Nehru could be the democratic ruler he was because once in office he faced so little opposition… Subjectively, any prospect of a dictatorship was alien to Nehru. But objectively, it was also quite unnecessary, so little temptation ever arose.
– Perry Anderson, The Indian Ideology
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi personalises Indian politics, to an extent not seen since Indira Gandhi’s time in power, comparisons have inevitably been drawn with the first such political personality of independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru. As the quote from Perry Anderson’s book shows, an axiomatic feature of such commentary is the taken-for-granted omnipotence of the central deity. First Nehru, then Indira, now Modi: hero-worshipping Indians, it is said, get their just desserts.
However, were Nehru and Indira then, and Modi now, really all-powerful? Can anyone be so in the complex political democracy that is India? Louis Fischer, a distinguished American liberal journalist, an old India hand and, as an acclaimed biographer of Mohandas Gandhi, no stranger to the Indian public and its leader fascination, came to India in autumn 1952 with this belief and was unpleasantly surprised. Unpleasantly because, from being a disciple of Gandhi during the battle between nationalism and imperialism in mid-1940s, Fischer had transformed into a critic of Nehru for his non-aligned stand in the Cold War in the early-1950s. Between 13 August and 24 September 1952, Fischer was in India, travelling to major cities and meeting a cross-section of the Indian political and economic elite. He kept a diary on this visit (ten years since his first visit to India in the halcyon days of the Quit India movement of 1942), which is available in his papers at the Seeley G Mudd Manuscript Library, Princeton University. The common theme of these diary entries is a reluctant admission by this Nehru-baiter that India’s first prime minister was neither all-knowing nor all-powerful, as it seemed from afar to Fischer and many of his fellow Americans.
At this time, Pyarelal Nayyar, Gandhi’s last Secretary and Fischer’s old friend, told him, “half the country seemed communalist and the other half was feared to be communist,” and Nehru’s striving for a middle space – fused within a problematic nationalism – was neither easy nor total. Jealousy among his colleagues, from Delhi’s Health Minister Sushila Nayyar to Union Health Minister Rajkumari Amrit Kaur; their unscrupulousness, from Union Food Minister Rafi Ahmed Kidwai to Finance Minister R K Shanmukham Chetty; and, opposition from the Communist Party of India on the left and the troika of Bharatiya Jana Sangh, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Hindu Mahasabha on the right, formed just the beginnings of his troubles.
Nehru’s deepest challenge came from within the state and his own Congress party. R C Dutt, a career bureaucrat during and after India’s independence, aptly summed it up, as recorded in Memoirs of Old Mandarins of India:
“The Civil Servants as well as the top leaders of the freedom movement, who became Ministers after Independence, came from the same class of society… Nehru was an exception… he had imbibed socialist values… With individual exceptions these values found no echo among the civil servants… the doctrines of Civil Service neutrality and freedom of expression enabled them to express contrary views and give contrary advice to their respective Ministers who, themselves uncommitted to Nehru’s socialism, readily accepted them.”
And yet, in the first general elections of 1951-52, these ministers were totally dependent on Nehru. Ring-side observers like Sudhir Ghosh, an emissary of Gandhi, and Dev Ram of Hindi-language publishing house Rajkamal made it clear to Fischer that but for Nehru, the Hindu Mahasabha and the Bharatiya Jana Sangh would have carried many provinces. Ram also surprised Fischer by informing him that contrary to the widespread assumption, pro-American books were actually more popular than pro-Russian. Fischer was very busy on 15 August 1952, India’s fifth Independence Day. It was a measure of his standing among the Indian elite and with the US Government that his morning was spent with President Rajendra Prasad at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, his afternoon with Pyarelal and his evening with Chester Bowles, US ambassador to India.
