An exploration of the complex and controversial dynamics binding Jawaharlal Nehru, C P Ramaswami Aiyar and Indira Gandhi
In my book Duty, Destiny and Glory: A Life of C P Ramaswami Aiyar, I observed, “Nehru just could not stand C P, unlike his daughter, Indira Gandhi, for a number of reasons, some of which are yet to be uncovered by historical research, and in the matter as in several others, Nehru decided to place his ego above the interests of the nation. If Nehru had loved India more and himself less, he would have certainly asked C P to represent India in the United Nations (UN) and thus neutralised the Zafarullah Khan sent by Pakistan.” Newly-independent India took the Kashmir issue to the UN. C P Ramaswami Aiyar – popularly known as ‘C P’ – was willing to represent India in the UN and Sardar Vallabhai Patel supported his candidature. But the complex relationship between Jawaharlal Nehru and C P, which had evolved over the decades, prevented C P from taking up the assignment. This essay is an attempt to initiate an éclaircissement of this relationship.
No two individuals could be so strikingly similar, as well as so dramatically different, as Nehru and C P. Both were Brahmins from the two extremes of the subcontinent, or well, almost. The Nehrus were Kashmiri Brahmins who had made Allahabad their hometown; the Aiyars had settled in Madras (now renamed Chennai), the somewhat northern capital of the southern presidency. Both were lawyers and sons of successful lawyers at that. Both were extraordinarily handsome men and not exactly misogynists. While Nehru was an only son, C P was an only child. Both were born into immense wealth, but here a clarification is required. Motilal Nehru’s income was spectacular, but so was his expenditure. The Nehrus lived in style in Anand Bhavan, but they had no vast landed estates, no prime commercial buildings, no chain of residences in various towns, no vaults full of jewellery, or no lakhs of rupees stashed away in government promissory notes – all of which the Aiyars had. In terms of actual financial net worth, C P’s family was a hundred times richer than Nehru’s. Both Nehru and C P were Anglophiles who had started off as Congressmen. In fact, at one point, both had been AICC General Secretaries. But in 1919, their political paths had sharply forked: when the Gandhians had taken over the Indian National Congress, C P, the blue-eyed boy of Gandhi’s arch-rival, Annie Besant, had resigned from it to become the youngest Advocate General of Madras. After that, there had been no looking back. He had occupied every high office open to an Indian in British India, including that of Member of the Viceroy’s Council. In 1936 he had gone to the princely state of Travancore to become its Dewan and had spent a little over a decade there locked in conflict, bloody and bitter, with the Congress movements in the state. Meanwhile, Nehru had been relentlessly chasing his dream of becoming the unquestioned political heir of the Mahatma and the supreme leader of the Congress.
C P joined the Indian National Congress in 1904 and it was through the Congress movement that he came into contact with the Nehru family. Beginning with the Surat Congress of 1907, he religiously attended every Congress. He first visited Anand Bhavan in 1910 when he went to Allahabad to take part in the Allahabad Congress. In 1917 he became one of the two General Secretaries of the Indian National Congress – the other General Secretary being Jawaharlal Nehru. The two General Secretaries, though rivals, became great personal friends. In the years to come, a visit to Allahabad always meant to C P a visit to Anand Bhavan as well. There were occasions when he stayed in the Nehru mansion for days at a stretch. C P’s performance as Congress General Secretary was brilliant. Pattabhi Sitaramayya, the historian of the Indian National Congress, was to call C P the lone star of the Congress firmament.
In 1936 he had gone to the princely state of Travancore to become its Dewan and had spent a little over a decade there locked in conflict, bloody and bitter, with the Congress movements in the state. Meanwhile, Nehru had been relentlessly chasing his dream of becoming the unquestioned political heir of the Mahatma and the supreme leader of the Congress.
Between 1910 and 1919 C P visited Allahabad five times, staying in Anand Bhavan on each occasion, for the Nehrus maintained an open house. He established a close friendship with the members of the Nehru family, especially Motilal, 18 years older than him, and his son, a decade younger. Between C P and the younger Nehru was a golden link – Annie Besant. C P who had a fixated relationship with his own mother, Seethalakshmi Ammal, saw Annie Besant as his second mother. Annie Besant was also a friend of the Nehru family and had converted the younger Nehru to Theosophy when he had been a boy of thirteen (though the convert had forgotten the conversion shortly afterwards). In 1916, C P made it a point to attend the grand wedding of Jawaharlal Nehru to Kamala Kaul conducted in Delhi. The relationship between C P and the Nehrus reached its apogee in 1917 when, as has been pointed out, the Indian National Congress made C P one of its two General Secretaries – the other being Jawaharlal Nehru. Pattabhi Sitaramayya, the historian of the party, was later to observe, “Between 1917 and 1919, Sir C P was the one star on the Congress firmament flooding the horizon of Indian politics with his radiance.” But in the clash between Mahatma Gandhi and Annie Besant, the Nehrus and C P found themselves in opposing camps. The rout of the Besantine faction prompted C P to resign from the Indian National Congress. The relationship between C P and Jawaharlal Nehru thus suffered its first jolt.
