A Dangling Conversation

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

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

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.

This range of topics was commensurate with the scale of the enterprise, namely, the building of a single, united nation out of so many disparate fragments; the nurturing of a democratic ethos in a poor and divided society; the promotion of industrial development in an agrarian economy; and the safeguarding of national honour and dignity in an increasingly polarised international climate.

The quality of the interlocutors is worthy of note, too. Among Jawaharlal Nehru’s finest—and fiercest—critics were the communist EMS Namboodiripad, the socialist Rammanohar Lohia, the conservative Syama Prasad Mookerjee, and the liberal C Rajagopalachari. These critics shared three attributes with Nehru: first, they wrote extensively on public affairs; second, the speeches and essays that bore their name were their own handiwork rather than that of a ghostwriter; third, the ideas they expressed were then carried forward by the political parties they led or represented. These were, respectively, the then undivided Communist Party of India for Namboodiripad, the Jana Sangh (forerunner of the Bharatiya Janata Party) for Mookerjee, the Samyukta Socialist Party for Lohia, and the Swatantra Party for Rajagolachari.

Among the most significant—and most overlooked—of these debates was the one between Nehru and a man who had left formal party politics but who was intensely political nonetheless. This was Jayaprakash Narayan, known more familiarly as JP. Before Independence, Narayan had been an active Congressman, and a hero of the Quit India movement of 1942, when he eluded the police for months on end and then, when captured, endured solitary confinement and torture in jail.

Jayaprakash Narayan, staunch critic of Nehru’s policies. {{name}}

In 1948, a year after the British left India, Narayan helped form a new Socialist Party as a Left-wing alternative to the party in power. He served as the president of all-India unions of railway, postal and defence workers, thus being, in effect, the leader of more than a million men. After the Congress defeated all comers in the 1952 elections, Nehru called Narayan for talks to explore the possibility of the socialists rejoining the Congress. The talks failed, but by this time JP was losing interest in organised politics altogether. He had become increasingly attracted to the programmes of the Gandhian Vinoba Bhave, who was campaigning for rich landlords to donate, to the poor, excess land (bhoodan) and, where possible, entire villages (gramdan). Narayan was inspired to do a jivandan, namely, to offer his own life to the service of this social movement.

In 1957, when India held its second general elections, Jayaprakash Narayan was not formally associated with any political party. However, he retained a strong interest in the present and future of democratic institutions. While the campaigning for the elections was on, Narayan wrote an extraordinary letter to Nehru, who was both the serving prime minister and the chief vote-getter of the ruling Congress party. In this letter, Narayan suggested that the prime minister function as a “national rather than a party leader”; that, even while he ran the government, he should “encourage the growth of an Opposition” so as to “soundly lay the foundations of parliamentary democracy” in India.

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru with Cabinet ministers Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, BR Ambedkar, Jagjivan Ram, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, Baldev Singh, Vallabhbhai Patel, Rafi Ahmed Kidwai, John Mathai, Syama Prasad Mookerjee and others. {{name}}

During the elections, Narayan had tried, and failed, to get Opposition parties to avoid three-cornered contests in individual constituencies, since a division of the vote would benefit only the Congress. “In doing so,” Narayan told Nehru he was:

not guided by dislike of or hostility to the Congress as you have repeatedly been suggesting but merely by certain dispassionate political principles. According to parliamentary democracy theory it is not necessary for the opposition to be better than the ruling party. Equally bad parties in opposition are a check on one another and keep the democratic machine on the track… [A]s a Socialist my sympathies are all with the British Labour Party, but I concede that when Labour is in power the Conservatives perform a valuable democratic function without which the Labour government might become a menace to the people. So, I realise that if my advice had been followed by the opposition parties, it would have led to some undesirable parties gaining somewhat in strength. I was prepared, however, to take that risk on the ground (a) that between the two evils of absoluteness of power and a little increase in the strength of certain undesirable parties, the former was the greater evil and (b) that there would be five years after the election in which a sound opposition party could be created.

