Inder Kumar Malhotra, a veteran journalist once said, “Even in this age of uncertainty and contention some statements can be made without any fear of contradiction. One of these is that Mahatma Gandhi was India’s liberator and Jawaharlal Nehru its modernizer. In the huge and highly colourful pageant of modern Indian history, the Mahatma remains unquestionably the tallest figure, Nehru marches only a few steps behind him, yet streets ahead of everyone else”. The words ‘uncertainty’ and ‘contention’ in the preceding quote were written long before BJP came to power. But those two words resonate with the times we live in. Maybe replacing the word ‘contention’ with ‘coercion’ would make it more relevant.
Another interesting aspect of Malhotra’s quote is the legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru was and continues to be a ‘luminous’ personality guiding those who seek solace in his bower. Reading Nehru’s writings is an intellectually stimulating activity that helps one to reflect on the past, present and future. Recently I came across a fortnightly letter written by Nehru to Chief Ministers on December 16, 1958. This letter stands very pertinent to the contemporary conditions in the country and the wisdom it offers is worth emulating by the ruling government and Prime Minister. Few paragraphs from that letter are quoted below:
We have now some experience of planning, though I cannot say that we are expert at it yet. Certainly we know more about it than when we prepared the First Plan or the Second, and we have more data at our service also
In recent months, as you know, we have had a good deal of trouble about the foreign exchange situation. Credits and loans and other forms of help have come to us from friendly countries abroad and they have helped us to devise ways and methods to survey the entire scene of our economic activities and make a fresh appraisal….
The situation revealed by our fresh survey is a very difficult one and it demands far-reaching measures by us. We cannot allow a drift in a wrong direction to continue. Thus we have to pull ourselves up even though the process might be a painful one, and give, what we consider a right lead to the country. We have not also to do this for the remaining years of the Second Five Year Plan, but also in regard to our approach to the Third Plan…
The burden we, indeed the people of India, have to carry is a heavy one, There appears to be no escape from it to progress as we want to. We shall have to give up many of the frills of our programmes and concentrate of the essentials and above all, we should develop massive support and cooperation of the people.
This whole question should be looked upon as a national issue of first importance. It must not be dealt with as a Party issue. It is from this point of view that I am forming a small all-party Committee in Parliament to consider questions relating to Planning. I would suggest to you to do likewise“Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru”- Vol 45, November 1958- December 1958, pp. 453-455.
There are four important themes that are explicitly visible in the above letter, and those themes epitomize the commitment of Jawaharlal Nehru to India, Indians and the Indian Constitution. Firstly, Nehru’s habit of writing letters to the Chief Ministers emphasizing the matters that need immediate attention, underlining his position on various issues and nudging the states to take immediate action. These letters are not secret manifestos or instruments of coercion to force the states to act in the way deemed right by those in the Centre, rather they are expressions of the importance of states to make independent choices that would contribute to the nation’s progress. These letters are “Letters for a Nation”, addressing the people of India and asserting their role in the nation’s development. In a letter that he wrote to the Chief Ministers on February 2, 1950, he propounded the importance of mobilizing masses in India:
We face big problems, economic and political, and yet, I am convinced that the biggest problem of all is this psychological problem of raising the morale of the people and of turning it to enthusiastic effort. Many people in India lead a poor enough existence and some kind of suffering and unhappiness is their lot. Obviously we cannot put an end to this suddenly as if by magic. There is, perhaps, a certain inevitability about the gradual progress of a nation. That gradualness can be sped up somewhat, but where a whole nation of hundreds of millions has to be trained up, there is no magic way of doing it. So we should not be dispirited if the pace is sometimes slow, provided that there is a movement and in the right direction. It is true that pace itself counts when evil forces also march, for if we do not move fast enough, that evil overtakes us and might overwhelm us.Khosla, M. (2014). Letters for a Nation: From Jawaharlal Nehru to His Chief Ministers (1947–1963). New Delhi: Allen Lane.
Secondly, what is most surprising about the Nehru’s letters is that they aren’t just about self-praise, self-love or mere talk about the progress that nation made till that moment, but are filled with elements of clear-sighted hope, genial skepticism and modest dogmatism expressed in terms of recognizing the limits of processes of development adopted by the nation and need for constant rethinking and critical appraisal of development prospects. Nehru openly condemned any issues that went against the nation’s spirit. He had numerous agendas for India and has no patience for any acts of mediocrity and he is greatly irritated if any institution displays less efficiency in their work. He called for giving up “frills of our programmes and concentrate of the essentials” and “develop massive support and cooperation of the people” to improve efficiency in the channels of development. For instance, in his letter to CMs on November 16. 1948, he expressed his concern about the deteriorating efficiency of public services:
There is one matter which has made me think hard and I want to share my apprehension with you. I think there has been a deterioration in the work of our public services. To some extent this was perhaps inevitable because of the rapid changes that have taken place and the quick promotions which have followed. Nevertheless, it is a disturbing development and we have to be on our guard against it. One reason for this deterioration appears to me to be due to an excess of provincialism which sometimes sacrifices quality in favour of some man from the same province. We have many first-rate men in our services. But it is true that the number of really good men for a country like India is really limited. Whatever policy we might adopt, it is ultimately the human material that counts. If we lower the tone of the material, our work will suffer greatly
Thirdly, a quality displayed by Nehru is his tolerance towards taking suggestions and criticism from others. His mighty stature never obstructed his willingness to know his mistakes and reform his ideas. This feature has an intricate implication- He never considered himself above nation and realisation that any amount of progress in the country is conditioned by conscious and collective action by all its elements, importantly states. Federalism is the benchmark of the Indian constitution and Nehru remained a humble adherent to this facet of the Indian Republic.
Fourthly, Nehru was completely against dealing with issues concerning the nation as individual party issues. Whoever might be in power at the centre and in the states, all the parties should work together for the welfare of their people, instead of being parochial or provincial in their approach to problems. He was a man of conviction, compassion and consistency, and was ready to compromise if necessary, for the greater good.
The four themes that are emerging from a single letter written by Nehru is worth remembering because these features are absent in the present regime. The current Prime Minister of India does not want to interact even through press conferences. He only speaks in meticulously orchestrated interviews, Mann ki Baat, and in public gatherings that chant his name alone, apart from occasional “Letters to Mother”. Decisions concerning the whole nation are taken without informing states, and not even his own cabinet colleagues. Masses are important only once in five years and the Prime Minister considers electoral mandate as an instrument of unprecedented and unchecked legitimacy to do everything he deems to be right. Suggestions are rarely invited and never considered, and criticisms will not be tolerated. Any amount of criticism is considered to be synonymous with ‘sedition’ and ‘anti-national’, and the one who criticises is, by default, eligible to be admitted to jails under UAPA.
A new logic of federalism is extended by the ruling regime in India. This logic is completely antithetical to the ‘constitutional logic’ of cooperative federalism and it is, at best, a ‘majoritarian electoral logic’ to win the elections in the states. The ruling regime made it clear that if the majoritarian section of people belonging to a state wants peace, order, stability and prosperity, they should vote for the current ruling party at the centre and in this route, any national issue could be melted down to be a party issue that needs to be fought only on electoral basis. The ruling regime is infallible.
These conditions are threatening to Indian democracy at large and they are a mockery of the constitution. In these disturbing times, Indians can only seek bower in Nehru’s shadow. In his memoirs, recalling a meeting with Nehru, Dean Acheson, former US Secretary of State wrote that he and Nehru “were not destined to be friends…. But India was so important to the world and Nehru so important to India that if he did not exist then – as Voltaire said of God – he would have to be invented”. Even today, India remains more important to the world and Nehru so important to India. But the need of the moment is- Nehru has to be invented.