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HomeOPINIONPrime Ministers of India from Nehru to Modi # 1

Prime Ministers of India from Nehru to Modi # 1

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Gandhi and Nehru

Jawaharlal Nehru served for the longest tenure as the Prime Minister of India from June 1946 to May 1964. Before departing the British grudgingly handed over the PM’s ‘gaddi’ to him, and let him preside over the partition. Lord Earl Louis Mountbatten, 79, the last viceroy was not at all amused when Jawaharlal Nehru handed him an empty envelope instead of a list of names to be included in his would-be cabinet ministers. It was not a mere coincidence that the missing piece of paper was found just before the swearing-in ceremony. Mountbatten was so perturbed to find Sardar Patel’s name missing in Nehru’s list of the cabinet that he rushed to call on Mahatma Gandhi who was nowhere to be found. While Nehru was taking oath as the first Prime Minister of India, Mahatma Gandhi the frail old father of the nation was 1,500 km away trying to douse the communal frenzy in the riot-torn streets of Noakhali (a part of Bengal) now in Bangladesh.

Mountbatten wanted Gandhi to intervene because he believed that Nehru was not capable to rule India alone and would not be able to deal with the aftermath of the partition and departure of the British administration. He knew Nehru was a dreamer and he needed Patel to convert his dream in reality with firm execution ability.

This exactly was also the dilemma before Gandhi. He had to decide who would prove to be a better Prime Minister – Nehru or Sardar Patel? A majority of people in the Congress party believed that Patel was an able administrator and hence deserved to be selected as Independent India’s first Prime Minister, but for Gandhi’s stubborn preference for Nehru.

The last date for filing the nominations for the post of the Congress President and thus first Prime Minister of India was April 29, 1946. At least 12 out of 15 Congress committees were in favour of Sardar Patel. Not a single Congress committee supported Nehru’s name. Even Maulana Abul Kalam Azad was keen to contest but Gandhi opposed his name because he had been the Congress president since 1940. Gandhi also asked Sardar Patel to withdraw his name which he did out of respect for Gandhi. Thus the stage was set for Nehru candidature as India’s first Prime Minister.

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In his memoir Maulana Abul Kalam Azad made the following comment, “I have regretted no action of mine so much as the decision to withdraw from the presidentship of the Congress in this critical juncture. It was a mistake… My second mistake was that when I decided not to stand myself, I did not support Sardar Patel. We differed on many issues but I am convinced that if he had succeeded me as Congress President he would have seen that the Cabinet Mission Plan was successfully implemented. He would have never committed the mistake of Jawaharlal which gave Jinnah the opportunity of sabotaging the plan. I can never forgive myself when I think that if I had not committed these mistakes, perhaps the history of the last ten years would have been different.”

Nehru was a dreamer to think about what he would do to make India modern and great. Sardar Patel was no doubt excellent to deal with what he confronted. He rushed Indian armed forces to Kashmir, even before the instrument of accession was signed, to beat out the hordes of illegal and antisocial infiltrators from Baluchistan to cow down Kashmir. The bravery of Indian officers and jawans to drive them off convinced Raja Hari Singh that Kashmir and Kashmiriyat (Culture of Kashmir) were safe only in Indian hands. It induced him to sign the instrument of accession.

No doubt Nehru seriously wanted to rapidly develop India, but it seems that he took a wrong turn in his hurry to modernize India quickly. Nehru had visited the Soviet Union in 1928, just before he was elected as the Congress president at the Karachi session and was impressed by the giant plants and units built by the Communist regime in the essentially agriculture-based economy in mere eight years.

But model for economic development adopted by the Communist regime in Russia was not replicable in India due to several dissimilarities in two lands, people and their aptitudes.  Nehru had no idea about the real India. The first time he came face to face with the miserable poverty was in 1936 when he visited a village in Pratapgarh district in a bullock cart to lead a farmer’s agitation as per Mahatma Gandhi’s advice. This obviously left such a lasting impression in his mind that swore to eradicate unemployment and create more jobs as rapidly as he could. He rejected the People’s Plan for the development of G.G. Parikh and VM Tarkunde. The People’s Plan had emphasized priority to the development of agriculture, attention to women and education for children. Agriculture was then decidedly the largest employment sector for uneducated or rather for unschooled humans but slow in generating new opportunities. Hence Nehru preferred industrialization for quicker employment generating sector as the basis for his development model. Investments of available money in machines for development were his priority. Educating and training men did not figure in his concept of development.

