In her newest book, Jawaharlal Nehru: Civilising a Savage World, Nayantara Sahgal, 83, blends public history and personal memories of her uncle to show how India’s first prime minister formed his vision for a young nation. Here, she explains how Nehru is misunderstood, the corruption of political dynasties and why our future hinges less on thinker politicians and more on a democratic public. Excerpts:
You’ve said we often fail to contextualise Nehru — what is the main misperception about him?
There are two misperceptions. At the national level, it is said that Nehru went Leftward and so India went down the drain. He was not bound by ideology. Nehru went for the practical solution, so that in his time India took a gigantic stride out of colonial paralysis. The momentum of his first 12 years in power and the results were not matched for decades.
Internationally, some see his non-alignment as a negative policy. In fact, it was strong, positive and effective. He inherited a post-war world torn into two hostile camps, each demanding humanity’s allegiance and both readying for future war. His nonaligned policy refused satellite status to either power, enabled the newly emerging nations to be masters of their destiny and brought non-white nations to the high table of decision- making for the first time. India, in Nehru’s time, was the voice of Asia and Africa. No country, then or since, has enjoyed the prestige or influence in world councils that Nehru’s non-aligned India did.
Did he groom Indira Gandhi as successor? Is he to blame for our culture of political dynasties?
Nehru groomed no one as his successor. His successor, Lal Bahadur Shastri, was chosen by his party. Political dynasty started with Indira Gandhi, who groomed Rajiv as her successor. The ‘culture’ of political dynasty is not, of course, confined to this country. It extends over the subcontinent and we see it in Cuba, North Korea and Egypt. But in India, it has reached Gilbert and Sullivan proportions, with ministers and chief ministers merrily anointing their relatives to positions of power. If I had the talent, I would write an operetta about it.
How do you trace Nehru’s influence on his daughter in light of her declaring the Emergency?
Nehru was a democrat to the core. Indira departed from her father’s legacy when she took this authoritarian step.
You mention the “immediate attraction” and “unusual bond” between Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten. What kind of relationship did they have?
It’s futile to speculate on the “kind of relationship” two people have, if by that is meant the degree of intimacy between them. What we do know for certain is that it was a long lasting and mutually cherished attachment. Personally, I’d say a relationship that enriches two lives, as theirs did, is the best thing that can happen to anyone.
Ramachandra Guha’s latest book profiles political thinkers who shaped India. Can thinkers like Nehru still rise in Indian politics?
It is hard to see anything but greed-and-grab rising in today’s climate. The future will depend less on a leader as on whether the Indian people, schooled in democracy, will prove worthy of their democratic heritage and refuse to be party to the corruption that is rotting our nation.