In one of his speeches, Nehru had chastised Narayan for “playing hide-and-seek” between the pillars of politics and social service. The younger man, he said, “claim[ed] to have given up politics” but “continue[d] to dabble in it.” Narayan replied that he did “not see why only active party and power politicians should express political opinions and no others. Politics would then be reduced to a sordid party game with which the citizen would have no concern.” There was a particular responsibility for Gandhian “constructive workers” to speak out. These workers, insisted Narayan, would:

betray their ideals if they did not boldly play a corrective role, offering friendly, constructive, non-partisan advice and criticism and, if need be, even opposition in the form of non-cooperation and the like. Nor can eschewing of party politics mean indifference to the manner and outcome of elections. True, those who have eschewed party politics are not expected to take any partisan stand, but they may, with complete consistency, raise general political and ideological issues for the guidance of the electorate, the parties and the candidates.

Narayan ended his letter on a somewhat despairing note. Whatever the outcome of the elections, he remarked:

the verdict is inescapable that the present political system has proved a failure. Therefore, the need after the elections is for the leaders of the country to get together in order to find out if there is a better alternative. I think there is and, in the larger interest of the country, we must seek it out. It is here that your leadership is most needed, because without you this cannot be done.

Narayan’s letter extended over six typed pages; Nehru’s reply was even longer. He had “quite failed to understand” what Narayan meant “by my becoming a national leader, rather than a party leader.”

“What does a national leader do?” asked Nehru:

If it is meant that he should collect a number of important people from different parties and form a government, surely this can only be done if there is some common dominant common purpose. Without such a purpose, no government can function. Sometimes, such national governments are formed in wartime, when the only dominant purpose is winning the war and everything is subordinated to it. Even so, they have not been much of a success in parliamentary democracies. Apart from a war, however, we have to deal with political and economic problems, national and international. There must be some common outlook and unity of purpose in dealing with these problems. Otherwise, there would be no movement at all and just an internal tug of war

Nehru argued that by being a “party leader” he had not sacrificed any policy that he may have followed had he been a “national” leader. The economic and foreign policies of his administration were, he believed, in the best interests of the nation. They were not merely a reflection of the Congress party’s prejudices or preferences. If the government that Nehru led had made any compromises, this was “not because of the party, but because of the facts that encompassed us. We have to function as a Government dealing with these facts and not with theoretical propositions.”

Nehru then turned to the question of a robust opposition to the Congress. “So far as I understand parliamentary democracy,” he said:

it means that every opportunity should be given for an opposition to function, to express its views by word or writing, to contest elections in fair conditions, and to try to convert the people to its views. The moment an opposition is given some kind of a protected position, it becomes rather a bogus opposition and cannot even carry weight with the people. I am not aware of any pattern of parliamentary democracy in which it has ever been suggested that the opposition should be encouraged, except in the ways I have mentioned above.

C Rajagopalachari, another critic of Nehru. {{name}}

Nehru disagreed with the view that the opposition in the legislatures was not adequate. Of the 500 or so members of the Lok Sabha, about 150 were members of opposition parties. They were “virile and active,” but being in a minority were generally voted down. “Presumably, you would like larger numbers in the opposition,” said Nehru to Narayan, adding: “Even if there were larger numbers, it would be voted down. And how am I to produce the larger numbers?”

Narayan had asked Nehru to look beyond the confines of the party system, a challenge the older man threw back at him. Apart from the opposition parties in the legislatures, he pointed out:

in India there are all kinds of disruptive and reactionary forces. There is also the inertia of ages. And it is very easy for the inert mass to be roused by some religious or caste or linguistic or provincial or like cry, and thus to come in the way of all progress. That is the real opposition in the country, and it is a tremendously strong one. And that is what you seem to ignore completely. We have constantly to battle against it…

Nehru ended with a qualified defence of parliamentary democracy. It was, he admitted, “full of faults,” but had been adopted in India because “in the balance, it was better than the other possible courses.” He did not agree with Narayan that it was a failure. Like any other system of governance, parliamentary democracy depended on the quality of the human beings who staffed it. “I do not think that the present system is a failure,” said Nehru to Narayan, “though it may fail in the future for all I know. If it fails, it will not fail because the system in theory is bad, but because we could not live up to it. Anyhow what is the alternative you suggest?”