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He did not prefer Communism. His prejudices acquired for rapidly growing commercialism due to his proximity with aristocracy during his higher education in England came in the way of his allowing the private sector to have free grounds in the development process. Dependence on the public sector resulted in an inevitable dependence on the government. He did not prefer to eliminate the private sector that existed for centuries and needed to reach the vast population in wide-ranging areas but he put them on leash by prescribing a mandatory need for a permit to expand or set up new ventures. Thus his model of development was neither based on capitalistic structure nor completely modeled on the communist concept. It passed the entire responsibility of economic development on to government while opening the field for corruption. Every permit and license demanded and depended on gratification.

I do not intend to divert attention, by statistical information of total investments in 120 public sector entities and their turning into white elephants in less than half a decade with losses in their operations. The main reason for the collapse was the public sector entities were not operated as a commercial venture but as government departments under command of men educated and trained in disciplines of the Administrative Services. The practice adopted was far away from commercial venture needs. Most of the bosses for public sector ventures were shifted from their government jobs. One can see his prejudices for commercial class again in operation.

Kasturbhai Lalbhai had set up six textile mills in 1928 in Gujarat in defiance of the British need and directives that aimed at expansion of and dependence on the British made textiles in Britain. He had delivered all his profits to the Congress for the freedom struggle. Yet he was denied audience with Prime Minister Nehru for three days in 1956 when he had come to invite Nehru to inaugurate the first chemical plant built in India. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad intervened to organize meeting. Kasturbhai told him why he had come to Delhi but now had a change of his heart to get his plant inaugurated by one of the plant workers. This incidence only reflects the prejudice inherent in the approach that prevailed then.

Nehru decided to adopt the concept of Planned Economic Development but the emphasis in his regime was to share scarcities and shortages by managing available rather than generating a surplus. Food shortages were a perennial problem. Despite the Indian economy was based on agriculture, it could never produce enough for the entire population. Nehru had Rafi Ahmed Kidwai, a leftist by attitude as his food minister who introduced ration system for sharing the food produced in India and imported quantum as none wanted the repeat of the horrible experience of 1943 famine that had taken a heavy toll of six million Indians, with maximum deaths in Bengal. As the Public Distribution System could not satisfy, Nehru brought in the known rightist SK Patil, known as the uncrowned king of Bombay to fill in the slot vacated by Kidwai with his resignation. Patil found a solution by signing the PL480 agreement for permanent grain charity.

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Nehru built huge dams and irrigation canals. However, all experiments were for increasing production and not on improving productivity through yield of every agriculture commodity per acre in India was the lowest. Even though more than 80 percent of landholding was in hands of 12 percent rich farmers, no efforts were made to meet food needs through improved productivity. The wealthy farmers would have adored Nehru for efforts in that direction. Small and marginal farmers would have appreciated improvement in productivity to provide them more comforts.

Conditions were no different in any area not even in industrial sector. Guru Charan Singh retired but a well-known management expert quoted in his book, JRD Tata lamenting that he was paying 93 percent of his income as taxes. Also, he was paying 8 percent as his wealth tax. How can any able mind and skilled hand have the incentive to produce more if the government was to take away a major part of his earnings? It can result in making them inactive or tax evaders or corrupt.

The Planned Economic Development ideas devised in closed air-conditioned rooms at Delhi were made to apply to different regions though even district-wise needs were specific and differing. It led to huge disparities. Salman Rushdie’s documentary filmed in 1987 to celebrate his fortieth birthday depicts sharply the disparities and mindless plans that rendered huge lots engaged in their traditional trades and occupations to be unemployed. New techniques, instruments, and methods were introduced without thinking over its impact over the traditional methods or without provisions for alternate sources for livelihood to engage in the usage of traditional ways.

