An Indian Prime Minister in the US of A
Prime Minister Modi and his critics both need to get out of persistently wondering whether he is greater or lesser than Nehru.
The last week was more eventful than usual. One of those events involved Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi openly canvassing for the reelection of US President Trump. It is debatable whether or not heads of government or state should openly solicit support from their nonresident populations for particular politicians in the country of their residence. Since the Indian diaspora in the US is not large or well distributed enough to influence outcomes of US presidential elections, it means one of two things. Either President Trump is so unsure of the adequacy of his existing support that he is desperate to court any marginal support, or Prime Minister Modi needs something desperately and President Trump has made its availability conditional to a professed support for his reelection. Both may coexist, of course, and indeed reinforce one another.
Photo by Carl Mydans/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images
One of the most articulate Indian politicians, opposition leader Shashi Tharoor, meanwhile posted a photo of Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi on his twitter feed. He said Modi was by no means the first Indian Prime Minister to receive a warm welcome in the United States. In the photo he released on Twitter, Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi were seen standing in an open car, waving to a large crowd to both sides of the road. They were paraded as major state guests to a large and captive audience. The trouble was that the image did not belong to Nehru’s US trips as a PM, of which he made more than one. It was taken during one of his trips to USSR, in June 1955, at a place called Magnitogorsk, as confirmed by the most credible Indian fact-finding website Altnews. Ironically, the photo that Tharoor used to question what he thought was a ‘PR managed’ image boost of Prime Minister Modi itself was vulnerable to similar questions. Tharoor later appeared to concede that he made a gaffe though he refused to take any responsibility, calling it a ‘twitter kerfuffle’ over a ‘mislabelled photograph’ which was ‘forwarded’ to him, as though posting a forwarded photo without verifying its claims or at least without acknowledging its unverified posting at the time of posting absolves him of all responsibility about the fake claims he made. He quickly posted two photos of Nehru’s 1949 trip to America, claiming Nehru was accorded a higher order of reception. Still later, he posted a 22-second clip of Nehru’s arrival in the US in 1949. It was made by Warner Brothers News, and the commentator describes Nehru as the ‘greatest political and spiritual leader of the Orient’. There’s another video of Nehru’s 1961 US visit too, which is more detailed and offers clips from various engagements including a meeting with President Kennedy. But here too he is described as a philosopher-statesman and is shown to address Indian students. He speaks to them about the ‘tremendous growth’ of education in India and calls upon them to think more about how to serve their motherland. He is asked two difficult questions in public on suspected nuclear tests in Russia and on whether Russia and America can be placed on the same moral plane. He is a little agitated but handles them competently enough.
American President Harry S. Truman (1884 - 1972) (center) shakes hands with Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (1889 - 1964) on the tarmac as Nehru's sister, diplomat Vijaya Pandit (1900 - 1990) (second left, in sunglasses), and daughter, (and future Indian Prime Minister) Indira Gandhi (1917 - 1984) (right), stand with them, Washington DC, October 11, 1949. (Photo by PhotoQuest/Getty Images)
Frankly, though, this is a futile debate. Prime Minister Modi and his critics both need to get out of persistently wondering whether he is greater or lesser than Nehru. Nehru seems to be Modi’s Intimate Enemy, somewhat like the English were of the Indian in Ashis Nandy’s classic book by that name. Jawaharlal Nehru was a mighty leader in his own right, though he was not always or everywhere infallible since he was human. Modi himself has clocked enough fame or notoriety on his own over the last thirty or forty years since he has assumed leadership positions in public life. Modi has earned his secure place, which is not always entirely adulatory, in the history of modern India, entirely on his own. Why he has yet failed to emerge from the shadow of an eternal comparison with Nehru in everything he does remains something of a mystery. He appears always to look at his work as not only doing something on his own but also as undoing something that Nehru or his daughter or grandson did at the same time. This intimate enmity is healthy neither for Modi nor for the Nehru Gandhi family, or dynasty, if you prefer that word, as though it is the only dynasty in India, which it is not.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower (R) and Jawaharlal Nehru greeting each other with a smile. (Photo by Ed Clark/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)
But since Tharoor has already turned Modi’s current US visit a hostage to Nehru’s 1949 visit to that country, it would be useful to reflect a little more on that visit, if only to highlight the irony involved in Tharoor’s choice. By all accounts, it was considered a PR success, but diplomatic disaster. A September 26, 2014 article published in a news website claims Nehru spent three weeks travelling the US, explaining India’s foreign policy tenets. But the official part of the trip, or his meeting with President Truman, was a ‘flop’, and the latter refused to help with economic or food aid. More importantly, historian Srinath Raghavan, who recently published a well-received book on the India-USA relations, spares only two paragraphs for that visit in his 375-page book. It was a ‘well publicised’ visit, he wrote, without any ‘tangible’ outcome. To be fair, Raghavan was referring only to foreign policy concerns, such as the Kashmir dispute or ‘wider Asian matters’. It is safe enough to conclude from the information above that specialist international history scholars and reporters alike consider Nehru’s 1949 US visit as little more than a Public Relations success.
