Ambassadors’ journals: two views of Nehru


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IN December 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower invited Jawaharlal Nehru to his country home in Gettysburg. The house was steeped in the Civil War history of the United States. It had been commandeered as a makeshift hospital for Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. Eisenhower took Nehru to see the sights before returning to his farm where the two leaders stayed overnight and spent 14 hours talking, away from the hustle-bustle of Washington DC. Eisenhower transcribed 14 pages of notes from that extended conversation. ‘By his own admission Eisenhower was fascinated with India, although in 1956, he had not yet visited the country. He was also fascinated by Nehru’, writes Riedel in his book JFK’s Forgotten Crisis: Tibet, the CIA, and the Sino-Indian War.

A few years later, it was the great economist John Kenneth Galbraith’s turn to meet Nehru for the first time as the new US ambassador to India. He would report of it to President John F. Kennedy as Galbraith had consciously revived the custom of writing a letter home to the president. In Galbraith’s case, Kennedy’s apparent fondness for Galbraith, who was widely regarded as the president’s favourite diplomat, lent a wonderfully candid and casual tone to the communication. ‘My first talk with Nehru was not quite so easy – I am not entirely at home in his presence and I rather wonder if anyone is’, Galbraith wrote. ‘A strong political leader is, I think, one who raises a certain moral threshold against disagreement.’

Each of these prime ministerial meetings was with men who disagreed with Nehru’s position on a number of issues, from nonalignment to the Soviet invasion of Hungary, and yet were remarkable for the respect, even awe, with which they regarded Nehru. Both were willing to accommodate Nehru’s idiosyncrasies and strongly held positions that were often critical of the US because they saw him as a giant on the world stage. The developed world admired the tenacity with which he had embarked on what the historian Ramachandra Guha has called ‘the most reckless political experiment in human history’ of building a democracy in India.

In that first meeting, Galbraith would report to Kennedy of the small size and shabbiness of Nehru’s office in parliament. ‘He is usually here when the House is sitting; this is an aspect of his determination to get parliamentary habits firmly fixed during his lifetime. The central parliament functions at least as efficiently and equably as the (US) Senate’, wrote Galbraith who had lobbied Kennedy for the ambassadorial appointment to India. ‘When I left, he asked that my new role not prevent me from continuing as an economic adviser to his government. I told him… that my voice might now be a trifle muted.’


For his part, Eisenhower had regarded Nehru as an ‘occasionally exasperating personality’ because of his positions on the Suez crisis and his tendency to be soft on Soviet or Communist Chinese transgressions. Even so, the respect for the Indian prime minister prompted Eisenhower and later Kennedy to overlook and to accommodate Nehru’s tendency to be a harsher judge of US and European actions. Eisenhower reasoned that this was because Nehru viewed the world through the prism of someone from a country that had suffered the effects of British imperialism.

Almost 75 years from independence, social media discourse and to some extent India at large has lapsed into a kind of collective amnesia. India is in danger of forgetting how admired the country was by much of the developed world in its first decade or so – and why. Presidents and prime ministers and the world at large saw Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru almost as mythological figures in a manner that no developing country’s leaders have been lionized since – with the exception perhaps of post-apartheid South Africa’s Nelson Mandela.

The young James Morris (who later became the celebrated nonfiction writer Jan) recalls running around the Welsh countryside in the early 1930s with his favourite toy, a telescope. Adults shouted after him to enquire whether he expected to see ‘Gandhi’ at the other end of his lens, a revealing anecdote about the celebrated ubiquity of Gandhi and India’s freedom struggle in the world’s imagination at the time. To chance upon this passage of a boyhood recollection from almost a hundred years ago – not long after ‘Nathuram Godse’ was a trending hashtag on Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary this year in a new low of social media depravity – is to experience both a profound disquiet about India’s mangled and latterly made-up modern history as well as a sense of pride in the stature of its towering leaders during its struggle for independence.

Guha reminds us that in 1958, a couple of years after Eisenhower’s meticulous hospitality had been showered upon Nehru when he visited his farm at Gettysburg, the British writer E.M. Forster fantasized about Voltaire being reborn and addressing a letter on the fate of mankind to a great world leader. In Forster’s telling, Voltaire quickly concludes that there is scarcely a world leader worthy of receiving such a letter from the great French philosopher and political activist. ‘Only one head of state would welcome a letter from him and that was Nehru of India.’


