Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, was born on 14 November 1889—127 years ago—in Allahabad. In 1907, he began studying at the Trinity College, at Cambridge University. Upon graduating in 1910, he moved to London to train as a barrister. Nehru returned to India in 1912 and dove straight into national politics. His tryst with his destiny as a leader of the Indian freedom movement was perhaps set in stone in 1919—when, while travelling on a train, he overheard British Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer boasting about leading the Jallianwallah Bagh massacre of April 1919, in which hundreds of Indians were killed after Dyer ordered troops to open fire on a large crowd in an enclosed area. In the years that followed, he became increasingly involved with the INC and national politics, and, in 1921, was imprisoned for the first time for his participation in the Non-cooperation Movement. (Nehru would be imprisoned eight more times over the next 26 years, before India attained independence.) On 19 December 1929, he was elected the president of the Lahore Session of the Indian National Congress. The INC then adopted purna swaraj—complete independence—as its goal. He was elected president of the Indian National Congress for the fourth time on 6 July 1946, and served for three more terms from 1951 to 1954.
In 1937, Nehru had been elected president of the Indian National Congress for the third time. But he was worried that the Indian people may begin to perceive his and the INC’s prominence as Caesarism—akin to the dictatorship of Roman Emperor Julius Caesar, a charismatic authoritarian leader whose rule was characterised by the cult of his personality. Cognisant and cautious of the dangers of his own pride and position, he wrote an essay titled “Rashtrapati,” under the pseudonym Chanakya. The essay was published in 1937 in the Modern Review—a Calcutta-based monthly journal founded by Bengali thinker Ramananda Chatterjee in 1907. In it, “Chanakya” describes Nehru as “some triumphant Caesar passing by,” who might turn dictator with “a little twist.” By writing about himself in this manner, Nehru stressed the importance of questioning the motives of leaders, and checking the power they hold. Patriots, Poets and Prisoners is an anthology of essays published in the Modern Review between 1906 and 1947, that highlights the debates and issues surrounding the Indian freedom movement. Taken from the book, the following is the full text of Nehru’s essay.
Rashtrapati Jawaharlal ki Jai. The Rashtrapati looked up as he passed swiftly through the waiting crowds, his hands went up and were joined together in salute, and his pale hard face was lit up by a smile. It was a warm personal smile and the people who saw it responded to it immediately and smiled and cheered in return.
The smile passed away and again the face became stern and sad, impassive in the midst of the emotion that it had roused in the multitude. Almost it seemed that the smile and the gesture accompanying it had little reality behind them; they were just tricks of the trade to gain the goodwill of the crowds whose darling he had become. Was it so?
Watch him again. There is a great procession and tens of thousands of persons surround his car and cheer him in an ecstasy of abandonment. He stands on the seat of the car, balancing himself rather well, straight and seemingly tall, like a god, serene and unmoved by the seething multitude. Suddenly there is that smile again, or even a merry laugh, and the tension seems to break and the crowd laughs with him, not knowing what it is laughing at. He is godlike no longer but a human being claiming kinship and comradeship with the thousands who surround him and the crowd feels happy and friendly and takes him to its heart. But the smile is gone and the pale stern face is there again.