NEHRU ASIA’S TROUBLED GIANT
At 61 he stands in Gandhi’s sacred sandals at the head of 350 million Indians behind a foreign policy that, to many Westerners, seems a dangerous paradox. He hates Communism but doesn't want to fight it on the West’s terms
JAWAHARLAL NEHRU, Prime Minister of India and one of the great men of this century, must often be baffled by the Mysterious West.
He leads a nation of 350 millions which, when the British had it, was fondly described as the brightest jewel in the Imperial Crown. No sooner had the British reluctantly departed than the entire Western world began to talk as if India were doomed. Social and economic problems, which the British had contemplated with serenity for 300 years, suddenly became the symptoms of inevitable collapse.
In the whole of Asia Nehru is the only leader of established and unquestioned stature who opposes Communism. Yet, in New Delhi, a prominent American said to me: “That
man Nehru is doing more to spread Communism than anyone else in the world.”
Nehru often lays precisely the same charge against United States policy in Asia, which he regards as absurd. His halfhearted backing of the United Nations in Korea, his refusal to take part in a Pacific Pact or a United Nations Special Force, spring from a basic distrust of American competence in Far Eastern affairs.
“I like the Americans, you know,” he told a visitor one evening. “They’re a warm-hearted, generous, decent people. But in foreign affairs, especially in the East, they have a naïveté that is really frightening.”
Nehru tries to get along with Red China not because he likes Communism (Indian Communists get far rougher treatment than their fellows in Canada or the United States) but because he is sure the Mao Tse-tung Government is there to stay. He thinks the policy of ignoring or isolating Red China merely drives Mao into Stalin’s arms. Knowing something of Asian nationalism after a lifetime of struggle for India’s freedom, Nehru is confident that China will throw off Russian imperialist domination if we give her time, and a chance. Bui American support of Chiang Kai-shek, who
to most of his countrymen is a discredited exile who bombed Shanghai last year and killed thousands of Chinese civilians, seems to Nehru a sure way of keeping China on Russia’s side.
This “soft” attitude toward Red China got Nehru and India a lot of abuse last fall. It’s worth noting, though, that when the West did want to negotiate with the Chinese the only avenue of contact they had was the Indian Government and its UN delegate. Whether the negotiation itself did any good or not it delivered us from the charge that we hadn’t even tried to find a peaceful settlement.
Inside India the threat of Communism is real but indirect. Nehru himself is impatient with what he regards as our obsession with the subject. Nothing annoys him more than an interviewer who begins: “What about the Communist danger in your country?” Knowing his feeling, I didn’t put the question. But his known views add up to something like this:
India is threatened not so much by Communism as by starvation and chaos. Give the people food, work and hope and they will remain the good democrats they are; Communists will be, as they are now, a meagre handful. Fail in that task and Communism may fall heir to the anarchy that follows.
Moreover, Indians are not interested in fighting Communism when, as in China and Indo-China, Communism and Asian nationalism are on the same side. India’s own freedom is too new and too precious. Even the most conservative Indian is a nationalist first—to see the Indo-Chinese fighting the French and defeating 150,000 European troops is for them a matter for pride, not regret.
They believe profoundly that Asian nationalism is a good and an irresistible force, and that Powers ranged against it are doomed to fail. That’s another reason why they wouldn’t fight on such an issue.
“You forget that the time has passed when Asia can be conquered,” Nehru said to me in the course of a two-hour conversation. “Asia can be defeated—yes, you might defeat any of our armies in the field. But you can’t conquer a people any more. Asian people do not submit as they used to do. They stand up and fight.”
Naturally, most Westerners don’t like his attitude. This is unfortunate for India, which is in desperate need of financial help. It is also unfortunate for us. Whether we know it or not we’re in desperate need of political support among the peoples of Asia. India is militarily weak and is resolved not to be a military ally in any case, but she has all the prestige of leadership in the politics of Asia.
The West must take India on Nehru’s terms or not at all. Whatever we may think of his views he speaks for his people more surely than any other political leader in the whole free world.
“When a peasant goes to cast his vote,” an Indian reporter said, “he doesn’t ask ‘What is the policy of this party?’ He asks ‘Which party is Nehru?’ That’s all he wants to know.”
The reason is simple enough: the
people trust this man.
Freedom in many ways has been disillusion for India. The British have gone and yet Indians are still poor, still hungry. In the lower ranks of their government, their own government, corruption is spreading like a cancer. Many a man faithful in adversity has weakened in power.
Nehru has not weakened. Not even his most bitter enemy shows the faintest doubt of his integrity. They may think him wrong, but they never think him false or frightened.
That alone would not account for his spectacular popularity, though. There are other honest, courageous men in India’s service. Everyone admits that the upper levels of government, especially the courts, are quite incorruptible. Yet among the people these other figures count for little or nothing.
Nehru is the hero, perhaps because he fits precisely the traditional role of hero in Indian legend. For at least 2,600 years—ever since the young Prince Gautama Siddhartha gave up throne, wealth and bride for a life of dedicated poverty as the Buddha— an essential part of the hero’s story has been this renunciation of the world and its riches.
Nehru was the son of a wealthy lawyer in Allahabad, a boy who knew nothing but luxury. He was educated at Harrow and Cambridge (when he first went into Indian politics he found he had to relearn Hindi, for English had become his native tongue) and became himself a member of the Bar, though he never practiced. Everything pointed to an effortless, lucrative career.
He gave it all up without, apparently, a moment’s regret from that day to this. Of the 27 years of struggle, from Mahatma Gandhi’s assumption of leadership to the winning of independence in 1947, Nehru spent almost nine years in jail.
In or out of jail he lived simply and even today, in the rather grandiose environment of office, he still does. The Prime Minister’s Residence is the former home of the British Commander-in-Chief in India, a vast house set deep in green tree-shaded lawns, with sentry boxes beside the massive gates. The guard isn’t very strict nowadays, though. When I drove up at 8.30 one moonless evening the taxi driver paused only long enough to say “He’s going to see Panditji,” and the gateman waved us through without question.
It’s an impressive dwelling—high ceilings, paneled walls, gleaming marble staircases and deep rugs. Looking around, I felt very glad I’d taken a diplomat’s advice and borrowed a black tie for the occasion. But when Nehru came in a few minutes later he was wearing the same off-white linen suit in which he had faced a Press conference 10}^2 hours earlier.
I saw him half a dozen times during three weeks in India, at mass meetings, official receptions, in the offices of External Affairs, and I never saw him in any other costume—long plain frock coat, tight jodhpur-type trousers, bare feet in white sandals, and of course the white Gandhi cap which is the uniform of the Congress Party. Incredibly, he always looked as fresh as if he had just finished dressing.
No Posing for Strangers
We drank fruit juice and had a cigarette, then went in to a dinner which was excellent but not at all elaborate.
Throughout the evening he talked with astonishing frankness, as if he were entertaining an old friend instead of a total stranger who was also a reporter. There was nothing unusual in this; he had lunched or dined with three other visiting journalists within the fortnight and we all got the same impression of a man who was holding nothing back (though he said we were welcome to quote anything he told us). Nor did he make us aware of the fact that this interview wiped out the only free period in his 19-hour day.
I have never met any political leader (not even our own Prime Minister, with whom Nehru has a good deal in common) who seemed less conscious of his own status and power.
This is not put on for the stranger, either. He’s the same with his own people. On that particular evening he was late coming home to dinner because he’d been at a dance recital. I’d been there too, but when the Prime Minister’s party disappeared at intermission I came away to be on time for my appointment.
“Where did you people go?” he asked.
I said we thought he had gone, so we went too.
“I just went backstage to speak to the performers,” he said. “When I came out I found the second row had emptied. Frankly I’d just as soon have come away too (he looked pretty tired) but they were anxious for me to see the rest, so I stayed to the end.”
An aide told me later that Nehru does this all the time. This habit is hard on officials who can’t leave until he does. They are wearier than he, though with less cause.
Nehru’s normal working day ends at 2 a.m. He usually gets up about 7 and does a few Yoga exercises. Nehru has no use for the so-called mysticism we associate with Yoga, but he thinks the physical discipline is valuable. One of his favorites is standing on his head, a taste he acquired in prison. “I suppose physically this exercise is very good,” he says in his autobiography. “I liked it even more for its psychological effect on me. The slightly comicposition increased my good humor and made me a little more tolerant of life’s vagaries.”
