The distant gleam of greatness – by Aakar Patel

Sunday, December 21, 2008 (The News)

Nehru is the touchstone leader for the secular Indian. Gandhi was religious, bringing him closer to the common man, and he looked wrong. The secular Indian may be devout through the observance of ritual but is put off, as Nehru was, with Gandhi’s religiosity, and anti-modern appearance.

Both Gandhi and Nehru were British-educated, setting them apart from Ambedkar, who went to Columbia University, and returned with an American’s clarity. Nehru was agnostic — though recently there was published a photograph of him in old age entering the Ganga wearing a janoi, the Brahmin’s thread — and anglicised. He despised the RSS, the other touchstone for the secular Indian.

Indians know him through caricature: the Chacha Nehru of Children’s Day, the man betrayed by China and, since 1991, the man clueless about the economy. Australia’s ambassador Walter Crocker observed him for six years and wrote about him in a book as no Indian would — and perhaps could.

India’s newspaper editors dismissed the account, called A Contemporary’s Estimate, as sensationalist, because they were unable to grasp leaders as real men. The book has just been reprinted. The man who emerges from Crocker’s first-rate portrait is complete, and attractive, though flawed.

Crocker says Nehru was spectacular with the public, unequalled even by Gandhi, even though when Crocker first encountered Nehru in 1945 in Bengal, he was in a crowd pushing and slapping people away. Unlike most Indians, Nehru had an interest in nature and was able to identify plants. He kept animals at home including pandas, but his house in Delhi itself was not private.

An office ran day and night on the ground floor in shifts. He came out at 8.30 am and anyone could walk up to him at that time. Scores of people would live on the footpath opposite his gate, cooking and cleaning and sleeping there. Though they irritated Nehru, the police were forbidden from driving them away.

He was quick to temper, as a society woman chatting during a concert recital learnt. What Nehru would have thought of mobile phones going off in the audience would not be hard to imagine. He understood music and liked the violinist Yehudi Menhuin.

He made many speeches, too many, often three in a day, and was careless with his time. Foreign delegations, even those of students, would secure appointments while bureaucrats and ministers would wait for days. He was a poor administrator in a nation that has always needed firm administration. He was moralistic when it came to Europe and constantly lectured it on what it had done wrong.

Intellectually, Crocker rates Nehru very highly, and compares him not unfavourably to Rajagopalachari — “the sharpest mind in Indian public life” — though Nehru did not have the originality of Gandhi. Crocker says he once took a scientist, a Nobel laureate, to Nehru, who picked out a careless remark, and, politely, demolished it.

Nehru’s personality was attractive; what about his policy? His great failure was his military defeat to China in 1962, and China marked the end of the period of Nehru’s reverence in India. But he was attacked in print and in parliament only at the end of his career, from mid-1959 to his death in 1964.

Nehru hid India’s border dispute with China till September 1959. Once he revealed it, the hysteria in India gave him little space to compromise. His subsequent Forward Policy brought war. Even today, Indians who wish to see a map of how their country looks in physical control, must consult maps made outside India, because the real map distresses us.

Despite his failures, Nehru’s personality and his secularism have aged well, even if we think the wheels have come off his policies. One reason is his ability to create state institutions of unsurpassable quality. Nehru’s legacy is secure because of these institutions.

Under him India created the Indian Institutes of Technology, the Space Research Organisation, the Indian Institutes of Management, which are at the vanguard of India Shining. In the arts, he set up the National School of Drama, the Sangeet Natak Akademi, the Sahitya Akademi, the Film and Television Institute. He commissioned Charles and Ray Eames to produce a report that led to the National Institute of Design.

All five IITs set up before 1994 were set up under Nehru; none under Indira or Rajiv. Manmohan Singh, who is Nehruvian in his orientation, has added six more. Institutions came up in the Nehru era that have not come up since in the public sector. They remain unmatched by any other poor nation; and not a few rich ones.