Nehru was a fluent Urdu speaker, a man quite familiar with Urdu literature, whose all-time favourite among the Urdu poets was Mirza Ghalib. C P spoke no Urdu, but he knew his Ghalib and would quote extensively from the poet to the exhilaration of north Indian audiences. One of his favourite Ghalib couplets was:
rau mein hai rakhshe-umr kahan dekhiye thame
na hath bag par hai, na pa hai rakab mein
which is translated by O P Kejariwal as:
Wither life’s steed
On the feet or the reins?
Wither it will go
I know it not
Where it will stop
I know it not.
While C P stepped out of the Indian National Congress, Nehru buoyantly accepted the coronet of the crown prince of Gandhians, and the lives of both at this specific point invite a perfect applicability of this Ghalib couplet.
As Sir CP rose higher and higher in the Government of Madras and the Government of India, the Nehru family tumbled from wealth to relative poverty.
Nehru’s opinion of C P could not have improved when in 1921, hardly two years after his resignation from the Congress party, he joined the Government of Madras as Advocate General. (In fact, C P remains the youngest Advocate General in the history of the presidency.) After that, there was no looking back. He became Member of the Governor’s Council, Vice-president of the Governor’s Council, Delegate to the League of Nations and Member of the Viceroy’s Council. Meanwhile, Nehru, as the Mahatma’s political lieutenant and the rising star of the Congress, was locked in a life-and-death struggle against the British Raj. As C P rose higher and higher in the Government of Madras and the Government of India, the Nehru family tumbled from wealth to relative poverty. In response to Gandhiji’s call, Motilal Nehru gave up legal practice and this resulted in the sudden drying up of the family’s principal source of income. However, the Nehrus, used to luxury for years, were not quite adept at cutting down expenses. The Anand Bhavan establishment continued to be run more or less as it had been run earlier. In contrast to this, whenever out of office, C P would make it a point to resume legal practice. He tendered legal advice to and appeared for a galaxy of fabulously wealthy clients, including the Nizam of Hyderabad, reputed to be the world’s richest man, earning spectacular amounts in the process. Like Motilal, he was good at making money; but unlike Motilal, he was also good at investing what he had earned. For example, in 1917, he acquired Delisle, a chocolate-box estate bungalow in Ootacamund built by a Frenchman who had fled Napoleonic France. In the long run, it would turn out to be a brilliant real estate investment. Thus while Nehru (along with his father, Motilal) was taking part in Congress agitations, moving in and out of jails, and ruining himself financially, in short, suffering for his dear country, C P was relentlessly pursuing power and money, or so it would have seemed to Nehru, and if such a perception had indeed been generated, it would have quite been unlikely to improve his opinion of his former fellow Congressman.
Nehru and C P met briefly at the Madras Congress held in December 1927 in the latter’s hometown. They shook hands and interacted with each other quite cordially. Nehru was cock-a-hoop after his European tour which had taken him to London, Paris, Berlin and Geneva, among other places. At the Brussels International Congress against Colonial Oppression and Imperialism, he had represented the Indian National Congress. He had been appointed Honorary President of the newly set-up League against Imperialism and for National Independence whose Executive Committee had included Albert Einstein and Romain Rolland. C P was now a member of the Governor’s Council, and long years had passed since he had left the Congress fold, but he positively enjoyed hobnobbing with his erstwhile comrades in the Indian National Congress. The Madras Music Academy was inaugurated by C P in the Madras Congress. The open participation in a Congress session of a Member of the Governor’s Council sparked off a controversy, but C P was, needless to say, unfazed. The top-of-the-world feeling that Nehru had acquired as a result of his European exploits drove him to the folly of persuading the Madras Congress to pass a resolution demanding complete Independence. How could an Honorary President of the League against Imperialism and for National Independence ask for anything less? Mahatma Gandhi, (in whose absence the resolution had been passed) launched a scathing attack on it in Young India and declared that the Congress had descended to the level of a “schoolboys’ debating society”. Nehru was bent upon further folly. He shot off a spirited letter to Gandhiji which evoked an equally spirited reply from the furious Mahatma. It appeared that mentor and protégé would fall out immediately when Nehru sent Gandhiji a shamelessly abject apology that healed the breach. Be that as it may, despite the cordial interactions, it was obvious that the relationship between Nehru and C P had come a long way from what it had been in the days when they had been fellow Congress General Secretaries.