In one filmed episode a poor woman is shown baking roti on a ramshackle Chula made of bricks on the footpath on Marine Drive in Mumbai. Her tiny tot is playing in dirty rainwater that remained in the road puddle. The focus is immediately shifted to the window on the sixth floor of the building opposite. It’s the kitchen, and a well-dressed in sari young woman is shown to be taking out kebab pieces from her oven. As her small puppy pulls the edge of her sari, one kebab piece falls. Puppy catches it and shown running away from the kitchen. There cannot be a more glaring example of disparity.

In other parts, the film depicts stories of how traditional fishermen lost out to incoming trawlers and plastics used to make baskets and nylon for net strings destroyed lives of few thousand old women who were able to earn their bread on their traditional skills of making baskets and repairing nets. Induction of trawlers for fishing and use of plastic was no doubt development towards modernity but it was at the cost of many lives. Rahul Gandhi did point out the major lacuna in the planning process in July 2013 when he told the audience of big businessmen that in planning we never went to masses to ask them what their need was.

There is not only a time distance of seven decades but also a gap of three generations between Jawaharlal and Rahul Gandhi. Nehru had allowed also men and women of both kinds of orientation, left and right to be around him but all in awe of him. No minister of his council could occupy a chair in his office in his presence except Maulana Azad who had familiarized Nehru with the Indian culture and civilization in Ahmednagar Jail. Nehru was taught by English tutors at home to obviate the need to go to school in India that might have contaminated his body, mind, and soul due to association with Indian kids. He spent years in England for higher education with minimum touch with the Indian student community. His letters to his daughter Indira Gandhi contained an admission that he learned of India only from Azad.

Most political jokes of his era depict him in the role of benevolent teacher. Meaning he was surrounded by only dunce colleagues or who showed they were dunce in his presence. Brilliant men like Chakravorty Rajagopalachari, who got elevated to be the first Indian governor-general and later as the chief minister of large state Madras, could not come closer to Nehru due to incompatibility. He was opposed to the name of Rajendra Prasad as the first President of the Indian Republic. The pretext was his habit of dhoti as his preferred apparel would cause embarrassment in reception to foreign visiting dignitaries. Nevertheless, he had told his sister Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit to be ready for the office. Aruna Asaf Ali came to know of it while she had accompanied Vijayalakshmi to buy new saris. Aruna rushed to Maulana the moment she heard. Azad also had a long and sharp talk with Nehru to deter him from his plans and agree to sponsor Dr. Rajendra Prasad. As merely matters of conjectures, how the Indian politics would have shaped if this compromise was not worked out will horrify many.

Rajaji fell out of Congress to protest over Nehru’s ideas of the collectivization of small farms for bettering production. Rajaji saw in his proposal revealed at the Nagpur Congress session in 1956, Nehru ambling towards communism for the scheme appeared akin to what Joseph Stalin had done in Russia in 1953. A year later he launched a new party to protect small and medium-class farmers and traders. He also openly wrote in his weekly column penned article in his weekly Kalki to say the worst enemy of Nehru was himself as he cannot tolerate his criticism. To dispel his fears Nehru even flew to Madras to explain in person but Rajaji refused the meeting. The two instances one of his dislike for the Indian attire of Dr. Rajendra Prasad and his toying with the idea of a merger of small farms into collective big farms show how little he knew of the basic Indian psyche. Yet another failure on education front tells a lot. He strived to improve higher education facilities by creating eight Indian Institutes of technology for he needed engineers for his planned factories but never even once attended to the vital task of improving primary, mid-level and secondary education systems. He made no attempts to introduce changes to serve the changed purpose in independent India. He certainly needed engineers and so also needed skilled hands to work on machines to produce materials.

When the East India Company found heavy costs involved in importing and maintaining its citizens from Britain for clerical work, they had to turn to local stuff to work at lower levels. But in Indian traditions, every communication including prayers was the oral transmission form. Ninety percent did not have the right or need to acquire the ability to write or read. Even without it most could recite Gayatri Mantra without a single mistake or pause to recall the next line.

