Some years ago, I coined the term ‘Nehruvian Indian’ to describe those who, in their professional and personal lives, ‘transcended the divisions of race and religion, caste and class, gender and geography.’ Viewed cynically, the term was a cloak and cover for my own confusions. Born in Dehradun of Tamil parents, with a Bengali name and now domiciled in Bangalore, it may have appeared that I was promoting a grand-sounding inclusiveness merely to mask my own lack of roots.
Two recent memoirs by Indians of far greater distinction than myself suggest that the term may still have its uses. George Verghese and Jagat Mehta both reached the pinnacle of their respective professions; the former as the editor of two major newspapers, the latter as Foreign Secretary of the Government of India. Their writing, like their life, is marked by a conspicuous lack of parochialism; they identify with all of India, as befitting two men who came of age, intellectually speaking, when Jawaharlal Nehru was Prime Minister of this country.
Mehta’s book is entitled The Tryst Betrayed: Reflections on Diplomacy and Development. Verghese’s is called First Draft: Witness to the Making of Modern India. These books provide detached, informative analyses of the inner workings of two major institutions–the diplomatic corps and the Fourth Estate respectively. But it is not aspiring journalists or diplomats alone who would benefit from a close reading of these books.
Now in their eighties, Jagat Mehta and George Verghese retain the idealism and patriotism of their youth. A love of their country suffuses their work. They both admired Nehru, yet, as men of independence of mind, never let this come in the way of a critical understanding of his style of leadership. ‘While accompanying Nehru on an election tour’, writes Mehta, ‘I realized India’s good fortune in having a man of humanity, education and dedication at the helm, but also that hero-worshipping is not always democratic; it still requires to be supplemented by the courage of dissent, which was shown by the people of Kerala’ (when they elected a Communist Government in 1957).
For his part, Verghese notes that Nehru ‘bestrode the scene like a colossus. Others were all too prone to defer to him. Jagat Mehta, who worked with him in the formative years of the new Foreign Office… called it the Panditji-knows-best syndrome. … Indeed, after Sardar Patel’s passing, Nehru was increasingly unchallenged, though his admitted services, vision and liberal qualities undoubtedly endeared him to his countrymen.’
Verghese continues: ‘By 1958-9, Nehru was in decline. He was tired and though still a charismatic figure, greatly beloved of the people, was increasingly unable to impart anything of the old dynamism to governance. … Sycophancy had, however, become the order of the day, and there was a chorus that the nation needed Nehru and he must remain at his post. I thought differently and wrote in The Times [of India] urging him to follow his instint and retire, perhaps to become President of India, if he so desired. The reins of governance could then pass to younger and more dynamic hands within his own lifetime, so as to ensure a smooth political transition. This was very much a minority view …’
Both men write with insight about that most important and sometimes most exasperating set of Indians, the bureaucrats. Mehta observes that ‘officers fall into three categories: the first consists of those with ultimate concern for national interest and who say so whether asked or not; the second category is of those who worry about their careers or, at best, follow orders or answer questions. The third, a largish group, falls in between: they give of their best if leadership or directions so demand but in the absence of a positive atmosphere, coast along and pass the buck without taking risks.’
The slow, super-cautious, obstructionist attitude of the typical Indian bureacrat leads Verghese to term them the ‘Abominable No-Men’. In a telling criticism of the civil service, he writes that ‘the ICS/IAS was something of a closed shop, zealous of its turf and wary of interlopers, be they technocrats or lateral-entry recruits to the “system”.’
Both Verghese and Mehta are critical of India’s overbearing attitude to its smaller neighbours. The editor writes that ‘Nehru was imperious in his attitude towards Nepal.’ The diplomat argues that ‘Nehru did not fully recognize, and the Ministry failed to advise him, that in the twentieth century nothing was as difficult as diplomacy between unequal neighbours.’ Mehta goes so far as to say that ‘there is no greater example of the squandering of permanent and beneficial interdependence in all history as between India and Nepal. … India’s relations with its [smaller] neighbours is its greatest failure in foreign policy.’
Both Verghese and Mehta spent many years in the field of rural development.
Verghese worked with Gandhian institutions interested in village renewal and political decentralization. After retirement from the Foreign Service, Mehta worked with a pioneering NGO in Rajasthan, Seva Mandir. Products (like Nehru himself) of the University of Cambridge, obliged (by their profession) to spend much of their time in national capitals, they yet made it their business to roam as widely as they could. Unlike other editors and ambassadors, Verghese and Mehta have been as comfortable, and as keen to engage with, peasants as with Prime Ministers.
Verghese’s lack of insularity is also manifest in his long-standing interest in states such as Assam and Nagaland, this sparked by ‘the Government of India’s poor understanding of the needs and aspirations of the North-east’. He has also long advocated a just resolution of the Kashmir dispute. As far back as the 1960s, he chastised the hawks in New Delhi for not realising that ‘the Kashmir factor every day exacts a heavy price and that India’s own self-interest demands an honourable settlement.’
Being a ‘Nehruvian Indian’ does not mean that one cannot, when reason and evidence demands, be critical, even sharply critical, of the policies of India’s first Prime Minister. But it certainly means that one recognizes the clear differences between the generally democratic Nehru and the instinctively authoritarian Indira Gandhi. When, unlike many of his fellow officers, Mehta refused to mortgage his mind to the personality of Mrs Gandhi, it was said in North and South Blocks that ‘Jagat’s independence is dangerous.’
As for Verghese, in 1969 he wrote with prescience of ‘the permanent interference of the [Congress] High Command in the States.’ On the 25th of June, 1975, with Indira Gandhi’s election petition being heard in the Supreme Court, he urged the Prime Minister to resign ‘with grace and dignity’. Instead, she imposed the Emergency, one of whose victims was Verghese himself, who lost his job for not being a pliant editor. He wryly notes that in those days Nehru’s daughter ‘saw herself as a latter-day Joan of Arc sent to save India by doing whatever her inner voices dictated.’
In the early pages of his book, Verghese recalls what the headmaster of his old school told his students: ‘Do you hope your education will enable you to get more from your country or give more to it? Will the monument you leave behind (for you cannot take it with you) be a palace on Malabar Hill or will it be one built in the hearts of the people you have served?’
Having been to the same school, I can testify that most of its products have sought to exploit India rather than give back to it. Many have built palaces—in Rajasthan, South Delhi, London, California, and not least, Malabar Hill. By contrast, George Verghese and Jagat Mehta have led lives that combined dignity with distinction, service with sacrifice. Of the Nehruvian Indians alive they are among the most honourable. It is a privilege to have known them, and now, to have read their books.