This is how Sonia Gandhi opens her foreword to the 2004 edition of An Autobiography by Nehru: “Jawaharlal Nehru’s three classics – Glimpses of World History, An Autobiography and The Discovery of India – remain essential reading for anyone who wishes to understand the ideas and personalities that have shaped India through the ages, and moulded the character and special genius of her people.” Sonia Gandhi’s statement is understandably hyperbolic. Whether the books are classics is debatable, as is the claim that they are essential reading for the understanding of the ideas and personalities that have shaped India. But the books are certainly essential reading for anyone who wishes to understand Nehru. This is particularly true of An Autobiography.
Nehru completed An Autobiography, in District Gaol, Almora, on 14 February 1935 by penning the short epilogue that brings the book to a close. In fact, the entire book (but for the postscript) was written in prison. On the day on which he wrote the last words of his autobiography, did Jawaharlal Nehru carry out an introspection of his own life? If he had done so, he would have remembered that he was now the head of his family: Motilal had passed away some four years earlier, in 1931. The Nehru fortune was in a shambles. The head of the family was in jail, occupying no higher position than that of State Prisoner. The British seemed destined to rule India for ever. For Jawaharlal power and glory were little more than a mad man’s dream.
Meanwhile, on 14 February 1935, C P was the most powerful man in the princely state of Travancore. The Regency had been abruptly terminated in 1931 (due to C P’s manoeuvres) and Maharaja Sree Chitra Tirunal had been invested with full reigning powers. In the course of his accession speech (drafted by C P) the teenaged Maharaja had declared that he had decided to appoint C P as his Legal and Constitutional Adviser. In the winter of 1936 C P would become Dewan of Travancore. It is true in the late 1920s C P had faced severe financial problems, and these had included mounting unpaid debts. These problems had been created by C P’s lavish lifestyle and flamboyant philanthropy, and even more by his compulsive habit of investing heavily in fixed assets, especially real estate. By 1935 the crisis had been tided over, and C P had succeeded in consolidating and expanding his enormous inherited fortune. He had a fleet of cars at his command whose piece de resistance was a Rolls Royce. In terms of pure power, the arc of his career was about to touch its acme.
Jawaharlal Nehru would have been less than human if he had not felt at least a slight discomfort while thinking of this erstwhile Congress colleague on 14 February 1935. This discomfort finds memorable expression when Nehru says of C P in the Epilogue of An Autobiography: “We have not met for many years, but there was a time long ago when we were joint secretaries of the Home Rule League. Since then much has happened, and C P has risen by ascending spirals to dizzy heights and I have remained of the earth, earthy”.
The Discovery of India is sometimes touted as Nehru’s magnum opus. It was written at breakneck speed, in five months, April to September 1944, when its author was incarcerated in Ahmednagar Fort prison. The core of the book is an ambitious attempt to capture the panorama of India’s past beginning with the Indus Valley civilisation and the coming of the Aryans. Nehru discusses, among other things, the Vedas and the epics; the new religions, Buddhism and Jainism; ancient Indian art and science; the rise of the Mauryan empire, the Muslim invasions, Shivaji, colonialism; the Congress and the advent of Gandhi. While mentally occupying these rarefied intellectual heights, Nehru was unable to forget his old friend with whom he had lost contact and who was now revelling in the power and the glory of being the most powerful Dewan in the history of the princely state of Travancore. Discussing the issue of federating British India and princely India, Nehru mentions, “Sir C P Ramaswami Aiyar, the Dewan of Travancore and one of the ablest and most experienced of states’ ministers.” But he also adds that C P has a reputation for autocratic methods and suppression of those whom he does not approve of.
KF Rustamji who was chief security officer to the first Prime Minister of India for several years maintained a diary during his tenure and the portrait of the Prime Minister which emerges from an éclaircissement of the same is that of an arrogant (and somewhat eccentric) despot.