At the Rashtrapati Bhavan, Fischer was happy to find his biography of Gandhi in the Presidential library. Prasad, whose uneasy personal relations with Nehru was no secret, confessed to feeling “lonely and unhappy”, and spoke to Fischer principally about Pakistan-India relations. Fischer informed Prasad that before coming to India he was in Pakistan, where he felt that people were afraid of India and for the position of Muslims there. Prasad countered this by claiming that Muslims were treated better in India, where they were represented in the Union Cabinet, than non-Muslims in Pakistan. Nevertheless, inimical India-Pakistan relations meant a large defence budget, and this worried the president. He recalled how under British rule, the Congress party had objected to excessive military expenditure. During the 1946-47 interim coalition government, the budget had been limited to INR 100 million. In five years, it had more than doubled. When Fischer asked if India could give Azad Kashmir to Pakistan, thereby perhaps settling the dispute, Prasad replied that he “would be glad to do so”. Apart from this, Prasad wanted the restitution of refugee property by the government as a conciliatory gesture. He rightly worried that relations between India and Pakistan could only get worse when his generation was gone as he and Nehru had Muslim (and Pakistani) friends and believed in peace. How perversely these friendships could be interpreted became clear to Fischer in his very next meeting with Pyarelal, who poured scorn on Prasad’s views, declaring that Nehru, “a Westerner” was prejudiced and easily misled: “If [a] Moslem tell[s] him something, he will believe it.”
That evening, when Fischer met with Ambassador Bowles, he shared how pro-US in international matters Prasad had appeared to be and, encouraged by this, urged Bowles to challenge Nehru whenever he presented the US on the same plane as the USSR. Chester Bowles, a New-Deal Democrat from Connecticut, demurred and instead steered their discussion towards the Community Development Programme in India, in which 17 million peasants were to be covered in three years with US aid to the tune of USD 150 million per year. Both Prasad and Bowles had been in favour of these. Later, Fischer would describe Bowles as “not just pro-Indian but involved in the success of India… He talks like a businessman doing big business.”
The next day, Fischer met the men and the woman who were to be in charge of the 55 community development projects. When Bowles told Fischer that these Indians had no doubts about American goodwill and would help spread it all over the country, Fischer wryly commented that if this was true they represented the “best kind of infiltration”. Fischer found this lot wary of communists and the Soviet Union, and one of them told him that what India needed was an ‘efficient dictator’. Sidney Harrison of the Associated Press, who prophesied that lack of land reforms and action against landlords and moneylenders would hurt Congress eventually, had similar experiences. This prophecy was what the socialist opposition to Nehru was also banking on. Hosting Fischer, J B and Sucheta Kripalani, the veteran ex-Congress couple, echoed the idea: their new party of workers and peasants, Mazdoor Krishak Praja Party, would merge with the Socialists, who, led by another ex-Congress duo of Jayaprakash Narayan and Ram Manohar Lohia, wanted to consolidate nationally and also wanted to be in the vanguard of international socialism. Fischer suggested the name ‘Gandhian Socialist Party’ for their new enterprise. This appealed to Sucheta, who felt that this would allow them to capture Gandhi’s name from Nehru. The Kripalanis were disappointed in Nehru; Sucheta revealed that when Deputy Prime Minister Vallabhbhai Patel, the conservative organisational boss of the Congress, died in December 1950, the couple had gone to Nehru and said that now there was no obstruction to land reforms and he must get it started. Sucheta thought that something akin to the Kibbutz programme in Israel was needed in India. And only the socialists were capable of such constructive work.
Turning away from Nehru’s opponents towards his colleagues, on 17 August 1952, Fischer met with the Defence Minister N Gopalaswami Ayyangar, who was also in charge of Kashmir negotiations. Scheduled to leave for Geneva later in the week for talks on demilitarisation in Kashmir, with Sir Zafarullah Khan of Pakistan, Ayyangar agreed with Fischer that Kashmir should have never been placed before the UN, and that one person had acted as an intermediary. Explaining the current impasse, Ayyangar blurted out that while there could be agreement on the number of troops in the part of Kashmir “we occupy”, before correcting himself to say “under our control”, the question was of the troops in Azad Kashmir. There, Pakistan was ready to withdraw regular troops but that would leave irregulars, who might be dispersed but would still be able to influence plebiscite. When Fischer asked if it was not better to obviate the plebiscite through some arrangement, Ayyangar agreed but questioned whether Zafarullah had the power to carry out such an understanding. Ayyangar remembered that when he was prime minister of Jammu and Kashmir princely state from 1937 to 1943, Zafarullah had recommended a professor of Arabic in Srinagar, who had studied in India and Germany. After Ayyangar appointed the person, the next day a large, predominantly Muslim delegation met him and protested that “do you not know that he is an Ahmadiyya?” They argued he had been recommended by Zafarullah because he was himself of the same sect. When Fischer replied that Ghulam Muhammad, Pakistan’s governor-general (1951-1955), had assured him that he would support Zafarullah, Ayyangar said that Ghulam Muhammad was a sick man and Prime Minister Khwaja Nazimuddin, Muhammad’s predecessor, did not look kindly upon Zafarullah. Discussing other matters, Ayyangar assured Fischer that since the 1951-52 general elections, communists in India had begun to be interested in parliamentary “points of order and tricks”. When Fischer queried about Nehru being soft on the left internally and on Russia and China externally, Ayyangar countered that Nehru’s praise for communism was abstract and always qualified. Finally, when Fischer asked why India was spending more than INR 200 million on defence, Ayyangar shot back, “your country set the pace for us.”