We like leaders from the past so that we can deify them. Their angularities do not show from the distance. Up close we are put off by their weaknesses. Manmohan Singh, the leader who has most improved our lives, we think of as weak, because he depends on Sonia Gandhi, and ineffective, because he does not mirror our rage against Pakistan.

But he has actually been our most effective leader.

Vajpayee was moderate, but unhinged on some issues including his childlike passion for acquiring an atomic bomb. He is seen as a statesman on the basis of his oratory, which in the subcontinental fashion is high on emotion. And he is seen as a man of refinement because of his poetry, which is actually banal. Our inspection of leaders who are around us is poor and based on their raw appeal.

Thackeray, whose appeal really comes from his oratory, is seen as strong because he can say fierce things. But he has not a single successful policy to his name, other than the renaming of things that other people built.

His Shiv Sena does not govern even its home state of Maharashtra let alone India, but reading Thackeray’s published utterances you would think him a man of influence.

Mayawati, who governs 200 million people in Uttar Pradesh, puts us off because we find her ugly, and because of her caste we find her uncultured. Her appeal to her community and her considerable political craft is dismissed.

Crocker notes that Nehru insisted that Muslims be allowed to retain all their customs, including polygamy, which he did not like (Nehru had polygamy banned for Hindus). All his life, Nehru was interested in Muslim welfare.

His tentative speculation, published in the Modern Review, on the Ahmedi question, called for the subsuming of sectarian identity in favour of something larger. It invited attack from the great Iqbal, who delivered himself of a harangue against the Ahmedis. It says something of Nehru’s standing among Muslims that Iqbal found it necessary to respond theologically, dismissing Ibn Arabi (‘psychologically unsound’) along the way.

Like Gandhi’s, Nehru’s image with Muslims has worn well, and rightly.

Jinnah’s image as a Muslim leader, rather than the constitutionalist he was, has also worn well. After Advani visited Pakistan and praised Jinnah, India’s Urdu newspapers went into rapture.

Close examination of Jinnah would put Indian Muslims and Pakistanis off. Jinnah’s faith, Ismaili Shia, put him at the heretical end of the Allah Hafiz Muslim’s scale. Because of this Liaqat had Jinnah buried with a Deobandi (Shabbir Usmani) leading his funeral prayer.

Jinnah did not care, as his championing of Zafrulla Khan shows, and perhaps did not even know, about the strength of the Indian Muslim’s feeling toward the Ahmedi. Jinnah was secular and offered constitutionalism to his followers, who actually wanted identity. Jinnah was a Gujarati South Bombay Muslim, a breed that is unique and whose contours are instantly recognisable to residents of this city. His tastes were refined and elegant and did not reflect the Indian Muslim’s love of the shiny and loud.

But Jinnah also disappoints the intellectual.

He wrote no book, or anything else of significance. At 40, his favourite book was Dumas’s Count of Monte Cristo, and his daughter Dina says he was greatly influenced by HC Armstrong’s second-rate biography of Ataturk.

Leaders look better to us from afar because we do not study them or look on them dispassionately. It is easier for us to buy the myth and deify the leader, or dismiss him in full.

Muslims hate George W Bush because of the war on terror. But Bush showed great faith in Muslims. His cabinet believed Americans would be greeted in Iraq as liberators. Why did they believe this? They assumed Iraqis would anticipate the democracy project unfolding, as indeed it has. A suppressed Shia majority has been empowered through democracy in Iraq. Bush showed great optimism on Islam.

He refused to buy the formula that Muslims could not be democratic, and gambled on them. He showed the westerner’s character in laughing off the shoes thrown at him, while Muslims rejoiced in the thought that they had avenged the humiliation of invasion. But Iraq’s Shia leadership has accepted Bush’s wisdom.

We hate him now but how will he be seen from the distance? We do not yet know. In that sense, Bush’s legacy will actually be written by Arabs.

The writer is a former newspaper editor who lives in Bombay. Email: