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Jawaharlal Nehru As They Knew Him: A Collage Of Stories

14/11/2015 12:22 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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Indian politicians Jawaharlal Nehru (1889 - 1964) and Mahatma Gandhi (1869 - 1948) in conversation at a session of the All India Congress Committee (AICC) in Bombay, 8th August 1942. It was at this session that the Quit India Resolution was passed, calling for India's independence from British rule. (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)

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This is the 125th birth anniversary year of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru our first Prime Minister and one of the main architects of Independent India. As 14 November approaches, many articles are being written about Panditji and, having had the privilege of hearing many stories about him from some of his close associates, I think this is a good time to finally confine these anecdotes to the written form.

Too often, people don't preserve such anecdotes for future generations to enjoy and the interesting tidbits are lost forever when a person dies. The people I am going to describe never wrote about their association with Nehru, but I believe that the fascinating stories they told me about Nehru need to be shared with a wider audience.

"When [my father] went to Nehru's study table and saw an ashtray full of cigarette butts he was shocked. Nehru was very particular about his image so he never smoked or drank in public."

I will add here that though I have seen Pandit Nehru twice in my life, I have had no personal interaction with him.

My first impression

The first time I saw Jawahar Lal Nehru was sometime in 1961. He had come to Lucknow for a meeting either at the Central Drug Research Institute (CDRI) or Lucknow University and he was supposed to pass through Hazratganj, the main thoroughfare of Lucknow.

My father, who was in the Congress Party, talked a lot about Nehru so I had expressed a desire to see him. He knew Nehru's program that day so decided to take me with him so we could stand in front of the Mayfair cinema building (our flat was just adjacent to it) in Hazratganj from where his cavalcade would pass. It was around 6.30am, when Nehru appeared seated in an open Impala car which was followed by caravan of cars.

I still remember vividly the moment he came in view near the Mayfair building; he looked like a White man in kurta-pyjama. He was not wearing his Nehru cap and as he was quite bald, the light shone in a way that made him look as if he had a halo around his head. This was my first impression of Nehru. As the statesman's cavalcade approached, my father shouted "Pandit Nehru ki jai!" Nehru saw him and threw a bouquet at him. Those were the times when the Prime Minister of India went in an open motor car without any fear.

An overflowing ashtray

My father, Jagdish Prasad Rajvanshi, went to jail with Gandhiji during the 1942 Quit India movement. He told me many stories about Nehru since he knew him well.

During the 1940s my father was studying for his PhD in Allahabad University and came to know Nehru. So anytime Panditji needed a book from the University library a chit was sent to my father giving the book's details. My father would check it out from the library and take it to Anand Bhawan where it would be given to one of Nehru's assistants or servants.

"Nehru would invite intellectuals to Teen Murti house in the evening for tea and the stimulating conversation that ensued was his way of relaxing."

My father told me that once nobody came to the door to take the book so he was ushered in by Vijayalakshmi Pandit (Nehru's sister) to Nehru's study and told to put the book on his table. For youngsters like my father (he was about 23-24 years old then) Nehru and Gandhiji were like gods. So when he went to Nehru's study table and saw an ashtray full of cigarette butts he was shocked. Nehru was very particular about his image so he never smoked or drank in public.

A lover of books

Later on my father told me of another incident. After his release from Lucknow jail in 1946 my father wrote a book called Havalaat about his experiences of being interned in a solitary confinement cell. He wanted to gift the book to the Prime Minister. So he went to Teen Murti House, the PM's residence in Delhi. It was 15 August and Nehru was getting ready to go to the Red Fort. I think this was either in 1948 or 49. Rafi Ahmed Kidwai who was then a minister in Central Government was standing in the portico and waiting to accompany Nehru to Red Fort. My father knew Rafi saheb very well and requested him to give the book to Pandit Nehru. Rafi saheb said that he should give the book to Nehru himself. By this time Pandit Nehru came out of the house and though he was in hurry to go, he greeted my father, read the jacket of the book and, as was his custom, wrote his name and the date on the first page of the book. He then told his peon to put the book in his bedroom for his bedtime reading. That was the quality of Nehru as a literary person and a great book lover!

A similar story was told to me by my father's friend Ratan Lal Joshi. Joshiji was the editor of the Hindi newspaper Hindustan in 60s and 70s and a very close confidant of Indira Gandhi. Joshiji told me that Nehru would invite intellectuals to Teen Murti house in the evening for tea and the stimulating conversation that ensued was his way of relaxing.

A second brush

The second and the last time I saw Pandit Nehru was in 1961. My father's friend Sunder Lal, a dynamic young Congress MP had taken me and my family to see Parliament. Sunder Lal was an important member of the Congress and was the youngest MP elected in India's first election in 1951. He remained an MP till 1986 -- the year he died -- and only lost an election in 1977 when Indira Gandhi was also defeated. I was only 11 years old, so had no interest in hearing the speakers, but I had a good look at Pandit Nehru from the visitors' gallery. He was listening to a speech by Morarji Desai (Finance Minister of India at that time) and after 15-20 minutes left the Lok Sabha. Most MPs also left after him.