Similarly, Nehru’s meetings with US presidents and their emissaries seem like an inversion of the geopolitical order. Kennedy would have been sympathetic to Galbraith’s assessment that Nehru was not always easy company: while still a young senator, he and his brother Bobby had paid a visit to Nehru in New Delhi in the 1950s. Before the meeting, the American embassy had briefed the Kennedys that Nehru sometimes got bored easily; the sign that they should conclude the meeting quickly was that Nehru would start repeatedly tapping his fingers on the table. According to Jackie Kennedy’s account of that first meeting, the dreaded finger tapping started quite early.

Yet when Nehru visited the US during Kennedy’s presidency in 1961, he was accorded a similar tour de force itinerary with time at the Kennedy mansion in Cape Cod and a White House dinner. Nehru, to Galbraith’s alarm, was jet-lagged and monosyllabic through much of the visit. Once again, the US administration made light of a difficult and unproductive visit because Nehru and India had long been so admired.


Few speeches by any world leader state the case for India and Nehru’s unique position a decade after independence than one by Kennedy while still a senator in the summer of 1959. It is a period piece at one level, steeped in the ethos of the Cold War, but also full of admiration at another for Nehru’s bold gamble on democracy in a desperately poor and largely illiterate country. ‘No struggle in the world today deserves more of our time and attention than… the "subtle" yet "very real battle" between a democratic India that supports human dignity and individual freedom against "Red China which represents ruthless denial of human rights".’

Kennedy proposed a European-styled Marshall Plan and called upon Japan and NATO allies to piece together a package that would strengthen the Indian economy via loans and foreign direct investment of about $1 billion a year. As Riedel notes, ‘Kennedy was placing India at the centre of the cold war at a time when many Americans had long regarded it as, if not the enemy, an unwitting accomplice of communism.’

Kennedy’s admiration from afar would prove hugely consequential in immediately dispatching senior administration officials to New Delhi in response to an appeal for help from Nehru when the India-China war in 1962 was at its worst. He also accorded Galbraith’s reports on Nehru huge importance during his years as president, often overriding State Department advice on India. Another more comprehensive yet broadly admiring perspective of Nehru was from Walter Crocker, the Australian high commissioner in Delhi who lived there for about a decade. Crocker was such a keen observer of Nehru that he set to work on a political biography of the prime minister within months of Nehru’s death. Less than 185 pages, Nehru: A Contemporary’s Estimate is a series of Mughal miniatures of Nehru and India. Consider just a few passages that sum up Nehru and his challenges at the time:

‘His first concern was to see that India did not fall apart. To this end he encouraged a nationalism that would make Indians feel that they were Indians instead of feeling that they were Tamils or Punjabis or Dogras or Assamese or Brahmans or Kshatriyas or this or that caste, as they are apt.’

‘In abolishing the British raj, and in propagating ideas of equality… Nehru and the upper-class Indian nationalists of English education abolished themselves.’

‘His prestige with the Indian people had something of the magical about it. Here was why over a dozen years or so he could have been a dictator if he had so desired, without guns or propaganda…The myth owed nothing to the projection of his personality through mass media, for few villagers had any acquaintance with the radio or cinema and none with TV, and four out of five were illiterate. That is to say, the myth owed nothing to the synthetic fabrication of personality by the artifices of "public relations".’

This is no hagiography, however. Crocker is biting, for instance, in his critique of Nehru’s conduct of policy with regard to Beijing in the decade leading up to the India-China war. He is also critical of Nehru’s fondness for five-year plans and an early doubter that they would work. He is sympathetic to Nehru’s belief that ‘his goodwill had been recompensed with guile and brutality’ by Mao’s China but clear-eyed in declaring that ‘the theme song in 1950-58 of three thousand years of unbroken peace between two Asian brothers had been a manifestation of Indian nationalism in its racial or anti-European form as well as nonsense.’ These views, both pro and con, were widely held by many Indians at the time as well but Crocker and Galbraith’s perspectives are invaluable. They were simultaneously assessments from the outsider who was also an insider because of their repeated meetings with Nehru and other Indian leaders at the time. That they wrote like novelists is a bonus.


Purushottam Agrawal’s Who is Bharat Mata, a compendium of writing by Nehru and about Nehru by luminaries such as Vallabhbhai Patel, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and others, published in paperback this summer, is a morally uplifting (yet in his introduction occasionally deliciously sarcastic) response to the fake news spewed to besmirch Nehru’s reputation by Hindutva’s social media factories today. As I wrote in a recent review for Mint, Agrawal mostly lets great leaders make the case for Nehru. Patel’s speech on Nehru’s sixtieth birthday was a eulogy to Nehru and their partnership of rivals: ‘It is difficult for people to imagine how much we miss each other when we are apart and unable to take counsel together.’