The British devised the education system to meet their urgent need of lower rungs in the administration to save on heavy expenses involved in import. The system was devised to create a pool of men power needed. It did not aim to produce scholars. The needs of India had undergone vast changes. We did not convert the education system attached to various vocations as the Gandhian concept of Buniyadi Talim suggested nor induce scholarly ability. Yet to satisfy large sections of Dalit, Nehru approved the introduction of Reservations for Dalits in higher education institutes related to future vocations. The scheme denotes a lack of understanding of human psyche development and imposing unfair placement of lower caliber and intelligence in the highly competitive field.

The human psyche develops not only due to school education but also due to supplementary and complementary attributes derived from the social environment. Kids in the rich home or middle-class family with educated parents are naturally exposed to such supplementary aids. But economically weak a socially backward families and their poor social environment are unable and incapable of providing additional props. Admission to higher education under the Reservations even though the last exam results put them on the lower rungs of success ladder brings them to compete with students of the highest rungs of success. It becomes unjust and unfair ground and results in exposing not only their economic and social backwardness but also a lack of intelligence levels. Also, what happens to other students who cannot reach even the lowest rung? Neither Nehru nor BR Ambedkar had given thought to this reality in their enthusiasm to help the poor. The intention was laudable but the method adopted did not suit the intended purpose. The government has never given out figures of midway dropouts or even drop outs due to preferred end to life from total admitted under Reservations for 72 years.

Nehru was personally uncorrupt and not corruptible. He hardly knew financial dealings as he never indulged in the profession, had never dealt with household chores or party works as he entered politics by descending from the top. His intents were honorable but the system he adopted and imposed for economic growth could not remain without corruption. He rejected capitalism due to human exploitation rampant in it and could not take the communist path as it abridged even the fundamental rights of everyone. He built the most liberal political institutions to provide opportunity and freedom of choice to everyone in equal measure. He did not want exploitation or shun completely everyone from seeking their economic betterment. Every system has an element of corruption in small or big proportion as everyone wielding authority looks for bettering fortunes of the family and everyone outside seeks to subvert authority for personal gains. That led to corrupting everyone in authority including that outside. The proportion of corruption may not be as high as infamy makes out. But other nations are not branded as their political leaders do not talk of corrupt practices of each other as they do in India.

Nehru was no doubt earnest for rapid growth, more employment and also modernizing India in the shortest possible period. His ways did not succeed to the required extent to materialize his dream into a hard reality. He achieved what he intensely hated low growth, rampant corruption and perennial scarcities that forced India to be at the doorsteps of rich nations with a begging bowl in hand to get grains to feed hungry millions through a difficult season of the year.

Very little light was shed on his personal and married life. He did not speak of or write to his ailing wife even though he was a voracious writer. He wrote more letters in his 18 years in office than a total number of letters by all other officeholders since his time. From prison also he penned letters to his daughter Indira born a year after his marriage with Kamala Kaul in 1916. His both sisters Vijayalakshmi and Krishna, present nearby at the time of the birth of Indira Gandhi left without seeing the newborn as both were disappointed that their brother’s wife gave birth to a girl rather than a boy as the first child. Nehru was constantly engaged in political activities to find time to attend to his ailing wife and a growing girl child. Indira Gandhi was 11 years old when Nehru was crowned as the president of the Congress Party at Karachi Session in 1928. Many remembered him for he had appeared on a public platform with a fluttering dhoti and a dark-colored jacket that was to be part of the standard uniform of Khadi for every Congress soul since then.

Firoz Daruwala, born in the Parsee family of Bharuch but educated in Allahabad, had come to the Nehru family as a nursing attendant to seriously ill Kamala Nehru and had won the admiration of young Indira who became 19 years old in the year she lost her mother.

The sublime character at home roared like a lion outside. He was not a dictator by temperament. Yet he always had his way with others except with Mahatma Gandhi whom Kanaiyalal Munshi had described as a benevolent dictator. Nehru had the field open after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi and the serious health problem of Sardar Patel. He had virtually hounded out Purushottam Das Tandon, elected as the Congress President by defeating the Nehru sponsored Acharya Kripalani. In six-party conclaves in a year, Nehru left no doubt to show his non-cooperative stance by refusing to join the highest decision making body of the party. He ultimately threatened at the Nasik conclave in September 1950, three months before death of Patel in Bombay hospital that he was ready to quit and sit in opposition if he were not to be allowed to work as the Prime Minister according to his wishes and ways. The stunned party men of all shades and hues voted to give him a fee hand. Tandon was lost into political oblivion by walking away with his resignation.