However, by the time 1947 reached its climactic middle, Nehru and C P, it appeared, stood facing each other with drawn swords, like duellists in some medieval fencing match, Nehru threatening to decapitate the princes, and C P vowing to protect them, especially his chosen prince, the Maharaja of Travancore, even, if it meant with his life. On the withdrawal of the British from India and the lapsing of Paramountcy, Travancore decided to become independent. It was a legally sound decision but politically impractical. C P held two extremely controversial press conferences in Trivandrum, in June 1947, to explain this stand. In both the press conferences he attacked Nehru. In one of them, he allegedly made derogatory observations about “Jawahar’s beautiful sisters.” Nehru would not have been hurt had the remark come from anyone else, but because it came from C P, he must have found it particularly hurting. For C P’s youngest son, C R Sundaram was notoriously close to Nehru’s outrageously beautiful sister, Krishna Hutheesing, and this was known to everybody.
On 25 July 1947, there was a near-successful attempt on C P’s life. The would-be assassin was a Tamil Brahmin youth called K C S Mani; the venue was the Music Academy in Trivandrum; the weapon was a large bespoke knife; the time was 7.10 pm. C P was rushed to the General Hospital where the doctors declared the state of their illustrious patient critical. It was only next morning that he was said to be out of danger. The Maharaja signed the Instrument of Accession and the decks were cleared for the integration of Travancore with the Indian Union. On 15 August 1947, when India became independent, and Jawaharlal Nehru at last tasted supreme power, C P Ramaswami Aiyar lay in a sick bed, his face and neck hidden by an inconveniently-large bandage. Both lives had come full circle. The botched assassination attempt provoked widespread condemnation and statements were issued by everyone including Mahatma Gandhi, Lord Mountbatten and Sardar Patel. But one man failed to condemn it, and that man was Jawaharlal Nehru: he was busy taking over as free India’s first Prime Minister. On 19 August 1947 C P resigned as Dewan of Travancore and flew from Trivandrum to Coimbatore, and then drove to Ootacamund, where he had a sprawling estate at the heart of which stood a spectacular colonial bungalow.
Perhaps the most insoluble complex problem faced by new-born India was the Kashmir issue. Intoxicated by naively utopian ideas of the new world order that seemed to be emerging after the Second World War, wrongly believing that the nations of the world would be on the side of justice (which, of course, meant the side of India), India took the Kashmir issue to the UN. Whether this was a mistake or not can be endlessly debated, but what certainly was a blunder, and a colossal blunder at that, was India’s choice of representative: Gopalaswami Ayyangar. This blunder was magnified by the fact that Pakistan chose as its envoy, Muhammad Zafarullah Khan, the brilliant lawyer, the eloquent speaker and the passionate party animal. C P was more than willing to shoulder the responsibility of fighting India’s Kashmir battle in the UN, and Sardar Vallabhai Patel thought he would be the perfect choice for India’s man in Manhattan, but Nehru overruled Patel and chose Gopalaswami Ayyangar instead. Ayyangar was a good man who was unaware of the crucial role played by behind-the-scene operations in international diplomacy. He was an orthodox Tamil Brahmin: a vegetarian, a non-smoker and a teetotaler. Diplomats, their wives and their girlfriends drank and danced all night in the glittering parties of Manhattan and Ayyangar was truly bewildered by what he saw. To top it off, he had never made a coherent speech in his life. Like Ayyangar, C P was a Tamil Brahmin, but unlike Ayyangar, who would explode into a coughing fit on scenting 555 and faint on smelling The Famous Grouse, he was not a Tamil Brahmin of the orthodox variety. If C P had been asked to represent India (instead of Ayyangar) he might have used his profound legal knowledge, his mesmerising eloquence, his flair for manoeuvre and manipulation, his international contacts, and his enormous personal resources to checkmate Zafarullah Khan and script a history of the Kashmir dispute dramatically different from what it is now.
After an extensive lecture tour that took him to the United States, Canada, Chile and Mexico, C P landed in Calcutta in April 1948. As his health certificate against yellow fever was found to be defective, the authorities at Dum Dum placed him under quarantine. C Rajagopalachari, then Governor of West Bengal, heard of it and flew into a rage. He wanted to take C P to the Calcutta Raj Bhavan but the rules prohibited it and so he consoled himself (and C P) by sending him food and books. The Governor had a long (and heated) telephone conversation with the Union Health Minister, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, but it was in vain. Was there more to this seemingly trivial incident than meets the eye? Had it anything to do with the fact that, at that point in time, Jawaharlal Nehru was Prime Minister of India and Rajkumari Amrit Kaur Union Health Minister? In 1938, almost exactly a decade earlier, the Rajkumari had visited Travancore, as Mahatma Gandhi’s emissary, to negotiate a compromise between the Travancore State Congress which had been agitating for responsible government and the government of the princely state whose Dewan had been C P Ramaswami Aiyar. It had been an abortive mission. The government had treated the Rajkumari cordially, but had something happened which had hurt her ego? Besides, the Travancore Government under C P had a habit of confining non-Travancorean agitators who tried to enter the state to railway stations (which were technically British territory), the most illustrious exemplification of this being the case of Kamla Devi Chattopadhyaya. Above all, during his discussions with Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, the Dewan had boasted that he would be “wholly unwilling to cede Travancore to Allahabad!”