Afterwards, Fischer found himself drinking with Sudhir Ghosh, Robert Trumbull of the New York Times, Horace Holmes, who was involved with the community development project in Etawah district in Uttar Pradesh, and Lakshmi Chand Jain, a member of the Faridabad Development Board. Jain, a young man in his twenties, came across as vehemently anti-Nehru and narrated an unflattering episode to Fischer. Once when Nehru commented favourably on the Chinese converting palaces to youth hostels, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, eminent social reformer and institution-builder, asked “why do not we do that?” Nehru brushed the question aside by saying “that is beside the point.”
That evening, Fischer went to a diplomatic reception, where he had a testy exchange with K M Panikkar, whom Nehru had called one of his four best diplomats (the others being his sister V L Pandit, close friend V K Krishna Menon and Oxford philosopher S Radhakrishnan). As India’s recently returned ambassador from China, Panikkar began by warning Fischer that there would be no truce on Korea until the US returned 14,000 Chinese Prisoners of War (POWs). This was a moral issue for Beijing. Fischer countered that, in his opinion, it was a matter of political prestige for China, whereas it was really a moral issue for the US as many Chinese POWs did not want to be repatriated. Undeterred, Panikkar next sought to convince Fischer that Moscow had nothing to do with the North Korean invasion of South Korea, and that China was the chief actor in the Korean peninsula. He argued, wrongly as it would turn out before the decade ended, that China and Russia were in complete agreement on international affairs and China would guard Russia in the east. Fischer doubted these claims. To him, two expansionist powers would not accept each other cordially, and having lost a million soldiers in Korea, China was looking to save face and would not be content merely with the return of POWs. When Panikkar insisted that there were never more than 350,000 Chinese troops in Korea, Fischer replied that it was a matter of believing Chinese or American figures.
Panikkar’s talk was balanced the next day by Pandit Banarasidas Chaturvedi, a 60-year-old self-avowed anarchist and admirer of Kropotkin, Thoreau, Emerson, Garrison and Sutherland. A Congress member of the Rajya Sabha and a renowned writer, Chaturvedi began by declaring, “Nehru is European. We feel we are being ruled by a European.” He revealed that Rajendra Prasad had written a book in Hindi that was an attack on the present political situation and therefore it could not be published. Prasad had given it to Chaturvedi to read for language. Chaturvedi complained that the “small man is not helped, cottage industries are not encouraged, big hydro-electric projects are undertaken which would not bear fruit for seven-ten years while tube-wells are not being sunk though they could bring immediate relief.” Chaturvedi was a remarkable mix of old and new. On the one hand, he quoted from ancient text Manusmriti that “the entire people of the world learnt the elements of character from people born in this land”; on the other, he opined that India should learn from communist China and shoot black marketeers. And this was after Chaturvedi had lived with Gandhi for four years, as was not lost on Fischer.
Fischer’s dinner companions on 18 August 1952 were Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya and U Srinivas Mallya (Malliah). The latter was a general secretary of Congress and held the important post of chief whip in the Lok Sabha. Their answers to Fischer’s questions make for interesting reading. Who would succeed Nehru? Rajendra Prasad, as North India “did not feel kindly” to C Rajagopalachari, the chief minister of Madras state. Did Nehru have any friends? No. Who influenced him? Lal Bahadur Shastri, minister for railways and the eventual successor as prime minister to Nehru; M O Mathai, Nehru’s personal assistant since 1946; and B G Kher, chief minister of Bombay province (1937-1939 and 1946-1952). What about Maulana Azad? “He used to have influence with Nehru but now it was merely a matter of their past friendship. Seventy-five percent of Azad’s recommendations are turned down.” What happens in Congress Working Committee meetings? Nehru “shouts and insists on various matters and then several members explain why this cannot be done and then he shouts some more and they explain the difficulties and finally he concedes.”
