Defending Dr Manmohan Singh!
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s assertion to a group of editors that the governments of Pandit Nehru and Indira Gandhi were more divided than his, continues to invite ridicule. Critics consider it sacrilege that he should compare himself with Nehru or Indira Gandhi. They consider his government rotten. I am in full agreement with the critics. Indeed I consider his government more rotten than they do. But I also differ from the critics. I consider the governments of Nehru and Indira Gandhi also rotten. In my view the best PM since Independence was Gulzarilal Nanda. He twice became PM for just a week and then mercifully made way for a replacement. He thereby inflicted less damage to the nation than any other PM.
In fairness to the PM he was not alluding to the quality of governments but only to the degree of divisiveness that existed in them. He described such divisions as part of the democratic process. It is the critics who took up the issue of quality. The critics sang praises of our past political icons and vested them with harmony, ideology and absence of serious differences. It is of course nonsensical to include Indira Gandhi in this ambit. After all she split her own government and party. The Sonia Gandhi-Manmohan Singh duo has managed to keep the government and party intact through more than two terms of office. During Indira Gandhi’s tenure of almost a decade and a half she failed to provide stability even once in spite of thumping majorities. So let’s ignore Indira Gandhi and overlook quality of governance. Let’s focus on the Nehru era and the degree of cohesion the leaders displayed before and after the Transfer of Power that is wrongly described as the winning of Independence.
For starters recall this: “With all his great qualities, he (Mahatma Gandhi) has proved a poor and weak leader, uncertain and changing his mind frequently. How many times he has changed it during these last four years since the war began? It is very, very sad, this deterioration of a great man.” This was Nehru’s view about Gandhi recorded in his prison diary. What must have Nehru thought of Gandhi around the time when India became independent? Does that explain why Gandhi was totally marginalized by Nehru and Patel who had snuggled wonderfully close to Mountbatten by then?
Regarding Nehru’s notorious press conference in Bombay in which he deliberately sabotaged the Cabinet Mission Plan after the Congress had accepted it, which if honoured might have kept a federal India united, Maulana Azad commented: “Jawaharlal held a press conference in which he made an astonishing statement… Press representatives asked if this meant that the Cabinet Mission Plan would be modified. Jawaharlal replied emphatically that the Congress had agreed to participate in the Constituent Assembly and regarded itself free to change or modify the Cabinet Mission Plan as it thought best…this was one of the greatest tragedies of Indian history and I have to say with the deepest of regret that a large part of this development rests with Jawaharlal.”
Sardar Patel was less kind about that same performance by Nehru. He wrote in a letter to DP Mishra: “He (Nehru) has done many things recently which have caused us great embarrassment… his Press Conference immediately after the AICC are all acts of emotional insanity and it puts tremendous strain on us to set matters right.”
Describing a Working Committee meeting Nehru wrote in his Prison Diary: “After I had finished, Vallabhbhai spoke. His tone was full of suppressed anger, pain and bitterness. He said that he had long suspected that Maulana and others had felt the way they had spoken…I was amazed at this outburst… these inoffensive remarks had upset Vallabhbhai and Kripalani and uncovered some deep feeling of resentment…This attitude amazed me… Ultimately I said that it was direct insult to me that my explanation should not be accepted in the spirit it was given.”
Patel, Rajendra Prasad, Kripalani and Prafulla Ghose resigned from the Working Committee when Congress passed the resolution that it would support the war effort. They claimed non-violence was a creed for them more important than Indian independence. Doubtless they were following Gandhi’s dictate. Maulana Azad’s sneering response in his book India Wins Freedom was: “If non-violence really was their creed how was it possible for them to take responsibility in a Government which spent over a hundred crores on the army?”
One can go on. One can catalogue the enormous errors of policy and internal differences under Nehru and Indira Gandhi. But the intention is not to denigrate past leaders. One must attempt empathizing with their circumstances and appreciate the times in which they functioned. They were in comparison political innocents dealing with the world’s most powerful nation which was far more sophisticated than America today. At the same time, we live in the information era. We should not idolize the leaders who first governed India. If we wish to solve the problems facing us today we must go back in history to dispassionately acquaint ourselves with their origin. Politics is governed by ordinary mortals. The difference between the great and the ordinary is infinitesimal. It is just that sometimes ordinary individuals are thrown by karma or circumstance in the midst of great events. We call them great and deify them.
Today a confused government is wrestling with the Kashmir problem. More than sixty years ago an equally confused government created the Kashmir problem. Should we not understand how and why that happened? It happened because we were governed then as we are governed now by humans and not by Gods. It is human to err. And our first leaders of independent India erred hugely with drastic consequences that continue to haunt us till today. So let’s get real. Let’s end sycophancy. Let’s confront the truth.
By Rajinder Puri