Jawaharlal Nehru and C P Ramaswami Aiyar met and interacted closely with each other in Annamalainagar on 16 April 1954. C P was then Vice-Chancellor of Annamalai University while Nehru was, of course, Prime Minister of India. Annamalai University hosted the Third International Association of Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists and Novelists (PEN) Conference in Annamalainagar, Chidambaram, from 16 to 18 April 1954. The opening session of the conference was a grand affair: Nehru inaugurated it, Vice-President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan presided over it, and C P was its star speaker. Nehru and C P shook hands in public, interacted warmly, and even complimented each other handsomely in their respective speeches. Was the ice that had formed over the decades between the two melting? It was too early to say.
The Chinese gave as much as they got, and steadily advanced into Indian territory. Panic seized Delhi. The Prime Minister went on to deliver a shamefully-defeatist speech which gave the impression that Assam had already fallen to the Chinese, when in fact, they were only nibbling at Assam’s borders.
In September 1955, C P then Vice-Chancellor of Banaras Hindu University (as well as Annamalai University) led a university delegation to China. There he met academics, officials and leaders, addressed audiences and delivered a talk over Radio Peking. Needless to say, he charmed the Chinese and won for himself quite a few slit-eyed (female) admirers. But certain vibes he got in the People’s Republic disturbed him deeply. On his return to India, C P wrote a personal letter to Nehru explaining that the Chinese had nothing but ill will towards India and contempt for India’s fighting prowess and that it would be better to be wary of Chinese expansionist designs. But Nehru considered himself an international expert on international affairs and believed that Chairman Mao was his ideological blood brother, and was in no mood to take lessons on foreign policy from the former tinpot dictator of Travancore. Nehru decided to ignore C P’s letter, and never was so heavy a price ever paid for throwing an unsolicited letter into the dustbin.
In September 1962 tensions flared up along the Indo-China border. The Prime Minister (along with his equally inept Defence Minister, V K Krishna Menon) decided to adopt an aggressive military policy. The Chinese gave as much as they got, and steadily advanced into Indian territory. Panic seized Delhi. The Prime Minister went on to deliver a shamefully-defeatist speech which gave the impression that Assam had already fallen to the Chinese, when in fact, they were only nibbling at Assam’s borders. All this buffoonery infuriated Indira Gandhi, who decided to fly to Assam immediately. It would be a political tour de force with a C P touch, but Nehru was no C P. The frightened Prime Minister feared that Indira might be taken hostage by the Chinese and begged Indira to lock herself up in the kitchen. He even ordered the Army Chief to enlighten her on the perils of undertaking the Assamese safari, but she was adamant. She arrived in Tezpur, the gateway to Assam, in a chopper, to find the town in chaos. The District Commissioner had fled. There were no supplies. The Chinese were hardly thirty miles away. An unfazed Indira spread solace in the town, brought back the officials and reorganised the administration, somewhat like the Joan of Arc she so much admired. Meanwhile, the Chinese unilaterally declared a ceasefire and withdrew. In 1935, C P had, in a public statement, accused Nehru of practising self-hypnotisation. Every individual has the right to choose his own hobby, and self-hypnotisation can be an addictive but harmless pastime in a private citizen. But when the same is practised by a Prime Minister it can have catastrophic consequences for the nation he leads. Even Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (who owed his presidency largely to his relationship with Nehru) was compelled to attack the Prime Minister publicly for living in a make-believe world. Decades later, Shashi Tharoor would caricature Nehru as the blind Dhritarashtra in The Great Indian Novel. Even later, the novelist turned biographer authored a brilliantly glib biography titled Nehru: The Invention of India, in which he claimed that the Sino-Indian conflict left Nehru “a broken man”. The truth was that nothing could break him – except the loss of power. A more genuine man would have been overwhelmed by guilt, remorse and shame, and resigned, but Nehru, who used to threaten resignation at the drop of a hat, for once, did not offer to resign, as Tharoor coyly admits. As Parliament echoed with the defeaning cry, “Quit, Nehru, quit!” he clung to the throne-like chair of the Prime Minister like a frightened child to the bosom of its mother.
