By Tripurdaman Singh and Adeel Hussain
As Gandhi once described to the Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, Jawaharlal Nehru had the ability to chat for days together “with a passion that I [Gandhi] have no words to describe”.
Some of the most profound questions in South Asian history have been debated in this way, many of which remain unresolved, plaguing the contemporary world as intensely as those of Nehru – for example, questions about Muslim representation, on the role of religion in public life, the sanctity and inviolability of fundamental rights or India’s relations with Pakistan and China. These hugely consequential debates decisively influenced political events, generating lasting repercussions.
“Nehru’s contests were always about ideas, never about his personal interests”, argued (Walter) Crocker (and other biographers), “although he conducted them without quarter and provoked much personal enmity .”
This is of course not strictly true, as there was often more than a tinge of instrumental rationality in many of these contests – particularly when Nehru challenged the opinions of his peers.
The manner in which he conducted these conflicts, the tools he deployed and the reasoning he provided marked each of these contests as part of Nehru’s maneuvers for short-term gain and to acquire and consolidate power. Politics; they expressed his tactical and strategic side as much as they did the visionary and the ideational. By engaging in these contests, Nehru and his contemporaries defined their ideological positions, proposed competing visions and configurations for the future, and staked the political ground – with consequences that reverberate to this day.
This book highlights four such consequential debates in which Nehru engaged: with the poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal, with the leader of the Muslim League and founder of Pakistan Mohammad Ali Jinnah, with his colleague and MP Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and with his first heel in Parliament, Shyama Prasad Mookerjee.
With Jinnah, Nehru exchanged spiteful letters about Hindu-Muslim relations and Muslim League claims. Along with Iqbal, he challenges the meaning of Muslim solidarity and the role of religion and religious orthodoxy in public life. Patel and Nehru have crossed swords over India’s policy towards China and Tibet. And with Mookerjee, Nehru clashed in parliament over civil liberties and the First Amendment to the Constitution.
The four debates represent critical moments in South Asian history, moments that decided which way the pendulum of events would swing. Each debate is thus a crucial part of the events that followed: unbeknownst to them, for example, Nehru and Jinnah’s arguments were the opening act of the Score, in the same way that Patel’s confrontation with Nehru contained the germs of 1962.
“Nehru’s political career was rooted in a vision of a new India,” said Judith Brown, one of Nehru’s biographers, “… [and] Appreciating the origins and power of this vision is essential to understanding man.”
This is true, as almost all his biographers have noted. Nevertheless, it is also true that translating this vision into politics meant leaving the world of visions and interacting with the more mundane world of politics, where the arguments and alternatives offered by his contemporaries had to be disarmed (or often dismissed), opponents confronted and manipulated, compromises made, choices made, events responded to and, most importantly, Nehru’s grip on political power grew stronger.
It is also true that Nehru’s personality, complex and contradictory in equal measure, strongly influenced his politics. Combining hard work, charm, idealism, and ruthlessness with vanity, petulance, and frequent (and notorious) tantrums, Nehru’s likes and prejudices, likes and dislikes, have had great impact on his relationships with his contemporaries and his engagement with their ideas. .
Nehru’s political career was rooted not only in his outlook, but also in the demands of practical politics and the personal relationships he shared – an aspect of his politics that admirers tend to downplay as much as detractors like to play .
In this context, engagement with other political actors was as instrumental as it was ideological and as personal as it was public. If Nehru the visionary was an idealist, then Nehru the political actor was just as much an uncompromising realist. Nehru’s vision is part of the story; so does the intersection of his vision with the larger political world in which he operated.
Nehru’s writings and public statements should therefore be viewed in this light – as tools for both intellectual and strategic engagement with other political actors, and as a method of positioning and navigating the tense politics of the years pre-Nehruana.
Appreciation of the origins and power of Nehru’s vision of India – which, as Brown argues, is essential to understanding the man – must therefore be complemented by an appreciation and understanding of how this vision emerged at the intersection of Nehru’s ideas, the ideas of his contemporaries, the vagaries of practical politics, and the weaknesses of Nehru’s personality. The examination of its debates enables us to do so.
Reproduced here in their original form, accompanied by introductions that provide the historical contextualization and intellectual scaffolding necessary to understand them in their entirety, the four debates between Nehru and his contemporaries together offer an intimate insight into the man and his ideas. – as they have taken shape in the crucible of politics, accommodate the ideas of opponents and colleagues, and delineate their position in the public domain.
They give us a first-hand glimpse of Nehru in action, giving us an incisive view of the process by which his ideas triumphed over those of his contemporaries and allowing a more composite image of Nehru to emerge.
While many of the core issues Nehru debated – the sanctity of the Constitution and freedom of speech, the role of religion in public life, Muslim representation, the dynamic with China – were resurrected as questions raging in India, and the legacy of Nehru (and the Nehruvian shibboleths) have been questioned as never before, revisiting these debates has become both relevant and timely.
It is instructive to note in this context how commentators and analysts, to make sense of current situations, frequently turn to Nehru and to debates with his contemporaries. In June 2020, for example, as a new Sino-Indian dispute erupted in the Himalayas, Quint published an article titled “Would China have won in 1962 if Nehru had listened to Patel?”, testifying to the long life of these debates and their ability to impinge on the present in multiple ways.
Today, Nehru may no longer be alive to answer his detractors, but his ideas nonetheless remain locked in ideological battles, reigniting debates that many believed to be settled by history. In the heat of the moment, they are often distorted or misinterpreted by all parties, not only because of partisan politics, but also because Nehru, mediated by interlocutors, was a lot of things to a lot of people.
As one of his biographers, BR Nanda, observed, “To conservatives he was an extremist, to Marxists a renegade, to Gandhians a non-Gandhian, and to big business a dangerous radical.”
(Excerpt from ‘Nehru: The Debates that Defined India’ by Tripurdaman Singh and Adeel Hussain courtesy of the publisher, HarperCollins)