On 20 August 1952, Fischer finally met Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, the education minister, and Nehru’s friend, philosopher and guide on either side of Partition, especially in its immediate aftermath. Humayun Kabir, educationalist, minister and later editor and translator of Azad’s autobiography, joined the two for lunch. The Maulana was “friendly and serious, with no small talk and [all] direct statement.” Fischer began with Pakistan and Kashmir, and Azad repeated Ayyangar’s response that the status quo with frontier modification to obviate plebiscite was possible, but the Pakistan government was weak and Zafarullah was under attack there as an Ahmadiyya. Fischer followed by stating his beliefs on Nehru’s unfriendliness toward the West. Azad disagreed. Next, Fischer brought up China. Azad said that “if there is anything in favour of China the truth must be told.” When Fischer said “don’t you see the pattern? Tibet and Nepal, Indo-China, suppose the Russians took Iran, would you feel comfortable?” Azad replied “there was no difference of opinion on this matter.” When Fischer provoked him by saying that “you can afford to say yours is no bloc because the Western bloc so far protects you from the Communist bloc,” Azad laughed in a way that Fischer thought was, “in agreement with me”. Turning to domestic matters, Fischer asked how land reforms could be achieved in Kashmir but not in the entire country. To this, Azad replied that there it only “affected landlords but in all India it would disrupt production.”
Fischer’s last meeting of significance in August was with Anup Singh, member of the Rajya Sabha, who had served for two years in Korea as chief of the UN Commission. Singh told Fischer that he neither trusted Panikkar nor was he impressed by Nehru: “every-time I see him my opinion goes down.” Singh went on to sketch a picture of the Friday meetings of Congress Parliamentary Steering Committee, of which he was a member: “Usually Nehru presides, somebody takes the floor and begins to talk. Then Nehru says now that is enough, let me tell you what I think and talks for an hour after which the meeting closes…”
Moving from the political to the financial capital of the country, Fischer’s next stop was Bombay. In September 1952, the mood among his interlocutors there was one of anti-inflation, anti-corruption, anti-communism and anti-Nehru, one feeding the other. Nehru’s first Finance Minister John Matthai, who had left the Cabinet in 1950 over the role and scope of the Planning Commission, complained about “how Nehru laps up flattery” and, inevitably, contrasted it with Patel and his briskness. Fischer’s second host in Bombay was industrialist J R D Tata who told him that the Congress party as well as the bureaucracy was inclined toward government ownership and management of economy not only because that seemed “to be the will of Nehru”, but also because that meant “more patronage for the Congress party and more jobs to be distributed by top officials”.
From Bombay, Fischer went to Hyderabad. There, Zaheer Ahmed, the development commissioner, met him on 10 September and startled him by speaking frankly about India’s ‘invasion’ of Hyderabad, almost exactly four years earlier. Zaheer, a student of Harold Laski at the London School of Economics, had been a member of Hyderabad’s delegation to the UN in protest of India’s action. Before that, in June 1948, he had gone to New Delhi, with Hyderabad’s Prime Minister Laik Ali, to negotiate with Nehru. He narrated to Fischer that as they waited for an appointment, they heard Nehru make a speech on radio. The “audience applauded Nehru throughout” except when, towards the end, he spoke about the need for caution on Hyderabad. Then he was booed, “although he had said that Hyderabad must become a part of India.” Zaheer recalled that he told Laik Ali not to keep the appointment with Nehru anymore. Nevertheless, Laik Ali went to see Nehru. As Laik Ali stepped into Nehru’s room, he said, “I disagree with you about Hyderabad.” An under-pressure Nehru shouted, “If you disagree, get out of here. I will smash Hyderabad to smithereens.”
A week later, Fischer was back in Delhi, after a short stay in Madras where he found what he believed to be good governance under chief minister C Rajagopalachari, and a widespread nostalgia for Patel among politicians, press and publishers alike. When he shared this with Sushila Nayyar, she agreed with his observation. In Delhi, among his friends, Fischer found quite an open discussion about votes having been bought in the recently-concluded general elections. At some places, ten rupees was paid, but normally it was five rupees. Nayyar added that sometimes it could even be as low as half a rupee. A Times of India correspondent told Fischer that during these elections, in a striking parallel with India’s 2014 general elections, Nehru largely “urged people to vote for him, irrespective of who the candidate was”.