The title of the book draws on Nehru’s regular road shows for his wildly ambitious political experiment that were more nation-building tutorials rather than campaign stops, in contrast to the modern era where leaders never stop campaigning: in response to cries of ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ when he arrived, Nehru would famously ask people what they meant by Bharat Mata. Then he would provide his own definition: ‘these millions of Indian people’ are Bharat Mata. ‘Victory to Bharat Mata can only mean "victory to these people".’ In another passage, Nehru explained in Hindi that a prime minister is more a servant than a raja; if the people were ever displeased, they could take him ‘by the ear and unseat him.’


In matters big and small, from his zealous attendance at parliament to his tutorials on nationhood at his public meetings, Nehru thus did an exceptional job at building the foundations of a democracy as well as a pan-Indian ethos. From half the world away other western observers marvelled, as Crocker and Galbraith did, that he persevered with the task when it would have been easier to be a dictator. ‘Every conceivable argument has been available to tempt Mr Nehru to forego democratic institutions in India. Illiteracy and poverty, disease and ignorance, a great subcontinent to govern…’ noted Bertrand Russell.

It was in his conduct of foreign policy where Nehru tripped repeatedly. He was sanctimonious towards the West and routinely wore kid gloves in his dealings with Russia and China. Both Galbraith and Crocker were critical of Nehru’s China policy in the manner that many Indian commentators were but they were also puzzled by what the strategy behind the Chinese aggression might be. Then as now, Chinese motives were baffling. The conflict this year in the midst of a pandemic that had already badly damaged Beijing’s standing around the world is equally perplexing. As Crocker observed, the ownership of vast tracts of land at the border was ultimately less important than ‘the risk (for China) of making enemies of a neighbouring state numbering 500 million, hitherto well disposed towards her, and speaking up repeatedly for her full acceptance in the comity of nations. Was any real interest of China involved which justified so high a cost?’


In the third week of November 1962, Nehru, alarmed by the risk that China would take over large parts of India’s northeast, made an extraordinary appeal for help from the US; Kennedy dispatched a senior team of officials to New Delhi immediately. The appeal was equivalent to a request for twelve squadrons of fighter aircraft and two bomber squadrons. It alarmed the then Indian ambassador to the US, B.K. Nehru, so much that he did not share it with any of his staff. ‘At least 10,000 personnel would be needed to staff and operate the jets, provide radar support and conduct logistical support for the operation’, according to Riedel. Then mysteriously, the Chinese declared a ceasefire; in Galbraith’s words, ‘like a thief in the night peace arrived.’

Mao was, in many senses, a madman, always seeking enemies at home and abroad. To speculate about his motives that led to the war and then the ceasefire – and indeed everything from the state-sponsored famine of the Great Leap Forward that had just concluded in China just as hostilities with India began to the lunacy of the Cultural Revolution – is an unproductive exercise. There is a reasonably solid consensus, however, that US military help for India and the prospect that the US would enter the war on India’s side stayed his hand.

As Riedel observes, ‘The airlift of supplies by the US Air Force and the Royal Air Force were the visible manifestation that Washington and London were offering not only moral support to India but also concrete and tangible military assistance. By mid-November, the aid was arriving in battlefields, albeit not yet in decisive amounts to change the balance of power but the trend was clear.’ Faced with the US characterizing the attack on India ‘as comparable to the Chinese attack on UN forces in Korea in 1950’, this served as a warning to Mao of a ‘very high’ price for further aggression.

The respect the Kennedy administration had for Nehru and for India had meant that at India’s greatest moment of need, words of support were backed by action. Nehru may have been jet-lagged and monosyllabic in his visit to Kennedy’s home in Hyannis Port and the White House exactly a year earlier, but the relationship remained strong. Galbraith, in fact, became a de facto adviser to Nehru during the China war. In tandem with Kennedy, Galbraith pressured General Ayub Khan to ensure Pakistan did not take advantage of the situation to open a second front and paid little heed to his carping that arms sent to India would be used against Pakistan.


Doubtless Cold War calculations played a large part, but the rapport between the leadership of the two countries at the time was remarkable. Jackie Kennedy and her sister visited India in early 1962, spending a good amount of time with Nehru in Delhi. In a final postscript, Galbraith’s witty and wise Ambassador’s Journal was dedicated to both Kennedy and Nehru.