Then he signs the papers and correspondence dictated the night before (he has a night shift of stenographers in an office downstairs) and reads'the morning newspapers. Breakfast about 8, to the office by 9.
I*'rom there on his day has no fixed pattern. He may have to make a speech somewhere, he may be inspecting a new factory or refugee settlement project, he may have a row of interviews or a cabinet meeting. If he has a chance to spend the day in the office he works until about 1.30, goes home to lunch, is back by 3. Work until 6 when, as often as not, he has to go to a party.
Nehru doesn’t drink, but he must surely attend more cocktail parties than any other prime minister. New Delhi’s diplomatic corps is just building up. “National days” and ambassadors’ receptions seemed, while I was there, to crop up about twice a week. Nehru politely turns up at them all.
Dinner is a late meal in India, 8.30 or 9, or even later, but Nehru tries to be home by 11. This is the starting point of the busiest, most fruitful part of his day. From 11 until 2 a.m. he can count on being uninterrupted; with two or three secretaries he cleans up the accumulated left-overs. For years he has got by with five hours’ sleep a night, though he looks 10 years younger than the 61 he is.
Nehru used to keep this up seven days a week. Sunday was a steadier day than usual because he had fewer callers, so got more done. All sug-
gestions that he take some rest went unheeded. Finally some bright soul pointed out that he was overworking his staff, who needed at least an afternoon off. That worked—he stopped coming to the office Sunday afternoons, though he still takes a load of papers home.
This outline of a Nehru day takes no account of speeches, of which he makes a great many, often five or six a week. One Monday evening I heard him speak for two hours to a large crowd in Old Delhi. Next morning at 7 he took off for Lucknow, spent a
solid day of appointments, with another 50-minute speech and an official reception in the late afternoon. At six he addressed a political meeting of 50,000 in the public square, speaking for 90 minutes without a note in his hand; then off to a state dinner where he made another speech.
Ordinarily he doesn’t prepare these addresses, just talks about whatever he has on his mind. Nehru doesn’t pamper his crowds, or truckle to them. He says what he thinks.
That evening in Lucknow, at a Congress Party meeting with a platform full of local cabinet ministers and party bigwigs, he said in part:
“I for one shall not be proud of a free but a weak and corrupt India given to party politics and the black market. Did we attain freedom for that? I am not going to pardon anyone for acts of omission or commission. In fact I’m sick of exonerating people. If those in charge can’t control the situation, they’re incompetent.”
No other politician in the world, not even Churchill in the days of war, would have talked to a crowd in that fashion. Yet the people listened patiently, cheered him from time to time. Although he is no spell-binder in the ordinary sense, his hold on the Indian public seems unshakable.
It is, of course, more than a personal gift. Nehru is a national hero in his own right, but is also Gandhi’s chosen successor. Only two years have passed since Gandhi was murdered by a Hindu fanatic, and already the Mahatma is deified in India.
On the wall of a mud hut in an Indian village I saw a portrait of Gandhi with a shining halo round the head. We were in New Delhi on his birthday, which has all the marks of a religious festival. Soon, if not now, it will be Indian Christmas and Raster rolled into one.
Stones for Monkey-Catchers
Nehru’s career is full of irony. That he, after nine prison terms for his fight against British rule, should have led India into the Commonwealth is strange enough. But perhaps the oddest thing is his becoming by inheritance, the leading figure in what amounts to a new religion.
Nehru is not at all religious. “Any idea of a personal god seems very odd to me,” he says in one of his books. He seems to feel that, on balance, organized religion has done a great deal more harm than good.
Certainly he must feel that way about his own land, where the worst problems are connected with religion. Not only the communal massacres that followed partition, but even the increasingly terrible problem of food supply has a religious angle.
India swarms with sacred monkeys. Insolent and ill-tempered beasts as bi; as bulldogs, they squat under the shade trees and steal what food they like. Nehru once said publicly that monkeys I eat more food each year than the total ! India imports. If that be so India could become self-sufficient in food merely by killing the monkeys.
