Extracts from EMS' book

The Gandhi-Nehru legacy

Print edition : December 12, 2014

An Undated photo of Mahatma Gandhi in conversation with Jawaharlal Nehru at the Howrah station. From being a radical "idol of the Indian youth", Nehru went on to become Gandhi's most trusted disciple. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Subhas Chandra Bose arriving at the All India Congress Committee meeting in Tripuri in 1939. This was a watershed event which saw the Leftist and progressive groups parting ways ideologically and politically with the Congress. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Nehru with C. Rajagopalachari (centre) and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. By the late 1930s Nehru was perceived as collaborating closely with what was then considered the rightist leadership of the Congress. Photo: The Hindu Archives

I am coming to the end of this volume at a time when active preparations are on for the countrywide celebrations of the birth centenary of Jawaharlal Nehru. It is natural that a lot will talk on the “legacy” left by Jawaharlal Nehru and was carried forward by his followers. Furthermore, since, despite the differences in ideology and temperament, Nehru was closely associated with Mahatma Gandhi, and the two men in several ways supplemented and supported each other, the talk will turn around the legacy not of Nehru alone but of Gandhi and Nehru.

I may in this context recall that 57 years ago (in 1931), I wrote a slim volume in Malayalam language, giving a brief account of Jawaharlal Nehru. I was then full of admiration for Nehru who was selected by the Mahatma to preside over the historic Lahore session of the Congress and was the head of the organisation during the salt satyagraha. What attracted me to him was that, unlike the Mahatma who was a conservative in several respects, Nehru was a radical not only in politics but also in socio-cultural and economic affairs. As a student I was enthusiastic and was keenly interested in national and international politics, social reform, cultural advancement and economic development. While holding the Mahatma in reverence, I had partiality for Nehru who in my eyes was the “idol of Indian youth”.

A couple of years later, in 1933, when the Congress was going through a crisis following the withdrawal of the Civil Disobedience Movement, I was attracted by a series of articles written by Nehru under the title Whither India. That gave a sort of programme for the radical Congressmen as well as radicals in the organised Left groups. The ideas contained therein formed the basis on which, a year later, the Congress Socialist Party was formed. While working as a founder member and one of the all-India joint secretaries of this new party, for the first time I came into contact, like other socialist leaders (including many who subsequently became rabid anti-communists), and worked with the communists. The experience of that work and discussions with communist leaders such as [P.] Sundarayya, [S.V.] Ghate, Bharadwaj, Ajoy Ghosh and others convinced me that the communists had a more reliable programmatic outlook than the Congress Socialists. I, therefore, joined the Communist Party in 1936 and, a year later, formed with three other comrades the Communist Party unit in Kerala.

For a time, however, there was no difference between the Congress Socialist and the Communist Parties. As a matter of fact, these two Left parties with several Left-inclined Congressmen (of whom the most outstanding was Nehru) joined together in what was called the anti-imperialist united front. Their cooperation, however, was of short duration; it got weakened at the 1939 session of the Congress (Tripuri) and since then the communists, the socialists and Subhas Bose’s supporters started fighting one another. Nehru on his part kept away from all of them and went on collaborating with what was then considered the rightist leadership of the Congress.

Transformation of Nehru

This personal experience of mine—the transformation of a young political enthusiast and admirer of Jawaharlal Nehru into a communist and political opponent of Nehru—together with the parallel transformation of Nehru from the “idol of Indian youth” into a reliable ally of the rightist leadership of the Congress made me to undertake this study of the evolution of Nehru’s personality from the Marxist-Leninist angle. Nehru’s father, Motilal, his political mentor Gandhi and he himself were three faces of the same class, the Indian bourgeoisie. This is the conclusion which I arrived at.

I had earlier undertaken a similar Marxist-Leninist study of the personality and work of Mahatma Gandhi ( The Mahatma and the Ism, Calcutta 1958; revised edition, 1981). I attempted therein a balanced assessment of the positive and negative aspects of the thoughts and practices of Mahatma Gandhi. That analysis made me realise that both the positive and negative aspects of Gandhi’s personality arose from the class character of the man and his thinking. The two-sided class character of bourgeoisie—anti-imperialism in rallying the masses and compromise with imperialism in keeping the masses away from militant struggles—was illustrated in Gandhi’s central teaching (non-violent non-cooperation with imperialism) for which he is well known.

In that book, as well as in my subsequent book on the history of India’s freedom movement, I traced the evolution of the Indian bourgeoisie as a class and pointed out how after a brief period of moderate politics, leaders like Tilak and Gandhi succeeded in bringing the masses into militant anti-imperialist actions. The radical militant movements led by the revolutionaries whom the British called “terrorists”, small communist groups formed in the early post-First World War years, the organised but persecuted Communist Party of India together with its broader front, the Workers’ and Peasants’ Party of India, etc., were the further developments of this process.

This was the legacy which was taken over by Nehru and the other radical groups. The anti-imperialism represented by these groups as well as by Nehru was, therefore, our common heritage and a precious asset of our nation. Everyone of these groups and Jawaharlal Nehru as an individual constituted a continuation of, “with some departure from”, the process represented by the established leaders of the freedom movement. Continuation in the sense that their anti-imperialism was a more developed form from the simple urge for freedom which gave impetus for the freedom movement; departure in the sense that a new class (the working class) and new masses (the peasantry and the oppressed middle classes) were being drawn into the freedom movement as independent class forces.

