The most admired human being on the planet may be a one-time boxer named Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. To spend three decades in prison fighting racial oppression, and then guide and oversee the peaceful transition to a multi-racial democracy, surely ranks as the greatest personal achievement since the end of the Second World War.
For the capaciousness of his vision and the generosity of his spirit, Nelson Mandela has sometimes been compared to Mahatma Gandhi. Like Gandhi, Mandela is both a reconciling figure and a universal figure, admired across the social spectrum in his own land and in other lands too. There are also odd personal details that bind them: Mandela was a friend of Gandhi’s second son Manilal, Mandela and Gandhi were both lawyers, Mandela and Gandhi both lived in Johannesburg, Mandela and Gandhi were both incarcerated in that city’s Fort Prison. This prison now houses South Africa’s Constitutional Court, on whose premises one can find permanent exhibits devoted to the life and example of Mandela and of Gandhi.
Mandela’s comrade Ahmad Kathrada, his fellow prisoner in Robben Island, once asked why he admired Gandhi. Mandela answered: ‘But Nehru was my hero’. To his biographer Anthony Sampson, Mandela explained his preference as follows: ‘When a Maharaja tried to stop him he [Nehru] would push him aside. He was that type of man, and we liked him because his conduct indicated how we should treat our own oppressors. Whereas Gandhi had a spirit of steel, but nevertheless it was shown in a very gentle and smooth way, and he would rather suffer in humility than retaliate.’
In the 1940s, Mandela closely read Jawaharlal Nehru’s books, including his autobiography. His speeches often quoted from Nehru’s writings. A phrase that particularly resonated was ‘there is no easy walk to freedom anywhere’, used by Mandela in his first major political speech, made in September 1953. Decades later, the phrase found its way into Mandela’s autobiograhy, whose Nehruvian title is ‘Long Walk to Freedom’.
In 1980, Nelson Mandela was given the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding. Since Mandela was in prison, his comrade Oliver Tambo—who had left South Africa to canvass support overseas, while travelling on an Indian passport—came to New Delhi to accept the award on his behalf. ‘Nelson Mandela’s captors may wish to ponder the fact’, remarked Tambo in his speech, ‘that Jawaharlal Nehru, who was no stranger to imprisonment and was in no way destroyed by it, served the world community, including the British, far better as a free man than as a political prisoner. Nelson Mandela’s 18 years’ imprisonment has in no way destroyed him, and will not.’
Jawaharlal Nehru appealed to Mandela and Tambo on account of his political views. As a socialist and modernist, Nehru’s ideas were, to these South African radicals, more congenial than Gandhi’s. But there was also a practical reason for their appreciation; the fact that, as Prime Minister of India, Nehru worked tirelessly to arraign the apartheid regime in the court of world opinion. Thus, as Tambo noted in his speech in New Delhi in 1980, ‘if Mahatma Gandhi started and fought his heroic struggle in South Africa and India, Jawaharlal Nehru was to continue it in Asia, Africa and internationally. In 1946, India broke trade relations with South Africa—the first country to do so. Speaking at the Bandung Conference in April 1955, Jawaharlal Nehru declared: “There is nothing more terrible than the infinite tragedy of Africa in the past few hundred years.”’
Shortly after the Bandung Conference, Jawaharlal Nehru visited the Soviet Union. When he spoke at Moscow University, in the audience was a young law student named Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev. Decades later, Gorbachev recalled the impact Nehru’s speech made on him. ‘Obviously, we [students] were still very far from understanding the principles of democracy’, he wrote in his memoirs: ‘Yet, the simplified black-and-white picture of the world as presented by our propaganda was even then considered rather sceptically by the students. Jawaharlal Nehru’s visit to Moscow in June 1955 was an unexpected stimulus for me in this respect. … This amazing man, his noble bearing, keen eyes and warm and disarming smile, made a deep impression on me’.
Thirty years after hearing Nehru speak in Moscow, Gorbachev helped bring about a peaceful end to the Cold War while permitting a transition to democracy in Eastern Europe. Unlike Soviet rulers in 1956, 1968 and 1979, he did not send troops into Soviet satellites whose people wanted an end to Stalinist one-party regimes. It appears the early exposure to Jawaharlal Nehru played at least some part in the reformist and reconciling politics of the mature Gorbachev.
I quote these appreciations for three reasons: because they are little-known, because Mandela and Gorbachev are both considerable figures, and because their admiration runs counter to the widespread disapprobation of Nehru among large sections of India’s youth, middle-class, and intelligentsia.
Greatly admired within India during his lifetime, Nehru witnessed a precipitous fall in his reputation after his death. This accelerated in the 1980s and 1990s, when his ideas on the economy, on foreign affairs, and on social harmony all came under sharp attack. There was a vigorous campaign to free entrepreneurs from all forms of state control and regulation; a major, countrywide movement to redefine Indian secularism by making it more ‘Hindu’ in theory and practice; and a clamour from the media and business elite to abandon India’s non-alignment in favour of an ever closer relationship with the United States.
India has experimented now with twenty years of anti-Nehruvian policies in economics, social affairs, and foreign policy. These radical shifts have shown mixed results. Creative capitalism is being increasingly subordinated to crony capitalism; aggressive Hindutva has led to horrific riots and the loss of many lives; and the United States has not shown itself to be as willing to accommodate India’s interests as our votaries of a special relationship had hoped.
Among reflective Indians, there is a sense that these decades of Nehru-bashing have been somewhat counterproductive. It is true that Nehru was excessively suspicious of entrepreneurs, yet some form of state regulation is still required in a complex and unequal society. His ideas of religious and linguistic pluralism remain entirely relevant, or else India would become a Hindu Pakistan. And it suits India’s interests to have good relations with all major powers—China, the European Union, Russia, and the United States—rather than hitch its wagon to the US alone.
Nehru’s respect for democratic procedure, his inclusive social vision, and his independent foreign policy all remain relevant. Other aspects of his legacy are more problematic: these include his neglect of primary education, his lack of interest in military matters, and his scepticism of political decentralization. However, a balanced appreciation of Nehru’s legacy—its positive and its negative aspects–is inhibited by the fact that the ruling Congress Party is controlled so closely by individuals related to him and who claim to speak in his name.
In a recent interview to The Hindu, Nayantara Sahgal pointed out that it was Indira Gandhi who created the ‘Nehru-Gandhi’ dynasty, not her father. This is absolutely true. In a book published in 1960, the editor Frank Moraes (by this time a sharp critic of the Prime Minister) wrote that ‘there is no question of Nehru’s attempting to create a dynasty of his own; it would be inconsistent with his character and career’. When Nehru died in 1964, another bitter critic, D. F. Karaka, nonetheless praised his resolve ‘not to indicate any preference with regard to his successor. This, [Nehru] maintained, was the privilege of those who were left behind. He himself was not concerned with that issue’.
Living outside India, insulated in their daily lives from the consequences of the deeds or misdeeds of Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Sanjay Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi, and Rahul Gandhi, both Nelson Mandela and Mikhail Gorbachev could appreciate the sagacity and moral depth of Nehru’s political vision. We who live in India are however inhibited from doing so by the unfortunate accident whereby control of our most powerful political party has passed on to Nehru’s descendants.
[Ramachandra Guha’s new book, Patriots and Partisans, has just been published by Penguin/Allen Lane.]