The Government has tried. For a while it offered bounties for the brutes, dead or alive. Opposition from orthodox Hindus was so intense this had to stop.
As it is, cities hire Moslem monkeycatchers to trap the animals alive. Even that can be dangerous. One old monkey-catcher in New Delhi said he’d never been bitten by a monkey, but often had been stoned by a Hindu mob. However, he does catch them and take them out by truck to a spot 50 or 60 miles away, where he turns them loose. The monkeys then eat up local crops while they make their way back to town.
In an Indian village near Lucknow, while I was there, a woman was bitten by a cobra. She told her husband. He said, “Tell no one else; do nothing. If God requires your life we shall make that sacrifice.”
If she had gone to hospital for serum the woman would almost certainly have lived. Instead she kept quiet, and died. When I visited the village a week later the cobra was still in the house where the widower and three children live.
Nehru says that incident is exceptional; farmers do kill snakes and some will even kill monkeys if nobody’s looking. But he admits that no amount of education will ever persuade a Hindu to kill a cow, if indeed such a campaign could even be attempted. Huge herds of worthless cattle crop every green field in India, rural or urban.
Westerners, in their scorn for this economic waste, tend to overlook its imer side. Hindu respect for life is part of the gentleness, the tolerance, the basic amiability that makes this poor overcrowded land such a charming place. It is also part of the social system which has, after all, survived without fundamental change for about 4,000 years while we self-conceited Westerners have risen from oblivion through barbarism to a civilization which now seems ready to blow itself up. But when all that is said, the cows and the monkeys do eat the Indians out of house and home.
Another and uglier problem connected with religion is, of course, the caste system. Gandhi fought it all his life, Nehru has continued the fight, and they have at least removed the legal sanctions which enforced it. Marriages between castes are ho-longer illegal. Untouchables can, and occasionally do, rise to positions of importance. But the gap between caste Hindu and untouchable is still horribly wide; the untouchable’s life makes an American Negro appear privileged.
No Reformers in Sight
These unique difficulties complicate a situation which in any case would be desperate enough. Already underfed, India lost her richest farm land to Pakistan. Mired in poverty, India spends half her federal revenue on defense against an enemy carved out of her own soil and populace. Beset with every trouble known to politics, these hostile Siamese twins have created a new crop by their deadlocks over Kashmir, the exchange rate, and the division of canal waters.
Trade between the two countries was at a standstill when I was there. The jute mills of Calcutta stood idle, leaving thousands unemployed, while Pakistan’s crop of raw jute piled up in warehouses and the government tried to find ways of restricting production.
Under this accumulation of burdens the people grow more and more restive. Nehru himself is the most popular leader in the free world, but his government is not popular at all.
I asked a minister of the State government at Lucknow, a Congress Party man, if there was any likelihood of an effective opposition to the Congress. “I hope so,” he said. “I’d like to join it.”
An Indian economist said: “The
Congress Party is a split personality. The talking half (Nehru) is Left, but the acting half is Right.”
The “acting half,” until his death last December, was Sardar V. Patel, deputy prime minister and boss of India’s internal affairs.
He was the man who managed, in a single year, to absorb all 600 of
India’s princely states into the new Indian democracy. He was the man who got things done inside the government and he will be very difficult to replace.
But Patel was no reformer and India, above all free nations, needs reform.
No reformers are in sight within the Congress Party. The current president is a strange character named Purushottamdas Tandon, whose ideas strike Westerners as weird.
Tandon is 65. He wears his grey hair long and straggling across a bald dome, his grey beard unkempt. His clothing is the diaperlike dhoti that Gandhi always wore—made of kahdi, the homespun and homewoven cotton of Gandhi’s beloved “cottage industry.” It costs twice as much as mill cotton, but Tandon thinks the Government should set an example by buying nothing else.
A Shield and Meal Ticket
He argues for “restoration of proper respect” to the sacred cow. He won’t use leather because you can’t be sure the hide came from a cow that died of old age. He’s against using salt, sugar or soap: Wash yourself with
alluvial soil, is Tandon’s advice. One result is that Tandon’s hosts, when he stays overnight, find their b;*th-tub drains clogged with clay.