In 1959 C P celebrated his sathabhishekam or 81st birthday. As part of the celebrations, a festschrift was published. The contributors to the festschrift were an illustrious array and included C Rajagopalachari, S Radhakrishnan, G B Pant, K Kamaraj, V V Giri, K M Munshi, V P Menon and the Maharajas of Travancore and Porbandar. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was requested by its editorial committee to write in the festschrift. He turned down the request. Instead, the PMO sent a formal message of good wishes.
In January 1962, on the advice of Nehru, the National Integration Council decided to set up three committees to study and put forward recommendations on three specific issues: combating communalism, countering regionalism, and utilising the mass media to these ends. C P became the Chairman of the second of these, the Committee on National Integration and Regionalism. The retired civil servant, B V Raghavan gives an arresting account of how C P was chosen Chairman of the committee. There was a meeting in Vigyan Bhavan in which the participants included Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Zakir Husain. Nehru chose Ashoka Mehta to chair the Committee on Communalism and Prithvi Raj Kapoor to chair the Committee on Mass Media. Somebody had to be Chairman of the Committee on National Integration and Regionalism, and this is what Raghavan says: “With his spectacles hanging precariously at the tip of his nose and an impish smile playing on his lips, and with an exquisite sense of irony, Nehru looked at C P Ramaswami Aiyer (sic.), and ever so sweetly asked: ‘Ramaswami, why don’t you chair the committee? You are the fittest person I can think of!’ Was it my fancy or was it a fact I cannot tell: There was a giant sucking sound with which this choice was greeted and no wonder.” Raghavan says that C P was startled by Nehru’s question, he squirmed in his seat and looked around. When Nehru repeated the suggestion he submitted tamely. Such was the arrogance of the man whose hubris and folly had gifted to his nation a crushing military defeat involving the humiliating loss of 2,500 square miles of crucial territory and the shameful sacrifice of three thousand valiant soldiers. Not for nothing did Ogden Nash write:
Just how shall we define a Pandit?
It’s not a panda, not a bandit,
But rather a Pandora’s box
Of sophistry and paradox.
It’s ever eager, being meek
To turn someone else’s cheek.
While the other two committees achieved nothing tangible, and in fact, were wound up prematurely, the Committee on National Integration chaired by C P submitted a report on the basis of which Parliament effected the Sixteenth Amendment of the Constitution which made the demand for secession an offence. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam led by C N Annadurai was, at that time, agitating for carving out a Dravidian nation from India. Terrified at the prospect of a suicidal confrontation with the Indian state, the D M K executed a pathetic somersault and deleted from its party constitution the demand for Dravida Nadu. The stroke was vintage C P. He had fought many a political battle with the Justice Party (the D M K’s political ancestor) in his day, now he had succeeded in burning the ultimate Dravidian dream of an independent nation to ash.
A breakfast late by a few minutes would be sufficient to make Nehru storm into the kitchen and shout at the cooks. Once he almost chased the cooks out of the kitchen. When the microphone went dead in the middle of Nehru’s speech, he slapped the President of Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee in full view of the crowd (even though the poor victim was in no way responsible for it). And this was even before he became Prime Minister.
Popular imagination adores Nehru as the Great Democrat and vilifies C P as the ‘Great Dictator’. This is quite understandable. If any one person can be said to symbolise democracy in India, it is Nehru. If Mahatma Gandhi is the father of the Indian nation, Nehru is the father of Indian parliamentary democracy. C P, on the other hand, spent a substantial part of his life propping up monarchist institutions, and during his Travancore years was ridiculed as a miniature Hitler. But in their personal lives, it was the other way around. The ‘Great Democrat’ was the ‘Great Dictator’ while the ‘Great Dictator’ displayed distinctly democratic tendencies. K F Rustamji who was chief security officer to the first Prime Minister of India for several years maintained a diary during his tenure and the portrait of the Prime Minister which emerges from an éclaircissement of the same is that of an arrogant (and somewhat eccentric) despot. His personal staff live in constant, trembling fear of his temper. Loyal and devoted service is frequently rewarded with cruel words. And Rustamji was a fan of Nehru’s. Kushwant Singh served as Nehru’s Press Officer for a while. The revelations in his short essay, “Nehru the Man” are even more damaging. Sarvepalli Gopal, Nehru’s biographer, told me, during a private conversation, that the basic problem was Nehru’s personal arrogance and uncontrollable temper (which, however, coexisted with a passionate belief in democratic ideals). A breakfast late by a few minutes would be sufficient to make Nehru storm into the kitchen and shout at the cooks. Once he almost chased the cooks out of the kitchen. When the microphone went dead in the middle of Nehru’s speech, he slapped the President of Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee in full view of the crowd (even though the poor victim was in no way responsible for it). And this was even before he became Prime Minister.
