The Memory of a Leader: Nehru Through Anecdotes
Home to every major religion, where people are divided into 4,600 castes and sub castes and spoke 22 major languages and hundreds of dialects, India was united only by its complex diversity. The moment called for a leader who understood and respected it. And Nehru was that leader.
It was an unimaginable administrative, political and philosophical task that lay ahead of Jawaharlal Nehru as he stood to become the first Prime Minister of India.
Home to every major religion, where people are divided into 4,600 castes and sub-castes and spoke 22 major languages and hundreds of dialects, the country was united only by its complex diversity. The moment called for a leader who understood and respected it. And Nehru was that leader.
Here are five anecdotes that will tell us a lot about Nehru’s leadership style.
1. He was self-critical and aware of his own authoritarian tendencies.
An article appeared in the Modern Review (Calcutta), authored under a pseudo name ‘Chanakya’, in November 1937. It was highly critical of Nehru, at a time when he was about to contest for his third term as the president of the Indian National Congress.
“Men like Jawaharlal Nehru, with their capacity for great and good work, are unsafe in a democracy,” it said. “A little twist, and Jawaharlal might turn into a dictator, sweeping aside the paraphernalia of a slow‐moving democracy.”
Nobody knew who the author was. But Nehru did not get elected then. A decade later it came out that the author was Nehru himself.
2. He laid down the foundations of parliamentary conventions.
Once, Nehru requested the first speaker of the Lok Sabha, G. V. Mavalankar, to come to the Prime Minister’s Office. But the speaker pointed out that as per convention, it was the other way. Nehru apologised and went to meet Mavalankar at his office.
He wanted the parliament to be vibrant, functional and critical. “I do not want India to be a country in which millions of people say “yes” to one man, I want a strong opposition,” he once said.
Nehru used to sit through tedious hours-long parliamentary debates, setting an example for the young MPs. He also made sure he replied to letters from each MP personally and promptly.
3. Respect for criticism
Following the 1962 war, which India lost, Nehru came under heavy criticism. Cartoonist RK Laxman drew a caricature of Nehru. But surprisingly Laxman got a call from the Prime Minister himself.
“Mr Laxman, I so enjoyed your cartoon this morning. Can I have a signed enlarged copy to frame?” Nehru asked. The cartoonist was surprised and readily agreed. Nehru kept a print of that cartoon in the PM's office.
He gave the highest respect to opposition leaders such as Dr Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, Shri Hiren Mukherjee, Shri H.V. Kamath, Shri A.K. Gopalan and Shri Ashok Mehta – all of whom held ideologies different from his.
One famous incident happened when a discussion was going on about the Aksai Chin area, a disputed Kashmiri territory claimed by both India and China. “Not a blade of grass grows in Aksai Chin,” Nehru said.
An opposition MP, Mahavir Tyagi retorted pointing at Nehru’s bald head: “Nothing grows here, should it be cut off or given away to somebody else?”
4. Faith in masses
Voting rights for every citizen was an idea that Nehru pursued, despite opposition. There were arguments that the majority of citizens were illiterate, and as such, were not ready for voting rights. But Nehru had faith in his people.
To educate the masses on the importance of their voting rights, he travelled over 25,000 miles and addressed around 35 million people – which was then a tenth of the total population.
5. Firm actions
Nehru acted firmly and with force whenever situations demanded it.
This was seen in his decision to send troops to Kashmir and to use force to take over Hyderabad (Operation Polo, September 1948) and Junagadh (November 1947). He also sent troops to the Portuguese enclaves of Goa, Daman and Din in December 1961, after the country consistently refused to negotiate the transfer of these territories.
He met the Naga tribesmen who revolted against the government with brutal force. Similarly, while he was friendly with communists abroad, he did not share an amicable relationship with the followers of the ideology in the country. This was reflected in his decisions such as dismissing the communist government in Kerala.