Outside the Congress Party is the Hindu Mahasabha, the party of the ultra-orthodox, which would organize the state on religious lines, expel the Moslems (who still number 40 millions) and restore every taboo India ever held sacred. Behind it is the sinister private army called the R.S.S., an outright Fascist movement. On the Left is a Socialist Party much closer to the Moscow line than Socialists in Western lands. And, of course, there are the Communists, few in number but well organized and well financed.
The man who holds the lid on this violently boiling pot is Jawaharlal Nehru. Party politicians don’t like him, often try to halter and frustrate him, but they know he is their shield and meal ticket. Without him the Congress Party would be lost. By his hold on the people and by sheer force of character he keeps the government together.
In a sense he keeps the people together too, but it would be just as true to say the people do the same for him. From the people of India Nehru draws the hope and faith that keep him going. So must any man who has faith in this great, complex, delightful country.
By any material accounting the plight of India must seem indeed hopeless. Millions are living on the very edge of starvation— 1,500 calories a day. The population is rising by 4 millions a year, so even to maintain the present low standard of living will call for great increases in production. Disease is rife: malaria, TB, all the
bowel diseases spread by impure water supplies.
In the other scale, to offset this colossal weight of difficulty, is nothing but the strength and spirit of the Indian people. Whether it will prove enough, no one can tell. But anyone, even a casual visitor, can tell it is tremendous.
These people have something very difficult to maintain under such conditions. They have dignity. They also have kindliness and courtesy.
I had expected, as a white stranger, to meet hostility in a land that freed itself from white domination only three years ago. On the contrary, I was treated as a welcome guest, not only by officials, but equally by farm-hands. I had been warned, too, of the dirt in India. In the hygienic sense it. is there all right—you mustn’t drink unboiled water, or eat uncooked vegetables, and, in spite of all precautions, the newcomer invariably comes down with intestinal trouble in his first fortnight. Indians are not aware of germs as Westerners are.
But the level of cleanliness in the ordinary sense is high. Even the mud huts of illiterate farmers are neat, well swept and scrubbed. The people are physically clean. At dawn I could look out of my hotel window in Lucknow at a row of miserable one-room tenements, and watch Hindu workmen bathing themselves from head to foot before dressing for work. It’s a ritual with the Hindu, part of his religion.
A Mere Million Killed
These may sound like trivial things. Perhaps they are. You can’t measure them in manhours per unit of production, or in foot-soldiers for World War III. But it must mean something that 350 million people, living in desperate poverty, still retain the human qualities of self-respect and discipline.
And though the average underfed Indian workman may lack physical energy, he has an energy of his own. These Indians have produced in three years a government of inspired amateurs who refuse to be dismayed by seemingly insoluble problems.
Even the new and special difficulties of the past three years have been enough to wreck many a stable state. Probably a million people were killed, and something between 12 millions and 18 millions made homeless, in the riots and massacres which followed partition. India has the larger share of these refugees.
Somehow they have been housed and fed, somehow most of them have found a way to make a living. Many are still homeless, sleeping on the sidewalk in front of their pitiful little shops (though the temperature in Delhi goes down to freezing point in January). But the new India has survived this blow, as has the new Pakistan.
Nehru is the Motor
Nehru has been criticized for failing to make a stable peace with Pakistan, and it is of course his most conspicuous failure. Observers who have been in both countries seem to feel, in the majority of cases, that he is in the wrong on the tangled issue of Kashmir. They think his own sentimental attachment to his forefathers’ country makes him stubborn and uncompromising.
That may be so. On the other hand, he and Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, have at least managed to avert war. During the riots they toured the stricken areas together, appealing to the people to quiet down; it was their tour that ended the outbreak. Both men are moderates in the politics of their own countries. No visible successor to Nehru, certainly, is as likely to keep peace with Pakistan as he is.
What no critic can deny is that Nehru, for the moment, is India. He personifies his country more than does any leader on earth. Unlike Stalin, he can and does speak for his people, not merely to them. He is the force that holds India together, the motor that drives her forward.
Nehru at 61 can look forward to 10 more years, at most, of the life he’s leading now. If he can’t put India on her feet by that time it’s doubtful if anyone can. If he does do it, as I believe he will, he’ll prove his title to greatness for all time. ★