C P, on the other hand, was kindness personified when he dealt with his personal staff. Never ever was a servant dismissed from the service of his mansions. The most severe punishment was a gentle reprimand. Jesus-like he could inspire fierce loyalty in those around him. For example, C P’s personal chauffeur was Kunhiraman, an “untouchable” Thiya from Malabar, who accompanied him from Madras to Trivandrum, from Trivandrum to Delhi and from Delhi to Ootacamund, and who died of cardiac arrest a few days after his master’s death.
In public life too Nehru was not much of a democrat. His efforts ensured that C Rajagopalachari was systematically sidelined until he was lost in the political wilderness. If any minister disagreed with the Prime Minister he was immediately asked to resign, an excellent exemplification of this being the case of John Mathai. Had Sardar Patel lived a little longer he would most probably have resigned from the Congress, so great was his sense of strangulation. Nehru happily awarded himself the Bharat Ratna and then happily accepted it. Frank Moraes observed, in Jawaharlal Nehru: A Biography, “…in India today there is no one to restrain or guide Nehru. He is Caesar, and from Caesar, one can appeal only to Caesar.”
How come Nehru was able to generate for himself the image of the arch-democrat? Nehru himself provides the answer in a fascinating self-analysis that he pseudonymously published in the Modern Review in 1936, the revealing pseudonym being “Chanakya”: “The most effective pose is one in which there seems to be the least of posing, and Jawahar had learned well to act without the paint and powder of an actor.” Whatever else he had or did not have, he certainly had an uncanny ability to win the adulation of the masses and, consequently, to sweep elections. It was as if there was a weathercock inbuilt in his brain which could magically sense the direction in which the winds were blowing; the moment the direction was indicated, he would scramble to change the course of his political ship and pilot it energetically in that direction. He was ever willing to sacrifice his principles, if at all he had any, at the altar of political expediency. A classic example of this is provided by the issue of linguistic states. To begin with, Nehru was strongly opposed to the division of India into states on linguistic basis, as he (rightly) believed that such a division would catalyse fissiparous tendencies and ultimately weaken the nation. But when Potti Sreeramulu staged (quite literally) a fast unto death in support of the demand of a state merging together the Telugu-majority areas of the country, Nehru immediately identified the direction of the political air flow and shamelessly decided to trim his sails. He even happily travelled to Hyderabad to inaugurate personally the state of Andhra Pradesh. No wonder Nehru would boast that even a lamp post could win an election if it stood on a Congress ticket. And it was no empty boast. On the other hand, C P’s tenures in Madras (where he served on the Governor’s Council) and in Travancore (where he was Dewan) were packed to gunwales with solid achievement, but much of it was attained in the face of fierce opposition, generating for him extraordinary personal ill will. When he left Travancore, after resigning as Dewan, on 19 August 1947, he was easily the most unpopular man in the princely state.
The female admirers of C P form a more spectacular collection than the women friends of Nehru. While C P’s fans included Indra Devi, Maharani of Cooch Behar and Sethu Parvathi Bayi, Maharani of Travancore, Nehru’s were a more plebeian lot. With his socialist pretensions, Nehru appears to have been satisfied with costume jewellery and not aspired for diamond-studded tiaras.
It may not be out of place here to point out that both Nehru and C P were dashing men who became addicted to the company of women as teenagers and who mastered the magic of mesmerising women remarkably early in their lives. Ramachandra Guha says, in his lecture, “Verdicts on Nehru: The Rise and Fall of a Reputation,” “Women adored Jawaharlal Nehru – Brahmin women, working-class women, Hindu and Muslim and Christian and Parsi women.” The impact of C P on women was quite similar: there were stories of women conversing with him for a few minutes and becoming captivated calves; even of women swooning on glimpsing his handsome features. An English duchess is said to have fallen madly in love with him and pursued him all the way to Madras (where he chivalrously arranged lodgings for her). Kushwant Singh writes, in his profile, The Master Builder: “He was a strikingly handsome man, as fair-skinned as any Kashmiri, with aquiline features and large drooping eyes. Women fell for him. He took adoration in his stride”.