The correspondence between Nehru and Narayan lies in the private papers and manuscript section of the Nehru Memorial Museum & Library. Although there have been at least two serious biographies of Narayan and at least half a dozen of Nehru, this exchange has been entirely overlooked by them. If I exhume and rehabilitate it here, it is for at least five reasons. First, for its intrinsic interest, for the passion and intelligence with which each person articulated his view of what democracy meant. The ideas of both men emerged from many years of political engagement, but also from wide reading and the enlargement of one’s vision that comes from travel to other countries. Their intelligence was complemented and reinforced by their sincerity. These were busy men, leading very full lives, who were so engaged with the political system of their country that they devoted so many hours to debating it in private.

Second, the exchange was part of an ongoing conversation that was intellectually as well as politically productive. At the time of the first general elections, for example, the two men had argued about the extent to which the Congress party as a whole reflected the socialist ideals of the prime minister. The arguments provoked by the polls of 1957 were to continue. Nehru challenged Narayan to come up with an alternative to the parliamentary system; two years later, Narayan wrote his Plea for the Reconstruction of the Indian Polity, a precocious tract that bore fruition three decades later, when its ideas on panchayati raj and decentralised democracy were (in part) incorporated in the 73rd amendment to the Indian Constitution mandating the creation and sustenance of institutions of village self-government.

This brings me to my third point, which is that while the Nehru-Narayan exchange provides insights into the thought of the two men and their times, it remains compellingly relevant. The political predicaments they faced and analysed are ours, too. Thus Narayan flags the need for a focused Opposition to the ruling Congress party, and for democracy to be deepened by the energies of individuals and groups who are not themselves politicians. Nehru, for this part, warns of the disruptive dangers of an excess of identity politics, and presents a qualified defence of parliamentary democracy as, if not the perfect system of governance, at least less harmful than the alternatives. These concerns and emphases appear to be as relevant in 2010 as they may have been in 1957.

There must surely be few other illustrations from history of such an exchange between the most powerful politician in a country and its most respected social worker. But—and here is the fourth reason why this particular debate is so significant—the argument between Nehru and Narayan was entirely representative of the ways in which political argument operated in modern India. For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, activists of different shades argued with subtlety and sophistication on how to win or exercise political power and how to reform or reshape society. Think, for instance, of the arguments between Rammohan Roy and Christian missionaries on whether Hinduism could ever renew itself; the debate between Tilak and Gokhale on whether to focus on national freedom or social reform; the debate between Tagore and Gandhi on India’s attitude to the West; the arguments between Gandhi and Ambedkar on moral and political routes to the abolition of untouchability; and, perhaps most famously, the dispute between Gandhi and Jinnah on whether Hindus and Muslims could live peaceably together in a single nation-state.

The debates mentioned in the preceding paragraph were antecedent to the Nehru-Narayan debate; contemporaneous with them were other and equally compelling controversies, as for example the arguments between Nehru and Rajagopalachari on the role of entrepreneurship and enterprise in the economic renewal of India, or the debate between Lohia and Rajagopalachari on the role of the English language in a nation once ruled by the Englishman. While these debates contained sometimes strikingly original ideas, these were not academic treatises, but political interventions. Nor were these debates intended to project a particular individual or political family. Rather, each intervention was made on behalf of a particular policy or programme, this presumed to be superior to some other policy or programme.

The last reason for us to flag the Nehru-Narayan exchange is that such debates do not take place anymore, at least not among full-time politicians. No living politician can think or write in an original or even interesting fashion about the direction Indian society and politics is or should be taking. The discussion of what Narayan, in his letter to Nehru, had called “dispassionate political principles” has now been left to the scholars.

The decline of this tradition of political argument is on daily display in our parliament and legislatures. The Indian democrat, however, lives in hope. The particular hope here is that the tradition may yet be revived and renewed. The findings foregrounded in this article may therefore be taken as a call to my fellow historians to reconstruct, in far more detail than I have been able to do here, the major debates between the major political figures in independent India. This, however, may not be a merely academic exercise, but one that speaks directly to us in the present. India today is a less-than-united nation, a less-than-perfect democracy, a less-than-equal economy, and a less-than-peaceful society. For those of us who might wish to close the gap between the ideal and the reality, we could do worse than turn to those Indians who have most seriously thought through these issues in the comparatively recent past.

[This essay is adapted from Ramachandra Guha’s book Makers of Modern India, just published by Penguin Viking.]