The early communist groups; their consolidation into the Communist Party of India and the Workers’ and Peasants’ Party of India; the adoption by a large number of revolutionaries (including Bhagat Singh) of the new ideology and politics; the emergence of the Congress Socialist Party, and the formation of a united centre for the Communist Party—these constituted so many stages in the process through which the Indian working class and its peasant and petty-bourgeois allies were forming themselves into an independent political force. They were becoming independent of the bourgeoisie whose most outstanding leader was Mahatma Gandhi.

By the mid-1930s, therefore, the two social forces opposed to each other—the bourgeoisie and the working class—had come together in a united front and yet continued fighting each other on some of the basic issues of Indian revolution. Though these two class formations started marching separately on the question of transforming Indian society, they were together striking against colonialism. The anti-imperialist united front, of which the most representative spokesman and leader was Jawaharlal Nehru, was the coming together of the two class formations on the single common programme of liberating the country from foreign rule.

By the end of the three-year united front, the communists, the socialists and other Left parties appeared to have a common leader in Jawaharlal Nehru. However, the front came to an end on the eve of the Second World War. The developments following the Tripuri Congress (1939) constituted the watershed between Nehru and the Communists. Striking a personal note, it may be said that it was a break between me as the author of the 1931 biography of Nehru and as the author of this book. In the former, I was all praise for Nehru who, as I put it, was correcting some of the mistakes, overcoming some of the defects, in the thoughts and practices of the Mahatma. In this volume, on the other hand, I have shown how, stage by stage, Nehru, while keeping his distance from the Mahatma, was acting as his most reliable ally and disciple.

I have also narrated here how Nehru in subsequent years acted as the Mahatma had expected of him when choosing him as the president of the Lahore session of the Congress. The radical phrases strewn over his presidential address to the Lahore congress of 1929 and all his subsequent pronouncements did not prevent him from acting as the trusted colleague and comrade of the Mahatma. He was one of those who, along with such rightist leaders as [Vallabhbhai] Patel, [C.] Rajagopalachari and Rajendra Prasad, formulated the strategy and tactics for the triangular negotiations (with the British rulers and the Muslim League) which culminated in the partition of India, the creation of two sovereign but mutually hostile states (the Indian Union and Pakistan) and the biggest slaughter of the people that accompanied it. If at all there was a difference between the two, it was that the Mahatma saw the culmination of India’s freedom struggle as a personal defeat, while Nehru considered it a partial victory on which he and his colleagues in the government of free India could build.

The God-fearing humanist that Gandhi was, he could not stomach the type of Indian freedom won in 1947. He was the one national leader who refused to participate in the nationwide festivities marking the dawn of freedom. Far more was he concerned at the disruption of brotherly ties between Hindus and Muslims, the widespread orgy of murder, arson, rape, etc., that accompanied the division of India which itself was characterised by Gandhi as “the vivisection of his body”. He was further worried that, having transformed themselves from freedom fighters to the new rulers of the country, Congressmen were using the new opportunities for the satisfaction of their personal interests. He, therefore, made the recommendation that the objective with which the Congress was formed having been attained, the organisation should not continue but be transformed into a Lok Sevak Sangh.

On the other hand, Nehru, like the other disciples of Gandhi (Patel, Rajendra Prasad, Rajaji, etc.), was happy that although divided into the Indian Union and Pakistan, the country became free. Together with his colleagues, Nehru was, of course, equally concerned about the division of the country and the riots that accompanied it. But he felt that the new power that they had gained could be used to solve all the problems that had cropped up. He, therefore, used his position as the head of the new government of free India to deal with the problems as they arose. He had immense faith in his capacity, the capacity of the government which he led, to solve all problems.

How his hopes were shattered one by one and how he became spiritually dead though physically alive long before the actual death took him away from us has been described in the preceding pages. His failure to contain the poison of communalism (in fighting which he and Gandhi collaborated in the early months of freedom); failure to solve the food problem inherited by his government at the very dawn of freedom; the fiasco of economic planning (of which he was personally the author and leader); the blow that struck him when the communists whom he had always ridiculed defeated his party in the elections and formed the first non-Congress government in a State; the electoral-political alliance with the Muslim League in Kerala which he blessed—these were post-Independence developments which showed that Nehru the Prime Minister was different from Nehru the leader of the Left in the days of freedom struggle. It was on top of these all-round fiascos of his years of Prime Ministership that he had to take the most bitter blow of his life—the tragic end of his adventure on the India-China border. Any truthful assessment should therefore consider the seventeen years of his life and work as Prime Minister as a complete failure.

The question to be posed at the end is: why did the two most outstanding leaders of our freedom movement—Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru—leave this world with their ambitions unfulfilled? Gandhi in relation to his aspiration for the unity of India of which Hindu-Muslim unity was the crucial factor; Nehru regarding his hope and expectation that the dawn of freedom and his stewardship of the administration in free India could be used to build a new, democratic, forward-looking and prosperous India? The answer is that both of them as the leaders of a class, the Indian bourgeoisie, tried to build India on the model of bourgeois democracy at the very time when the bourgeois system had landed itself into a deep crisis. Neither of them could see this as the reason for their hopes being shattered.

Gandhi, however, stands an inch taller than Nehru, for he acknowledged the shattering of his dreams, while Nehru, up to the last moment (even after the fiasco of the China border adventure) nursed the illusion that India can be developed along the capitalist path.

The legacy of both Gandhi and Nehru is by and large negative. Rather than following that legacy, the present-day India should break with it.

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