In the second half of September 1952, Fischer met the “very pro-US” Minister of Home Affairs Kailash Nath Katju and the “most anti-American” Mridula Sarabhai, former member of the Congress Working Committee and a Nehruvian, if ever there was one. He also had a “very friendly” meeting with Finance Minister C D Deshmukh, who said apropos of China that “when there is fire next door, we don’t want sparks flying.” Deshmukh too did not like either Panikkar or V K Krishna Menon, another Nehru confidante who had just been relieved of his high-commissionership in London. Deshmukh was frank about Menon’s dismissal being caused by a cloud of corruption, “as the Auditor-General [had] insisted”.
This time in Delhi, Fischer also met many from the ‘steel-frame’ of the Indian state – the Indian Administrative Service and Indian Foreign Service. He found them in praise of the action-oriented Patel against a cogitating Nehru, lamenting that the hero-worshipping Indians had allowed Nehru’s ascendency and believing that Congress was losing contact with people unlike in the pre-Independence days. Congress had managed to mean many things to many people as a political movement, but it was already proving a difficult task in government. He also met with B V Keskar, till recently Nehru’s deputy in the ministry of external affairs and then minister of information and broadcasting. Keskar praised Rajagopalachari’s firm handling of the communist agitation in Madras and felt that, otherwise, in neighbouring Andhra the communists might have had an upper hand. Agreeing with Fischer that Tibet and Nepal “would have fallen to communists but for us”, Keskar admitted that Nehru did not have a “clear-cut attitude” on left opposition internally and externally. Incredibly, knowing what we do about Nehru’s anti-colonialism and pan-Asianism, Keskar added that, “we are going to be more friendly to the French in Indo-China,” but for the continuing French pockets in India. Fischer’s last stop was Calcutta, next to one such French city Chandernagore. Here he met the anthropologist and Gandhian Nirmal Kumar Bose on 24 September 1952, who regarded the choice in India at present as between “Congress dictatorship or CPI dictatorship.”
Six decades later, the value of Fischer’s observations lies, first and foremost, in their insider-outsider perspective that allows for a different, personal insight into the early years of independent India. Just as in September 1952, we are experiencing the aftermath of the Indian elections yielding an unambiguous mandate to one leader. Moreover, the Indian public sphere and cyberspace are dominated by this individual and his admirers. Concomitant to this is an attempt to make Nehru a pariah in our times; to lay at his feet all ills, real and imagined, of independent India. From planning in economy to non-alignment in foreign policy, everything seemingly was worse than a policy failure; it was a personality fault. And yet as Fischer found out, Nehru was hardly an entirely free agent of his will. He was thwarted more by his own than by others. Fifty years from his death, these observations are salutary reminders of the limits to his power and influence to forge a new India. His own party leaders and the government classes cribbed, crabbed and cabined his cherished ideals. Congress’ transformation into a party of government from being a political movement opened up a chasm between the idealism at the top and the instincts below. Elections brought about class and community consciousness into the Congress as it drew upon narrow loyalties, parochial interests and sectional issues; even under a leader who fought chauvinisms of all kind in his life, especially those of caste, province, language and religion.
What he could not fight were tendencies of pride and self-enrichment. The idea of India he had was no match for the entrenched interests, networks and connections operating in the country. Coexisting with him, but operating in different registers and idioms than his, be it on socialism or secularism, the party had a different subterranean nature. This might have clashed with Nehru’s rhetoric but it was this reality of control over a segmented society that brought the party its electoral hegemony. Indian politics then and now may lack sustained ideological commitment, but it more than makes up for it by sustained corruption, careerism and skulduggery. By 1952, when Fischer was visiting, Congress was Janus-like. Fischer’s interactions show aplenty the tangled transactions and the mix of personal and political that made Indian politics then and constitutes it now. Fischer moved among the political and governmental class in India and saw them engaged in balancing their pasts with their hopes and fears for a future that is with us today. This process was characterised more by pride, prejudice and patronage than by ideals and principles.
~ Rakesh Ankit studied history at Delhi, Oxford and Southampton and is based in Darbhanga, Bihar.