Nehru was no doubt a great Indian soul with clear intent for rapid economic growth and converting India to be a modern nation as soon and as quickly as he could. But the model he chose to achieve his objectives, though the best is given circumstances, delivered effects that were not even anticipated, leave aside expectations to be the cause of causes. The growth rate stuck at 3.5 percent a year and jeered at by the West as the Hindu growth rate. He was reluctant for the reorganization of states based on provincial languages for the fear of dangerous potential in it of the emergence of sub-nationalities but he had to give in after eruption of violence in Madras state over declaration of Hindi to be the national language in 1956.

Despite shortcomings in achievements in declared objectives and initiatives undertaken, there was no challenge to Nehru for leadership. Many including foreign experts continued to speculate over ‘Who after Nehru?’ Books in huge volumes were written without an answer for no plants can grow under a massive banyan tree. But the shock that China delivered in October 1962 with its military intrusion in Himalayan borders of India shattered Nehru completely to make the recovery of confidence beyond his reach.

Even though Nehru studied world history he may not have believed that the Chinese mind would continue to adore its habit of living in isolation due to suspicions of all others and their intentions. Three centuries ago, the Chinese emperor had got all Chinese boats burnt or destroyed to discourage the Chinese from seafaring to other lands and thus discourage others visiting China. The isolation continued even after it adopted the Communist March under the leadership of Mao Tse Tung in 1948. Only two sores remained Hong Kong under the British control and Macao under the Portugal command.

Soon after India stabilized as an independent nation, Nehru launched his ambitious scheme of erecting a third world pole as equidistance from two poles under two superpowers. China did not appear to be a part of any of the three poles. The Chinese premier Chou En-Lai delivered a false message with his chanting a new slogan Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai. Nehru believed it to be genuine desire. China waited until its complete control of Tibet.

At the time, China had troubled northern borders with Russia. Though both had Communism, there was no meeting point as China did not recognize the Soviet Union as either superpower or its leadership of a bloc. Even though Nehru was consolidating the third pole, his admiration for the Soviet Union and his dislike for America were not hidden. So it’s difficult to interpret the intention behind the Chinese move of intrusion in Indian borders to shake the surprised and unprepared Indian forces. The most intriguing part was their sudden advance and sudden withdrawal. Many questions are still unanswered.

Nehru earlier seen as roaring giant began bleating. Mahavir Tyagi could use the threatening tongue to serve ultimatum to him either to sack the defense minister VK Krishna Menon or face a revolt in the Parliamentary Party election. It was apparent that despite the Himalayan blunder the party was not holding him responsible. Instead, it preferred a softer solution and went for head of the defense minister for unprepared forces. America sent 30 used rifles to India to defend its borders against Chinese intrusion and the Soviet Union took the route of long term dependence of India on the Soviet Union for defense needs.

Within five months of the blunder, Nehru began to show signs of loss of self-confidence. He got help from the newly appointed Congress president K Kamaraj to shift suspected potential challengers out of their posts to deliver a stunning blow to kill their potential. But Nehru could not recover his compose. It was obvious even in the Party conclave in May 1964 in Mumbai. While he was leaving Mumbai by the plane, I had asked him when he shall again visit Mumbai. Surprisingly he said, as god wishes! I had never heard him depending on God for anything in his 74 years. On the tenth day, on May 27, 1964, union minister, C. Subramanian announced in Lok Sabha he was no more. With that era came to an end. Only memories linger on.

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Vijay Sanghvi
Vijay Sanghvi
Political Commentator and Analyst Vijay Sanghvi, 81 has created a niche for himself as a seasoned media person with proven credentials and political, economic and social analyst since 1962. Sanghvi worked for five years in Mumbai for Gujarati papers before shifting to Delhi and continued to work for various dailies in Gujarati, Marathi, Hindi and English as well as for international media. He has many newsbreaks to his credit as well as inside view of many epoch making events. He covered parliamentary proceedings from 1967 till 2007.


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