Often I wondered why he chose to speak on subjects that were way above the heads of his huge and adoring audiences: the need for planning; the newly built dams being the temples of the new age; his reasons for pleading for China’s admission to the UN and so on. Perhaps, he believed that, in a largely illiterate country, the spoken word was the best medium to convey his message to his people
[dropcap]O[/dropcap]n Jawaharlal Nehru’s 125th birth anniversary, rather than write a comprehensive article on the life and leadership of independent India’s first and incomparable prime minister yet again, I intend to give readers, especially the young ones, some glimpses of the personality of the second greatest Indian of our times, after the Mahatma. So here goes the first of the series, focused on Nehru’s phenomenal and matchless popularity with the masses.
In November 1937, in the Calcutta-based and highly respected magazine Modern Review, appeared an anonymous article on Nehru, arguing that men like him were “dangerous” and potential “dictators”. “From the North to Cape Comorin,” said the article, “he has gone like some triumphant Caesar, leaving a trail of glory and a legend behind him. Is it just a passing fancy or is it his will to power that is driving him from crowd to crowd… He calls himself a democrat and a socialist and no doubt he does so in all seriousness… but a little twist and he might turn into a dictator… His conceit is already formidable. It must be checked. We want no Caesars”. It soon became known that the author of this denunciatory article was none other than Jawaharlal, and the matter was laughed out. Indeed, he was soon re-elected Congress president for the third time.
Even as a schoolboy then I used to hear my father and his friends discuss “Panditji’s astonishing popularity”. By the time I joined college, I also joined all those who would travel scores of miles to hear Nehru if he was speaking or simply to catch a glimpse of him, if he was merely passing through. After a long but unsuccessful search for a job in journalism barely two years after Independence and Partition, I had a stroke of luck.
A rather impecunious news agency, the United Press of India, gave me a job after making sure that I could report not only Nehru’s speeches in Hindi but also those of Maulana Azad in Urdu. No break could have been better than this because, for over five years, I travelled with or ahead of the prime minister across the country and watched the magical mutual relationship between him and the large crowds that waited for him patiently for hours, regardless of how inclement the weather was.
Often I wondered why he chose to speak on subjects that were way above the heads of his huge and adoring audiences: the need for planning; the newly built dams being the temples of the new age; his reasons for pleading for China’s admission to the UN and so on.
Perhaps, he believed that, in a largely illiterate country, the spoken word was the best medium to convey his message to his people.
However, only during the last decade, when no one in the UPA government thought it necessary to explain anything to the people at large, did I realize how right Nehru was.
By the time the Constitution came into force on January 26, 1950, Nehru had totally disproved his self-analysis in Modern Review. Far from becoming a dictator – which he could have done easily, like his two contemporary leaders of freedom movements, Sukarno in Indonesia and Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana – he built India up as the world’s largest democracy. This process took a huge leap forward with the first general elections in this country in 1952, when his contact with and appeal to his people also took a big stride. He won the first three general elections hands down, almost single-handedly, as a famous cartoon by the country’s premier cartoonist, R.K. Laxman, depicted at the height of the campaign for the first poll. In the 1967 election, the first without Nehru, the Congress tally plummeted.
Interestingly, in his book India After Gandhi, published in 2007, Ramachandra Guha wrote that the “extraordinary popular appeal of the prime minister” could be best captured “in the testimony of the confirmed Nehru-baiter D.F. Karaka, editor of a popular Bombay weekly, the Current”. Guha has then quoted at some length how Karaka had reported Nehru’s first election speech in Bombay at Chowpatty beach to an enormous and enthusiastic crowd. Karaka first noted – “no doubt to his regret” – the “instant affinity between the speaker and his audience” and then went on calculating how many votes had been swung to Nehru’s favor by his every sentence. The climax was reached, in Karaka’s view, at the twilight hour, when Nehru told the gathering that he had taken upon himself the “role of a mendicant beggar”. Amidst wild cheers he added, “If at all I am a beggar, I am begging for your love, your affection and your enlightened cooperation in solving the problems facing the country.” The crowds were deeply moved and he, in turn, was moved by them. For Karaka, however, the election was over.
At an elite meeting in the national capital, Nehru had once said: “Delhi is a static city with a dead atmosphere. I therefore go out and see masses of people, my people, your people and derive inspiration from them. There is something dynamic and growing with them and I grow with them. I also enthuse with them.”
What he wrote to Lady Edwina Mountbatten after the meeting in Bombay is even more eloquent: “Wherever I have been, vast multitudes gather at my meetings and I love to compare them, their faces, their dress, their reactions to me and what I say… I rather enjoy these fresh contacts with the Indian people… The effort to explain to them in simple language our problems and our difficulties, and to reach the minds of these simple folk, is both exhausting and exhilarating. As I wander about, the past and the present merge into one another, and this merger leads me to think of the future.”
Inder Malhotra is a veteran Indian journalist and Delhi-based political commentator. This first appeared in Indian Express)