The Quintessential Nehru

By Raman, A. S. | Contemporary Review, September 1994 | Go to article overview

The Quintessential Nehru


Raman, A. S., Contemporary Review


THE Indians remember Nehru only twice a year, on May 27, the anniversary of his death, and November 14--his birthday. For the rest of the year they don't spare a thought for him. But on these two occasions the entire nation pays him homage extravagantly. The scenario and the script are the same year after year: a gush of radical rhetoric, a flamboyant but empty ritual, effusive rededication to broken promises and unkept pledges, and hypocritical reassertion of faith in his already repudiated concepts of socialism, secularism and social accountability. In other words, the 'Theatre of the Absurd' enacted on the debris of his legacy, desecrated by the very party -- the Congress -- which over the years he assiduously developed into a vibrant, value-based and self-renewing national organisation geared up to the challenges of post-Independence polity. The party had shown signs of decay even in his life-time. Finally, it died with him, though his successor, Lal Bahadur Shastri, tried to resuscitate it.

Jawaharlal Nehru stood for certain graces and norms without which he believed democracy would be an expensive, self-negating extravaganza which a poor country such as India could hardly afford. He had a complex rather than a composite personality. He was an endearing enigma. He could feel comfortable in the company of a US president as well as a Malayalee fisherman in the remotest village of Kerala. The opposites blended in him so harmoniously that he could relate gracefully to any genuine expression of the human spirit. He had the rationalism of the West and the romanticism of the East, the radicalism of the left and the refinement of the right, the empiricism of the scientific temper and the empathy of the creative mind, the ebullience of youth and the elegance of age, the modernism of the present and the mysticism of the past, the agonies of a revolutionary and the ecstasies of a humanist, the passion of a nationalist and the poise of an internationalist, the hauteur of a blue-blooded aristocrat and the humility of a man of the masses, and, above all, the instincts of a man of affairs and the insights of a man of letters. In fact there were many Nehrus not just one: the thinker, the writer, the Gandhian, the Marxist, the revolutionary, the atheist, the darling of the masses, the envy of the elite, the autocrat, the humanist, the conformist with leanings towards Buddhism, the Hindu swayed by the mystique of the Ganga, the doting father and the trusting and transparent internationalist. An ardent admirer and, at the same time, a severe critic of Nehru, Walter Crocker who, as Australian High Commissioner, had a ringside view of the performance by India's first Prime Minister, asks: 'Which Nehru are you talking about?' Crocker's study of Nehru, a bestseller, is a perceptively written and meticulously documented assessment of one of the greatest statesmen of the century. Crocker goes on describing the countless facets of Nehru's baffling character and personality, the one not merely different from but in conflict with another. There were thus too many divergent, even mutually destructive Nehrus, not hiding passively in, but popping combatively out of the same frame.

There was however a man behind these masks and he was a great charmer. His was an irresistible presence whose power lay in the contradictions inherent in his character and temperament. He was the quintessential Nehru who had certain inherited and acquired values and qualities which he never compromised. For example, his natural elegance. His personal conduct was never below his high, self-imposed standards of refinement and rectitude. There was style in whatever he said or did. Courage was another deeply cherished Nehru trait. He did not know what fear was. He was by temperament an adventurer not only at the physical level but on the ideological and intellectual planes too, thanks to the impact of the radical and rational Fabianism on his thought and temperament in his formative years. …

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