"[O]nce somebody suggested to Nehru that they should discuss certain party matters with Shastri. Nehru shot back saying that Shastri did not know anything about them. Nehru had a very low opinion of Shastri."

Shri Sunder Lal was a bachelor and considered me as his son. We used to discuss lots of issues about India and he told me many anecdotes about Pandit Nehru.

Nehru and Shastri

It was generally said that Pandit Nehru chose Lal Bahadur Shastri as his successor. But according to Sunder Lal he was almost like a "personal servant" of Nehru rather than his successor.

Quite a number of times when Nehru was in Kashmir for holiday and wanted some book or items of clothing, he would call Indira Gandhi in Delhi and tell her to send them. Almost invariably Lal Bahadur Shastri brought them in a small suitcase to Srinagar.

Similarly, once somebody suggested to Nehru that they should discuss certain party matters with Shastri. Nehru shot back saying that Shastri did not know anything about them. Nehru had a very low opinion of Shastri.

A dutiful daughter

Sunder Lalji also told me that people called Indira Gandhi a "goongi gudiya" (mute doll) but she was sharp and managed Nehru's household both in Teen Murti house and in Srinagar quite well.

It was a general practice that Nehru invited intellectuals for lunch. Indira Gandhi would call the lunch guests beforehand and brief them that under no circumstances should any controversial topic be raised because Nehru would lose his temper and this would increase his blood pressure. With his heart problems, his temper was a major cause of concern to Indira Gandhi.

Sunder Lalji told me of a lunch during which Nehru started becoming angry with a guest. So Indira Gandhi immediately rose and offered the guest a plate of the choicest dish and changed the subject!

According to Sunder Lal it was Govind Ballabh Pant the Home Minister who persuaded Nehru to bring Indira Gandhi into active politics so she could help Nehru. He would constantly remind Nehru that she had learnt so many political lessons by observing her father and also being with Gandhiji and so would be the most suitable Congress Working Committee member. Though Nehru outwardly indicated that it was unethical, his opposition was only in name. It was he who really started the dynastic process and Indira took it to its logical conclusion.

"Indira Gandhi would call the lunch guests beforehand and brief them that under no circumstances should any controversial topic be raised because Nehru would lose his temper and this would increase his blood pressure."

The grooming of Indira Gandhi was so perfect that she started talking and giving speeches just like her father. My father told me about an incident in the early 1950s when he had invited Nehru to give a speech in Faizabad during an election rally. Nehru could not come so he told my father that Indira Gandhi would do the needful on his behalf. Her style and language were so similar to Nehru's that my father said that had her voice not been a woman's he would have thought it was Nehru speaking!

My father also told me about the Indira Gandhi's gutsiness that day. It was getting dark when the meeting ended and as Indira Gandhi was coming down the dais after her address, some young boys misbehaved with her. She simply used her elbows very effectively to get rid of them! My father and other Congress workers then rushed and made a cordon to escort her out of the venue.

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No time for mohalla politics

Nehru never liked to give speeches about local issues. His mind would always be involved in world affairs. My father told me of an incident in Etah, one of the poorest and most backward areas of Uttar Pradesh, where Nehru came to give a speech during the first general election in 1951. However, Nehru never talked about what his government would do to help the poor district and instead he spoke about the UN and India's role in the non-alignment movement (NAM)! People trusted him because he was Gandhiji's chosen heir. His lack of focus on their affairs did not change their views and they voted overwhelmingly for the Congress.

Similarly, Sunder Lalji also told me that he requested Nehru to give a speech at a rural venue in his MP constituency but the statesman declined, saying that he did not like being involved in mohalla and bylane politics! Never mind that it was these same poor, humble people who voted in a large number of MPs to the Congress party in elections!

Missing the trees for the forest

Nehru was never a stickler for detail. He always was a thinker and left the details to his subordinates. Unfortunately, this meant that his ideas were not implemented as he had envisaged.

My uncle Dr Atma Ram who was the Director General of CSIR during late 1960s narrated to me an incident about Nehru's distaste for details.

"Sunder Lalji also told me that he requested Nehru to give a speech at a rural venue in his MP constituency but the statesman declined, saying that he did not like being involved in mohalla and bylane politics! "

Dr Meghnad Saha, the very famous Indian astrophysicist, was entrusted by Nehru to make the first Science and Technology (S&T) plan of India. He was given a residence in a magnificent bungalow in Shimla and a few months to prepare the plan. Dr Saha took with him Dr Atma Ram as his assistant. Dr Atma Ram was his one-time student in Allahabad University and at that time was a scientific officer in a National Lab in Kolkata. Dr Atma Ram told me that Nehru came for just 15 minutes and approved the plan without even looking at it properly. Either he trusted Meghnad Saha completely or S&T was not very much in his vision field at that time! Dr Atma Ram told me that both he and Saha felt that their two-three months were wasted.

The 'iron man' deputy

This behaviour of Nehru's was in complete contrast to that of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, the deputy Prime Minister of India. Patel was a nuts and bolts man, with feet on the ground and believed in the dictum of "God is in details". He took decisive actions and would go to the bottom of an issue very fast.