On the whole, the female admirers of C P form a more spectacular collection than the women friends of Nehru. While C P’s fans included Indra Devi, Maharani of Cooch Behar and Sethu Parvathi Bayi, Maharani of Travancore, Nehru’s were a more plebeian lot. With his socialist pretensions, Nehru appears to have been satisfied with costume jewellery and not aspired for diamond-studded tiaras. Still, there were similarities: first of all, both had omnivorous tastes. Second, the piece de resistance of Nehru’s collection was a Vicerene, Lady Mountbatten, and the same was also true of C P’s collection: his Vicerene was Lady Willingdon. Third, there was a partial but distinct overlapping of territories. For example, Nehru’s most important mistress, Padmaja Naidu, was C P’s life-long admirer, and surviving letters suggest that she was quite a close friend of his. C P’s last mistress, the English dramatist Philippa Burrell (in whose company he would breathe his last in London, in 1966), met Nehru during one of her visits to India. But her diaries reveal that she was not quite impressed by the man. Did such matters contribute to the tensions in the relationship between Nehru and C P? One can only speculate.
Jawaharlal Nehru once wrote to Indira Gandhi, “Circumstances have put you on the threshold of life and at every turn, you will face a question mark. By the answers, your future will be moulded. The answers will not be pleasant ones.” One important question mark was her famously-complex relationship with Nehru. Biographer after biographer tells us that Indira was angry with Nehru over his neglect of Kamala, that she resented Vijayalakshmi Pandit’s influence over her brother, that there was tension over her decision to marry Feroze Gandhi, that she was deeply hurt by Nehru’s romance and live-in relationship with Padmaja Naidu. Part of the problem was that Nehru and Indira were starkly differing personality types. She had very little in common with the man who could not effectively tackle the obstructionism of fellow Congressmen, who was taken by Dharma Teja, who allowed V K Krishna Menon to gain mind control over him, and who bungled the China war. Can one imagine Nehru declaring Emergency, jailing Opposition politicians, tampering with the Constitution, storming the Golden Temple, or winning an effortlessly-spectacular victory in the 1971 Pakistan War? One can very well imagine C P doing these things. In her obsessive drive towards centralisation, her ruthless handling of her rivals, her uncanny ability to put into operation brilliant tactical manoeuvres, her flair for breathtaking political gambles, and above all, in her unshakable self-belief, Indira was C P’s daughter rather than Nehru’s. While Nehru cordially disliked C P, at least in certain phases of his (Nehru’s) life, Indira was a life-long, ardent admirer of C P. When C P passed away, in London, in 1966, he was only a private citizen, but Indira ordered the Indian High Commissioner in London to treat the demise as that of a Minister of the Government of India and also rushed an IAF aircraft to London to fly C P’s embalmed body home. She offered a gun carriage to carry it to the crematorium, but C P’s sons and grandsons declined the offer, and personally carried the bier on their shoulders, all the three miles from The Grove, C P’s palatial Alwarpet mansion, to the Mylapore cremation grounds. In 1979 she made it a point to inaugurate the birth centenary celebrations of C P at the C P Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation in Madras. Her speech on the occasion was a touching tribute to C P (and also a tacit rebuke of Nehru’s failure to harness fully C P’s talents after Independence).
T his short essay which atomises the complex dynamics engulfing Jawaharlal Nehru, C P Ramaswami Aiyar and Indira Gandhi is also a modest attempt at stimulating the development a new genre: the relationship study. We (and here I include myself) have a tendency to write biographies. A biography is a somewhat uncomplicated affair: its focus is on a single point, its subject; its plot structure is streamlined; its thematic movement is straightforward. We also have a tendency to write histories (and here I cannot yet include myself). A history attempts to capture “everything that happened.” There is something artificial about the biography: it isolates those incidents which revolve around its subject. However, in real life the subject must have interacted with numerous other individuals and these interactions must have fuelled the subject’s life forward. There is a hollow magniloquence about the history. No history can ever capture “everything that happened”. The relationship study stands somewhat midway between the biography and the history. The biography is too much of a close-up; the history is too much of a long shot. The relationship study is more complex, more difficult than both, but also more rewarding. For, by dissecting and evaluating relationships we throw light on both the individual and on historical processes.
The author is an Associate Professor of English at Thangal Kunju Musaliar College of Arts and Science, Kollam.
Image courtesy: Author