Monday, May 25, 2009

A jewel among men

Forty-five years ago on 27 May 1964, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, died in harness. He was a phenomenon that inspired not only several generations of Indians but also a vast number of intellectuals and visionaries throughout the world. Gifted with an intellect that could assimilate the philosophy and experience of the ages and project a vision of the future for all mankind, Nehru was greater than the epoch in which he was born and which he influenced decisively.
Nehru "possessed an acute sense of history". He was fascinated with the history of ideas and the progressive unfolding of the human mind. Nehru’s was a scientific approach with due concern for pragmatism. He frequently alluded to idealism. Pragmatism for him was not opposed to idealism but "practical idealism for social betterment". The means-centered ethics distinguished Nehru as the "most exciting thinker of our time, restless, searching, incessantly reflecting – involved and detached at the same time – a man more deeply religious in mind than he admitted".

Nehru glimpsed world history and discovered India for us. He gave us sermon after sermon on parliamentary democracy and secularism, five-year plans and public sector.
Some of the glimpses from Nehru provide remarkable insights into his approach to the building of Indian democracy. "I entirely agree with you that as a people we have lost the public sense of social justice. To put it differently, our standards have fallen greatly. Indeed, we have hardly any standards left except not to be found out… We drift along calmly accepting things as they are. We see the mote in other people’s eyes and not the beam in our own or friends’ eyes. We are strong in condemnation of those who are our opponents, but we try not to see the obvious faults of our friends. What are we to do? I confess my mind is not clear, although I have thought of this a great deal," wrote Nehru to B G Kher on July 26, 1949.
Nehru was convinced that the only system of government, which could hold so vast and diverse a land together, was democracy. He brushed aside arguments that it was unwise to give the vote to India’s illiterate masses. He showed a deep understanding of and respect for parliamentary government even when it meant tolerating vitriolic attacks by his opponents.
Nehru enjoyed the cut and thrust of parliamentary debates. He would be deeply disappointed if he could see the decline in Indian parliamentary standards today. But his faith in democracy has been vindicated by several free elections and remarkably smooth changes of government through the ballot box. Despite mass illiteracy, the Indian voter has shown again and again a robust common sense that is quite capable of seeing through the promises of politicians.
It is said: "Nehru was a prophet frustrated, with his hopes unfulfilled". But, to the end he laboured, taking on burdens that would have broken the back of most other people. And he worried that he had ‘promises to keep’ to his people and to posterity. No less than his critics he was conscious of the vast tasks still undone, but he knew no way, consistently with his convictions and his view of men and things, along which he could go ahead faster and without damage to values that he cherished. Here, indeed, lay his historic failure – the failure to achieve change for fear of the price that might have had to be paid and the deep concern for the right means so that the future was not to be garish and crude.
He knew when society was purged of the dross and ages, one wakes, as it were, into a common world of air and light, a world which is the patented preserve of no elite but belongs to all. He knew also that the transition was difficult and prolonged and painful and yet had to be made, for the very meaning of history lay in such human, and often necessarily fallible, endeavour. He knew he had great authority and this authority needed to be wielded for helping vast majority of Indians. But, if he shrank from jobs set him relentlessly by history, he did it not by reason of guile and petty calculation but by reason of the love for mankind.
Nehru’s life was free of what was petty and grasping, and its beauties shine out like stars in the night. For more than four decades, he strode our land like "a gentle colossus". But his uniqueness lay in the unobtrusive opulence of endowment, which gave him, in the thick of politics and in the face of frustrations, a peculiar refinement and grace of spirit. It was not only that he was "a man without malice and without fear" (Winston Churchill) but also "he carried an ache in his mind and heart, an ache which betokened his kinship with the whole wide world.
Atal Behari Vajpayee, then a young M.P., said in Parliament: "Panditji epitomised the spirit of the new India. He was a dreamer. His dream was of a world free of fear and hunger; the song of a great epic resonant with the spirit of Gita and as fragrant as a rose, the flame of a candle which burnt all night long, showing us the way."
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