When, in the year 1974, Mrs Indira Gandhi and Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) became bitter political opponents, there was a peculiar poignancy to their rivalry. For JP and Jawaharlal Nehru had been close friends. So, independently, were JP’s wife Prabhavati and Nehru’s wife Kamala. In fact, before starting an all-India movement against the policies of the Prime Minister, JP went to see Mrs Gandhi to gift her the letters that her mother had written to his recently deceased wife.
Fortunately, JP did not return the (many fewer) letters Nehru had written to Prabhavati. One hangs on the wall of the home in the Patna locality of Kadam Kuan where Narayan and his spouse both spent their last years. When I visited that house recently, it was to pay tribute to the memory of JP and his self-effacing Gandhian wife. That I found a letter by Nehru which still speaks to us today was an unexpected bonus.
The letter was written in 1958, by which time Kamala Nehru had been dead for more than twenty years and her husband had been Prime Minister for more than ten. It was handwritten, which was a surprise, since Nehru had a battery of stenographers and typists at his command. And it was written in Hindustani, which was also worthy of comment, since by this time Nehru did not really write very much in his mother’s tongue.
I was not carrying a notebook or pen, so am here summarizing the letter’s contents from memory. Apparently, Prabhavati had wished to start a school for girls and name it for Kamala Nehru. She had written to Jawaharlal asking whether he would come inaugurate it. Nehru, in reply, said that he was delighted that this school was being planned, for he had long been an advocate of education for girls. But, he added, he had taken a vow that in the case of any school, project, or programme started in memory of his father (Motilal Nehru) or his wife, he would not participate in its inauguration. He asked Prabhavati to go ahead and start the school, with another chief guest if required. He added by way of consolation that when the place was up and running, he would come visit it anyway.
It is reasonable to speculate that Nehru adopted this policy as a way of discouraging flatterers and intriguers. To be sure, Prabhavati’s admiration for Kamala was utterly sincere, and the cause of women’s education utterly noble. But if Nehru had come and opened her school, how would he say no to others who sought to attach the name of his father or wife to schemes whose chief intention was to ingratiate the proposer to the most famous man in India?
Did Indira Gandhi, I wonder, adopt the same policy when it came to her time as Prime Minister? I somehow think not. She certainly encouraged the naming of the capital’s best funded university after her father, and was quite happy to permit other sarkari schemes adopting his name as well. Rajiv Gandhi, in turn, was an enthusiastic supporter, when he was Prime Minister, of programmes funded by the state that took the name of his mother. We know, for example, that he took a keen personal interest in the naming, founding, and inauguration of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in New Delhi.
In this respect, the present President of the Congress has followed the example of Indira and Rajiv rather than Nehru. Thus, she was the chief guest at the inauguration of the Rajiv Gandhi International Airport in Hyderabad in March 2008—as well as the chief guest at the inauguration of the Rajiv Gandhi Sea Link in Mumbai in June 2009. Would Sonia Gandhi have acted differently had she known Jawaharlal Nehru’s views in this regard? One does not know. What we can say, with some certainty, is that she is unaware of the existence of Nehru’s letter to Prabhavati where his views on the matter were so clearly and firmly stated. For, while the Congress President has visited Patna several times, each time she would have stayed well clear of the home of a man she knew only as her mother-in-law’s most dogged political opponent.
At last count, some four hundred government initiatives, institutions, projects, and programmes were named after either Nehru, Indira, or Rajiv. This is a consequence of a symbiotic relationship between the flatterer and the flattered. For Cabinet Ministers, State Chief Ministers, and heads of public sector undertakings all know that by attaching one or other of these names to a project, they can ensure both that it is well funded and that they, personally, can rise in the esteem of the most powerful family in India.
Jawaharlal Nehru would surely have been appalled by this use (or misuse) of public money for furthering ancestor worship. His rectitude and propriety stands in striking contrast to the behaviour of later members of his family. But it stands in contrast to the attitude of most other Indians too. For instance, one of India’s best-known scientists actually attended the inauguration of a circle named after himself in Bangalore.
The later Nehru-Gandhis may think that the ubiquitous naming of programmes and places after members of their family is not much more than their due. But that distinguished men of science fall prey to such vanity is a sign of how far we have moved from the time of Jawaharlal Nehru.