Pres. John F. Kennedy (R) and his wife (L) welcoming India's Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (2L) and his daughter Indira Gandhi. (Photo by Bob Gomel/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images)
Yet, it also offers an opportunity to take a closer look at what Nehru had been doing for three weeks in America. I chanced upon sound documentary evidence for at least one of his public engagements there. It is also the one of which Tharoor posted photographs, conveying I suppose an impression that it was an important enough occasion. Nehru visited the University of Wisconsin, Madison, on November 4, 1949. The University archive preserves a souvenir which was published on that occasion. Called “Pandit Nehru visits Wisconsin”, the souvenir publishes the full text of Nehru’s impromptu lecture there. It offers an opportunity to revisit what Nehru had been looking to accomplish in that three week trip to the US. It will be seen, I hope, that he did accomplish a good deal of clarity, even when he spoke of challenges and complications. This clarity was based on what he called a historical, longer-term, perspective on Indian and world affairs.
1960: (L-R) Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru, Ruth Hagy appearing on 'College News Conference'. (Photo by Walt Disney Television via Getty Images)
Nehru visited Wisconsin at the invitation of the state and the university. He went to the State of Wisconsin General Hospital and the University of Wisconsin Press and an experimental farm at the university, before his lecture, which took place in the Union Theatre. Gracefully enough, Philo Buck, Emeritus Professor at the University, welcomed Nehru, with a mention that there were about fifty Indian students in the University, along with three Pakistani students, who too had expressed a wish to be a party to the welcome. The Indian national anthem was played. Tagore, incidentally, was hailed as the Indian Tennyson. The word Jai—victory—was taken up for particular attention. It referred not merely to physical victories, but to moral ones, and gestured also to meanings such as joy, glory, hail, happiness and well being, it was underlined.
The governor greeted Nehru as an ‘apostle of peace’ and as ‘the moral and political leader of a nation that is embarked on the serious experiment of federal democracy’, as a ‘scholar, historian, publicist, statesman (and) reformer’. The University President greeted him explicitly as the leading representative of a country where ‘culture and scholarship is valued above all worldly possessions’. The hundred-year-old University, he said, is a wide-eyed child in comparison with ‘your unbroken tradition that goes back to the scholars who argued problems of philosophy with Alexander the Great.’
It was probably Nehru’s last public address in that visit. He had gone, he said, not to strike a deal, but simply as a bearer of the greeting and goodwill of his people. He wished his visit to be a symbol of a new friendship of a country ‘of the modern world’ with one that belonged to the ‘ancient world’ as much as to ‘today’. Seven and a half years ago he had been invited by President Roosevelt to visit America, but could not, on account of delicate conditions in India. He regretted missing meeting Roosevelt. Then he held forth as a historian of civilisation. In his subconscious, he said, he carried ‘racial memories of thousands of years of Indian history, both good and bad’. He firmly rejected that Indian people were mainly ‘spiritual and metaphysical’ in outlook. India has certainly carried on, he said, ‘despite all kinds of disaster’, ‘a certain continuity of its cultural traditions’ which makes it ‘very strong’ meaning it did not disintegrate, a point that he did not develop in any detail. He said he had not yet discovered the essential spirit of India, even though he wrote a full book on his explorations through those traditions. But he studied them primarily as a guide for present actions, he explicitly said. Likewise, he said, he has decided to be a student once again, of foreign countries, such as America, of their essential spirit, as it were, to see how to deal with them in the present.
In this context, he referred to the confusion in defining categories like the East or the West. He appeared to anticipate something of what Said will later call Orientalism or a stereotype of the East in the minds of Western commentators. He said he had come east to Wisconsin from Vancouver, where they call Asia the East, though it is actually to their west. Likewise, Chinese in the past called India the West simply because it lay to their west, geographically. Through these common-sense examples, he called for an understanding of the distinction between cultural and geographical connotations of places.
