge the spaces of shared life. The educated classes of India, who benefited most from his institution-building process, did not subscribe to the scientific and rationalist philosophy behind it. They insulated their lives from his cries. He was seen as someone who wanted, using his unassailable authority, to deprive them of sacredness and sever their ties with the religious past which gave them security.
In an era of identity politics and militant nationalism, only those who fit into the neat categories of predefined identities can aspire to be icons. Only natural that Nehru, an ambiguous figure, homesick in the West but alien and lonely in his own land, born a Brahmin but seen as half-Christian, half-Muslim, a warrior against colonialism but no English-hater, a leader of the nationalist movement but no nationalist, is now nobody’s child.
Nehru warned Richard Attenborough not to deify Gandhi in his film. He paid heed. We didn’t. We judge Nehru as a fallible being. Would he hold a grudge?