No Chanakya
N.S. Jagannathan
LIVING AN ERA VOL II: THE NEHRU EPOCH by D.P. Mishra Vikas, New Delhi, 1978, 380 pp., 75.00
July-August 1978, volume 3, No 1

The second volume of D.P. Mishra’s autobiography covers the years of Nehru’s ascendancy, decline and death, during the major part of which Mishra was himself in the political dog-house. For one whom his friends considered a Chanakya, Mishra shows himself by his own account to be extraordinarily acci¬dent-prone, impulsive and singularly lacking in a sense of timing. Identified, with some reason, as ‘Patel’s man’, his involvement in the ‘Tandon affair’ in the early fifties led to his clashing with Nehru, and eventually, after Patel’s death in December 1950, to his open denunciation of Nehru and resignation from the Madhya Pradesh Government in 1951. In retrospect, all this hardly appears to be the action of a cold-blooded political calculator with an instinct for survival. In fact, all his sub¬sequent troubles that lasted well over a decade, are directly traced by Mishra himself to that bizarre episode, described in some detail in the book.

It is clear that, contrary to the myth assiduously propagated by his admirers, Nehru was more—or less?—than a starry-eyed idealist with no inclination or gift for organizational manipulation. He may have been quite right in his ideologi¬cal assessment of Tandon, but the way he built up pressure within the party to get Tandon eased out of Congress Presi¬dentship is not the work of an amateur in political management. Nehru was no Prince Hamlet, ineffectual and indecisive: there was in him—I say this descrip¬tively and not pejoratively—a streak of calculation and ambiguity, and a pro¬found instinct for political survival that eluded many another, including Mishra.[ih`c-hide-content ihc_mb_type=”block” ihc_mb_who=”unreg” ihc_mb_template=”1″ ]

That despite his considerable gifts, Mishra was a political failure—this again, is a value-free judgement—is writ large in this book. What else is one to make of a politician who, instead of catching at the flood the tide of post-Independence opportunities, spends twelve un-reconciled years in the wilderness, making from time to time ineffectual and not particularly dignified efforts to get back into grace? He apologized twice for his anti-Nehru stance of 1951, once in 1955 and a second time in 1961 in ‘terms that were both abject and—in his own judgement—insincere. Mishra him¬self blames it all on Nehru’s instinctive hostility towards him, but the evidence produced is more circumstantial than direct. He had a steadfast friend in Morarji Desai who pleaded his cause time and again with Nehru, but according to him, his final restoration to favour was really the doing of Indira Gandhi. The third volume should throw some light on the course of a fairly close association between the two that began tentatively in 196L when he became a member of the Citizens’ Central Council of which she was the chairman. He has been considered something of an emi¬nence grise behind her since the days of the 1969 split in the Congress until, quite recently, once again he characteristically withdrew into his political shell. It would be interesting to find out why Mishra’s relations with Nehru’s daughter were markedly different from those with her father and how Mishra was able to reconcile this with his earlier ‘closeness’ to Morarji Desai.

Mishra’s assessment of Nehru is in¬evitably coloured by the strained political and personal relations between the two for well over a decade. The book is in fact a sustained attack on Nehru’s attitudes, behaviour and policies. The ideological argument is a bit blurred, since Mishra’s own ideology is imprecise enough to have permitted him to join the Socialist Party in 1952 and leave it soon thereafter. It was ambiguous enough for the Jana Sangh and the Swatantra Party to have made overtures to him to join them, though, in fairness, he cannot be held responsible for what others thought were his views. It was only when the Hindu Mahasabha wanted to appropriate him that Mishra was scandalized: he likened his position to that of ‘a woman who, as a result of a family quarrel, had left her home and was now being wooed by every goonda on the street’. This was when he made his first application to return to the Congress since, as he put it in another context, ideologically, it was impossible for him to be in any Party, except the Congress. This speaks volumes about Mishra, Nehru and the Congress.

Mishra’s book throws some light on the dilemmas of the ‘second order’ leadership during Nehru’s long and undisputed control over Congress and national affairs after Patel’s death in 1950. Nehru was a genuine democrat in a way that his daughter wasn’t, but S. K. Patil was right when he said that he was a banyan tree under which nothing grew. This was not so much the result of any conscious suppression by Nehru as of the historically unfortunate circumstance of the sudden withdrawal by death from the scene of two persons who could have ‘taken him on’ without self-conscious aggressiveness—as did Mishra—in the fullest assurance of their own intrinsic moral and political authority. It is one of the unresolvable but fascinating ‘Ifs’ of history. What would have happened if Gandhiji or Patel had not died within months and years of Independence? Any answer would be inconclusive, but what is beyond doubt is that after their passing away, there was none—not even Rajaji or J.P. —whose good opinion Nehru valued enough to make accommodations on something he had set his heart on.

All this certainly made an enormous difference to Nehru’s policies, style and even mistakes. There simply wasn’t anyone around to whose judgment he sincerely deferred. If to this is added the pomp and circumstance of Prime Minist¬erial office—which Nehru genuinely enjoyed and which made easy the transi¬tion from the ‘Tyaga Yuga’ (era of sacrifice) to the ‘Bhoga Yuga’ (era of enjoyment) as Mishra calls them—and the sycophancy that comes naturally to all Indians within salaaming distance of power, you have a ready-made setting for what Mishra calls with some justice Nehru’s ‘monocracy’. The irony and even the tragedy of it all is that this debilitation of democracy and drift into an elitist dead-end was unconscious and not a diabolic act of a tin-pot dictator. In this sense, Mishra misses the whole point about Jawaharlal’s famous Modern Review article about his ‘dictatorial propensities’ which he quotes and com¬ments on in extenso. The tragedy of Nehru was not that he was by instinct a dictator but that he was, as he himself put it, a queer mixture of East and West, at home in neither milieu, and unlike Gandhi and Mao, unable to draw sustenance from the soil to which he nominally belonged.

The book is valuable as a source book and cross-referential point for other accounts of the events of the Nehru era. There are a number of amusing anecdotes—as when Pandit Pant broke into tears at a Working Committee meeting and when Dr Katju failed to recognize his own colleague. Mishra’s characterizations are sharp and deft. One gets the impres¬sion of an urbane and educated mind not overwhelmed by the disappointments set out in considerable detail but without self-pity in the book.

N.S. Jagannathan is Assis


tant Editor, The Statesman, New Delhi.