Indian delegate Jawaharlal Nehru (L) at the UN General Assembly. (Photo by Al Fenn/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)
He proceeded to show how modern changes come, everywhere, amid traditional continuities. He showed how ‘revolutionary’ changes came in man’s outlooks since the Industrial Revolution in England, and how the industrial and the scientific were now made to coincide with the west, and the agricultural and the backward with the East. Here he was almost prophetic and said England’s industrialisation gained a major push from its possession of India, in terms of gold and silver, raw material and a captive market. When countries of Asia would fully industrialise and the regional balance of power, as it were, would be more equitably distributed, the west might have to change its current perspectives on what made for real change. He said the current perception of an intrinsic superiority of the west was only another name of its technological advances, that man’s mind was probably misreading it as a consequence of an innate intellectual or political superiority of the ‘west’. His clear critique of the modernism as a ‘western’ monopoly outlook, is often underplayed, both by his admirers and critics. His lament that machines and technologies march ahead of the mind, his ambivalence at it, appearing to hope and pray that it should not, was a remarkable insight, even if it appeared somewhat tragic and despairing at the moment. He read modernity as some kind of an unfortunate inevitability. He was heroic, almost, and mildly philosophical, calling his audience to attend to the longer-term histories, of the rise and fall of much greater societies and civilisations.
He moved quickly to considering the immediate challenges before India. It had to raise the living standard of millions, and industrialise fast. Yet, even after major rounds of industrialisation, it would remain a largely agricultural country. He called upon the students to think about how such a society too could progress, although he said the task was primarily that of India, even as help from America was welcome. Here again, he showed great prescience on the limits of industrialisation, especially for large ancient countries with centuries-old agricultural societies and outlooks.
India was not particularly keen to be a major player in world affairs, he said, since it has a large country and population to look after. Yet, communication revolutions have ensured that the whole world was now made up of neighbours, and every country had now to be concerned with what happened in the world as a whole. Isolation in diplomatic affairs was no longer an option, and a country cannot anymore be either a friend or an enemy of another country. He was not terribly insightful here, and his reserve may be understood favourably. Only a month ago, China had been won over by the Communists, and the commentator who described him as ‘the greatest spiritual leader’ of the Orient also hailed him as the greatest hope of America against communism. Diplomatic circumspection he simply had to practice, for he had no choice.
Now he turned to India’s individual approach, as it were, to solving problems. He located it within a civilisation going back to a few thousand years and exemplified in the politics taught and practiced by Mahatma Gandhi. Its organic growth was suspended by the oppression of alien colonisers for two hundred years. Yet, he was careful to note that at the attainment of freedom, all kinds of suppressed forces or energies might have all of a sudden crowded around the surface and that he was keen to study what this did to ‘mass psychology’ in India. Change, he said, had been happening at too fast a pace, and the human mind must prepare itself better to grasp its implications. He was welcoming of specialisation, but also regretted the increasing devaluation or redundancy of generalisable wisdom. He said what people did made sense only because of their final objective and in the din of fast-moving changes that final objective must not be lost sight of. The conclusion he borrowed from Gandhi, he said. Ends must not overrule the means, that noble objectives must be accomplished by fair means.
It was a somewhat rambling lecture, and entirely impromptu. Yet, it gave away his assumptions about what he called an Indian approach to solving contemporary problems. It said nothing concrete at all, but contained at least two significant prophesies, if we choose to look back. It wondered what would happen to the advanced industrial nations when major Asian countries too industrialised. It also located the history of industrialisation within its context, and not as a philosophy or ethic of final salvation for all humanity everywhere.
That was seventy years ago. There were fifty Indian students in the audience then. There were fifty thousand Indian American residents to hear Prime Minister Modi at Houston a couple of days ago. India is no marvel to the American there today, much less at least, than it was in 1949. No commentator would call Modi a ‘spiritual’ leader anymore, even though he would not entirely mind such a characterisation. But is it really necessary? Why must we or Mr. Modi be worrying too much about this spectre of the philosopher-king as the best possible ruler that India, or anyone else, can possibly get? Nehru was terribly uncomfortable about such idealisation. Note, for instance, his agitated response to the question of whether or not he should judge Russia and America by the same moral standard. Mr. Modi will do well to handle the spectre of Nehru the way Nehru handled the spectre of moralism. And yes, I do see the irony here. It is inescapable, but it must not be allowed to overdetermine. It is for Mr. Modi, as much as for us, to strike a manageable balance.