Shri B B Vohra, who was like an uncle to me, was a member of the first Indian Administrative Services (IAS) batch and later on became the chairman of the Advisory Board of Energy, GoI. He told me an anecdote about the administrative skills of Vallabhbhai Patel.

Before the IAS came in existence, India was ruled by officers of the Imperial Civil Services (ICS). Patel wanted one uniform IAS for the whole country whereas all the regional leaders wanted separate administrative services for their states. To resolve this issue Patel called a meeting of all state chief ministers (CMs) in Delhi to come to a consensus on this thorny issue. Patel started the meeting at 9am and told the CMs that it would end at 5pm.

One after another all the CMs at the meeting spoke about the need of having separate state-based administrative services. Patel sat quietly listening to the CMs speeches. At 5pm sharp, Patel rose and told the group that the meeting had been very productive and that he had learnt a lot about their problems and views - and that the consensus was that there should be only one IAS! He told his staff to write the minutes of the meeting accordingly and put this as the resolution passed! There was a pindrop silence in the room and not a single CM had the courage to go against Patel. This was the iron man of India!

"During dinner Nehru saw that some street urchins had climbed the boundary wall... So he took his plate and went to the wall and gave it to a young boy."

Patel and Nehru never saw eye to eye on most matters and Gandhiji was constantly worried about their differences. Yet Patel was magnanimous and big-hearted. My father told me of an incident about this trait of Patel. A very close associate of Patel (who was a good friend of my father) told him that at Patel's deathbed he and other followers told him that they would become orphans after his passing. Patel told his followers that despite their differences, Nehru would be their leader after him and they should follow him. I wonder whether Nehru would have shown such magnanimity.

Verghese Kurien, the father of the milk revolution in India, has narrated a story in his autobiography of how after Patel's death, Nehru treated his daughter quite shabbily.

Chacha Nehru in action

Nehru really liked children, and was rightly called "Chacha Nehru" (Uncle Nehru). Sunder Lal told me about one incident regarding his love for children. Nehru had invited all the newly elected MPs of his party for a dinner held in the lawns of Teen Murti house. During dinner Nehru saw that some street urchins had climbed the boundary wall and were sitting on it looking at the guests who were having dinner. So he took his plate and went to the wall and gave it to a young boy. Immediately all the MPs also gave their dinner plates to the children!

A large ego and a short fuse

By several accounts Nehru had a vain streak and was very susceptible to flattery. My father told me that one very mediocre writer from Allahabad had decided to translate Nehru's Discovery of India into Sanskrit and wanted to discuss the project with the leader. Nehru gave him unlimited access to his house so he could go in and out of Teen Murti house wherever he wanted. Besides he gave him lots of his personal time.

Nehru's uncle Dr Atal was a very close friend of my father. They were both in Lucknow jail together during the freedom movement. Dr Atal was a good friend of Chairman Mao and Chou En-lai and hence was sent by Nehru as his emissary to China just before China war of 1962. Any time Dr Atal (re)introduced my father to Nehru he would say "Jawahar meet my friend Jagdish." Nehru never liked being addressed as Jawahar and would flinch at this introduction.

Another instance of Nehru's vanity and temper was shown in a film titled A Day In The life Of The Prime Minister" and was shot by British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in early 1960. I saw this movie when I was a student in the US in the 1970s. The documentary showed Prime Minister Nehru's day from morning (breakfast) until his late dinner at night. The BBC team had picked 26 January, India's Republic Day for shooting.

"[F]or all his flaws, he was a great patriot and an honest man - qualities that we have only rarely seen in subsequent prime ministers."

In one of the scenes Pandit Nehru was shown sitting in the front row watching the Republic Day parade with some foreign dignitary and V K Krishna Menon, the then Defence Minister of India. It was quite a sunny morning so Pandit Nehru was holding a folded newspaper to shade his eyes. The scene showed Krishna Menon continuously chatting with the guest. Nehru got quite irritated and said "Menon can't you stop talking for a bit." After this rebuke Krishna Menon kept quiet for a few minutes but again started chatting animatedly. This time Nehru lost his cool and whacked Krishna Menon on his shoulder with the folded newspaper and told him to shut up! I could not believe that the most democratic Prime Minister of India would behave like a schoolmaster with the Defence Minister! I believe this movie was never shown in India.

Similarly Sunder Lalji told me of an incident that Nehru had this habit of threatening MPs that he would resign if they did not agree with him. Sometime after the 1962 China war he again threatened that he would resign. The young MPs told him to please do so. Nehru was taken aback as he never expected such a retort.

Sunder Lal also thought that Mahatma Gandhiji's act of making Vinoba Bhave as the first individual satyagrahi instead of Nehru was meant to bring Nehru down in size and reduce his vanity and ego.

Even with all these shortcomings I think he was a great Prime Minister who had certain vision for India. Naturally he was a prisoner of his times so that the vision was coloured the events and realities of that era. But for all his flaws, he was a great patriot and an honest man - qualities that we have only rarely seen in subsequent prime ministers.

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