In an extrapolation of so many analyses of the Indo-Chinese War where Nehru certainly bungled repeatedly, in the decades since he died, Nehru’s failings have put under a microscope to attribute all manner of India’s systemic problems to him. Yet, the spurning of his friendly overtures to China certainly seems less a unique fault of policy and of Nehruvian naivete when contextualized with the aggression at the Ladakh border by President Xi Jinping’s China in 2020 after repeated summitry between Prime Minister Modi and Xi on the banks of the Sabarmati and the beaches of Mammallapuram. The problem is China’s imperial instincts.


With regard to India’s economy, what is lazily called Nehruvian socialism also constituted the building blocks of the miracle economies in East Asia. State-led industrialization and policies of import substitution were not so alien in the 1950s when President Syngman Rhee in South Korea and President Chiang Kaishek in Taiwan adopted variations of these policies. India was certainly slowed by Nehru’s infatuation with plans but also by a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, corruption and the demographic challenges of a workforce often functionally illiterate, all of which persist to today.

Crocker criticizes Nehru for the ‘superficiality’ of the planning process on occasion, but observes empathetically, ‘Nehru was superficial mostly because he was in a tempestuous hurry to set India irrevocably on the road to industrialization and socialism before he left the scene.’ Then in a scathing assessment of India at large, Crocker points out that even the best intentioned government policies are laid low by twin bugbears that bedevil the country to this day. ‘One is the slapdash inefficiency universal in India: engine drivers and railway employees who incur serious accidents by not bothering to carry out elementary precautions… The other is corruption, equally universal in India, as endemic as dysentery or malaria. It has swollen to vast proportions since independence.’

Galbraith writes of being pressured by G.D. Birla soon after the new ambassador arrived in New Delhi to legitimize the practice by which American companies supplying goods to Indian conglomerates such as the Birlas invited the wives of the businessmen on trips to the US. ‘Birla told me that he had twice read (Galbraith’s book) The Affluent Society and then asked that I urge the Indian Government to be less severe in auditing the books of American corporations with which the Birlas are associated in India’, Galbraith reports. Reading this passage one is reminded of Mukesh Ambani’s stern warning last year at a business summit in Gujarat of the large dangers of ‘data colonization’ by global multinationals but paradoxically accepting huge investments by such companies, including Facebook and Google, this year.


In a seminal review of Who is Bharat Mata in the Economic and Political Weekly in June, Rajeev Bhargava makes the point that ‘many of our current problems stem at least partly from how we have imagined our past, particularly our recent past.’ He quotes Agrawal, ‘Memory defines individual and collective identity. It implies a serious moral responsibility of choosing what to remember and what to forget.’

This applies equally to the alternate history of Jawaharlal Nehru’s role in making India what it is today. Nehru was not, of course, murdered by a fanatic but his historical fate has been a death by a thousand cuts, demonstrated in such dubious analysis as blaming, say, all the ills of the economy on him or characterizing the 1962 war as a one-off event brought on by his overly idealistic approach to foreign policy.

If statism and socialism were so singularly Nehru’s fault, why do those very outmoded ideas dominate all manner of policies well into the 21st century, from stern warnings by ‘anti-profiteering’ agencies usually directed at multinationals to the finance minister’s incredible exhortation in November to banks in India that they promote only the government’s RuPay card in digital payments? If import substitution was a bad idea in the 1950s, why is it making a comeback in 2020? If anything, it is not just outdated but an asinine idea today that will throw sand into the wheels of Indian firms seeking to be part of the global supply chains that dominate so many industries from mobile phones to leisurewear and will handicap Indian companies bid to be global suppliers.


A fairer assessment is that Nehru’s political experiment mostly succeeded but his flawed economic policies were taken too far for too long by successive governments, including ironically the Modi government, which has been raising tariffs in successive budgets and turning its back on the trade liberalization of a quarter century. Crocker’s recollections of Nehru’s India also carry a resonance and a familiarity with our less admirable traits as Indians that ring true in contemporary India. He complained of being ‘cheated repeatedly’ and being pestered often by powerful people to obtain positions in British hospitals and universities and even join a campaign to get someone the Nobel Prize.

Against this backdrop, one man of many achievements and some failings stood apart as a colossus, ‘so fascinating by himself as to make my India assignment fascinating.’ In a biography characterized by pithiness, Crocker’s explanation of why Nehru appealed to the Indians who lived through those times is as elegant as it is simple: ‘The great bulk of the people of India sensed, and they never lost that sense, that Nehru only wanted to help them and wanted nothing for himself.’