A Dangling Conversation

The long-forgotten debate between Nehru and JP Narayan is a painful reminder of what’s missing in our politics today.

01 November 2010
Former Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s office at his former residence in Teen Murti Bhavan, New Delhi.

NO MODERN STATESMAN was as much of a thinking politician as Jawaharlal Nehru. Like Winston Churchill, Nehru had a deep interest in history; unlike Churchill, he also had an interest in political ideas and ideologies. In 1958, the British writer EM Forster imagined Voltaire being reborn, and composing a letter on the fate of humankind. But the philosopher, Forster imagined, would not know whom to address, since there was now “not a single crowned head who would wish to receive a letter from him.” Scanning the world, Forster (and Voltaire) saw only amiable but poorly read monarchs (such as Queen Elizabeth II, who was “so charming, so estimable, but no philosopher”; so unlike Frederick of Prussia or even Catherine of Russia, “both Greats”). The rulers in uniform were as philistine as those who sat on thrones; Voltaire could scarcely bring himself to write to living generals such as Ayub Khan of Pakistan or Tito of Yugoslavia. Forster, speaking through Voltaire, quickly reached the conclusion that “only one head of a state would welcome a letter from him, and that was President (sic) Nehru of India. With an exclamation of delight he took up his pen.”

Nehru was a serious thinker and eloquent writer, but within India there were other politicians who could hold their own with him in argument. In his years as prime minister, his ideas on politics, economics and culture were subjected to sharp scrutiny. Thus, through the 1950s and 60s, the specific contours of democracy and national unity were intensely debated in all parts of the country. Nehru’s Congress party won successive general elections, but had still to answer its critics on the Left and the Right who were represented in parliament. It also met with strong opposition in the states; not least in the southernmost state of Kerala, where Congress dominance was successfully challenged, first by the socialists and then by the communists. Apart from this political opposition, individuals and groups within civil society were also vocal in their criticisms of the policies of the Congress government.

A whole book could be written about the major debates on politics and social policy that took place in the first decades of Indian independence. These arguments covered a wide range of topics—among them, the ideals and institutions of democracy; the relations between different religious communities; the respective roles of the state and private enterprise in promoting economic development; India’s place in the world; and the honourable integration of small ethnic minorities within the nation-state.

Ramachandra Guha books include India After Gandhi and An Anthropologist Among the Marxists and Other Essays. He lives in Bengaluru.

Keywords: Pakistan Em Forster Voltaire Winston Churchill Queen Elizabeth 2 Frederick of Prussia Catherine of Russia Ayub Khan Jawaharlal Nehru JP Narayan Kerala EMS Namboodiripad Rammanohar Lohia Syama Prasad Mookherjee C Rajagopalachari Vinoba Bhave