A Lesson in Political Leadership From One Prime Minister to Another

In the 1962 elections, Jan Sangh supporters spread rumours that Nehru used to go to the Ashoka hotel to eat beef and posters were put up in Delhi showing him with a sword in his hand leading cows to slaughter.

Jawaharlal Nehru, sometime in the 1960s.

Jawaharlal Nehru, sometime in the 1960s.

The result of the assembly election of Bihar is, in a very strange way, a closing tribute to Jawaharlal Nehru in the final month of his 125th birth anniversary year.

The assembly elections were fought in an atmosphere of intense hate and intolerance. Personal attacks and character assassination of the leaders of the parties fighting it were followed by insinuations by the Prime Minister and the BJP that Nitish Kumar and his friend Lalu Prasad supported cow-slaughter and beef eating and were, therefore, anti-Hindu.

Those with a slightly longer political memory would recall the third Lok Sabha elections of 1962. Unlike today, the earlier avatar of the BJP, known as the Bhartiya Jan Sangh, was fighting the Congress Party, led by the ‘Gentle Colossus’, Jawaharlal Nehru. The Congress under his leadership won. But Nehru was subjected to a most venomous campaign.

R.K. Karanjia spoke to Nehru after the elections, as part of a series of interviews with him which was later published in two volumes as The Mind of Mr. Nehru and The Philosophy of Mr. Nehru. Karanjia asked him: “The elections witnessed an ugly development….(with) reactionary parties and unscrupulous politicians employing the strategy of McCarthyism, character assassination, fabrication and the big lie. This is a development about which you have been asking the nation to be watchful. May I know if the last elections have exposed this danger of fascism creeping into our political life?”

Nehru said that fascism was a foreign expression and preferred to call it ‘sheer rowdyism’. He blamed the Jan Sangh for these reprehensible methods. He told Karanjia, “Do you know I myself was declared to be going to the hotel Ashoka to eat beef! There were posters put up in Delhi showing me with a sword in my hand leading cows to slaughter!”

So, Nitish and Lalu can take some solace from the fact that they were put in the company of Nehru by the Sangh machinery this time when they were portrayed as promoters of beef eating and cow slaughter by the BJP and its top leadership.

The more instructive part, however, is the response of Nehru to Karanjia’s suggestion that one way to deal with such forces could be to ban them. Nehru had absolute power and the RSS and Jan Sangh did not have popular support. Even then the idea of banning something was alien to Nehru. All he could say to Karanjia was,” How can we ban something which is just not done?”

A polling station in the 1962 elections. Credit: Photo Division

A polling station in the 1962 elections. Credit: Photo Division

It was not the first and last time Nehru had to face such sectarian pressure. Just before the second Lok Sabha elections, protests against him broke out in Maharashtra where he was to unveil a statue of Shivaji. Maratha scholars and politicians attacked him for his view of Shivaji as expressed in his book The Discovery of India. S.A. Dange, the communist leader, also told him that he did not deserve to do this job. Nehru did not agree with them but cancelled his programme. He said that it might look as if he was trying to exploit Maratha sentiments for electoral gains.

Democracy for Nehru was entwined with civility. Civility was for him a matter of thought and social behavior which included political behavior. There were things which were simply not done. He abhorred communalism for the simple reason that it was an un-civilised social attitude and way to behave towards people you consider as your other.

Nehru knew that civility and democracy did not come automatically to people. This was a matter of education. Elections were one such opportunity: “For me, this business of electioneering is a most exciting experience in mass education. We get an opportunity of explaining our ideals and objectives to the people; and the people in their own way educate us to appreciate their wants and complaints. All of us are richer by the experience.”

Education did not mean converting people to one’s own ideology. His civilised mind rebelled against the thought of converting someone or create a following for oneself. He aimed at helping people to think rigorously, intelligently and independently. He believed in their intelligence and challenged them to think anew. Thinking involved constant examination of your beliefs. It was important to develop the capacity to persuade others but equally crucial was an ability to listen carefully to other views and be ready to revise yourself.

No room for big brother

Without cultivating rigorous thinking and rigorous living, it was impossible to live democratically. The moot question was how to live well collectively. Secularism arose as a possible response to this question. A collective life which legitimised any kind of hierarchy and inequality was not a good life. Secularism, according to Nehru, was much more than its dictionary meaning of separation of religion and the state: “It conveys the idea of social and political equality.” It rejected the idea of political or cultural dominance of any group over others. It was crude to think of patronising others or of being a guardian to them. That is why he was firm that in an independent and secular India, Hindus cannot behave like benevolent elders to the other smaller religious or faith groups.

Nehru has been criticised by some for creating a spiritual void in the lives of the traditionally religious Indian masses by asking them to secularise themselves. They say that he created in them a sense of guilt for their religiosity. It is really astonishing to see scholars charging Nehru with something his sensibility would have revolted against. He was definitely not on a mission to make people irreligious or atheist. He was too refined to see himself as a missionary. He was influenced by Marxism and was partisan to the communist world but he disliked the idea of state or party forging a New Man. On the contrary, he thought that every human being contained a divine element which gave him faith in the capability of each and every human being to live life ethically.

Nehru did not believe that India or Hinduism or any religion or community was inherently superior to others. Neither did he find the notion of being a world-leader very attractive. To always expect or demand respect and sympathy from others without first having the will or capacity to give was pettiness. The notion of secularism Nehru developed was more about evolving a way of living together without trying to integrate others in one’s own self. It was based not on rejection but on the ability to accept.

Nehru would have scoffed at naming it this Nehruvian secularism. He did not think there existed any Nehru doctrine. He preferred to call it the Indian way of thinking or Gandhian thought, at best. It was an innovation on the western notion of secularism. It is a much more relaxed and open notion, which is not anxious to put the traditional or the religious out of the public eye. Nehru did not think that civilisations grow by firmly and finally putting behind ‘the old’. He loved to use the metaphor of a palimpsest to describe Indian civilisation. Nothing fades away, the old grows into new and it must have its memory if it wants to have a deep life.

Nehru’s faith in the tenacity of the earth-bound wisdom of the peasantry was not wrong, this is what the mostly rural Bihar seems to assure him today. They deserve thanks and congratulations from him.

Apoorvanand teaches at Delhi University.

  • Mr. Thawait

    Thanks Sir…………..
    History is always repeated. Only Character must be changed.