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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Why Did Gandhi Choose Nehru Instead Of Popular Sardar?

Movie history is usually quick and clean and not always accurate. But the underlying theme may still be accurate. The same cannot be said about mainstream history text books and publications - although that's slowly changing and the grip of Marxist historians (mentored mainly at JNU) is slowly coming loose.

I saw two movies over the weekend - Gandhi My Father and Sardar. Gandhi My Father (what's with English titles and credits in Hindi movies these days - although the dialouges were in excellent Hindi) is a story about the relationship between MK Gandhi and Harilal, his elder son. A mediocre Harilal wants his father's help and approval. MK Gandhi, being not just preacher but a practitioner of high moral and ethical values, would not help, and, with his ability to see the different between brilliance and mediocrity, doesn't provide false approval just because Harilal was his son. In one sequence, when Harilal goes to South Africa to ask Gandhi to send him to England to become a barrister, Gandhi not only says no but gives a scholarship, that an admirer gave to his family, to someone else, probably, because he knew Harilal was not good in studies (Harilal had failed matriculation) and, more importantly, I think, because Gandhi did not want to appear to favour his son over other children in that South African settlement.

Now coming to Sardar, although not a biography as I had hoped, Paresh Rawal was great as Vallabhbhai Patel and the plot good (Sardar's major activities between 1945 and 1950) but the movie quality was barely mediocre. It was hard to follow the story line - for example, instead of background narrative to make a connection between two sequence of events, front pages of major English and Hindi dailies are displayed, that too for an unreadable few seconds. The movie is worth watching after reading a book on events leading up to and after independence. The movie was long but I think the history, and the role of various people, is accurately portrayed.

In one scene, Congress working committee was convened to elect the president of Congress party. Everyone knew independence was around the corner - thought to be sometime in 1948 (before Mountbatten pre-dated it to August 1947 to wash British hands off of partition as quickly as possible) - meaning the next president of Congress party would be the prime minister of the new country. Maulana Azad term had ended. Gandhi says we need a new person. Majority of Pradesh (Provincial) Congress Committees voted for Sardar, some for J.B.Kirplani, and none for Nehru. Instead of following democratic norm of the party, Gandhi overrules and wants Nehru to run instead. He asks what Nehru thought about it. Nehru doesn't say anything although he is elated that Gandhi wants him as the president of the party. Everyone waits for sometime to allow Nehru to talk. Nehru doesn't. Gandhi passes a paper to Sardar, who was sitting next to him, and upon reading it Sardar says he was withdrawing from contention. Call it chitthi diplomacy.

Beyond the bad undemocratic precedent that Gandhi set for the future - and the tradition still continues with Congress I (all undemocratic traditions do), why did Gandhi not want Sardar to run for presidency? Gandhi never explains, that I know of, why he choose Nehru over everyone else that day.

I think here, Gandhi was, as usual, thinking about himself. It's not a cynical observation. He doesn't care for consequences - all he cares about his practices of moral and ethical values. I think, he did not want to appear favouring a fellow Gujarati (that Sardar was), in exactly the same way he did not want to give that scholarship to Harilal which was explicitly meant for his family members. When Pakistan, that Land of Pure, attacks the Kingdom of Kashmir, on October 22, 1947, within two months after independence, which latter was defended by India because it acceded to India, Gandhi insisted that LoP be given 75 crore rupees (LoP's portion from the vast sums of foreign exchange reserves that India inherited from British India), even though Sardar warned that Jinnah would the money to fund the on-going war against India. Gandhi goes on a satyagraha with a fast on to death and only budges when Nehru says we'll pay the enemy - ending up funding both sides of the warring parties.

And we are still living with the consequences of both decisions - overruling internal party democracy (which degraded even further under Indira) and no clear borders for J&K and the country. Consequences of Harilal was borne by Harilal, but Gandhi's practices - his secular and religious, especially with regards to removing untouchability, had good ones, and his practices impacting national security and choosing candidates, had bad ones. Nehru could have turned out to be the best prime minister - clearly he was not, but at the time he surely was not chosen by his party.

What M.K.Gandhi did was clearly good for him and his moral and ethical values. But he alone should benefit or suffer from his actions. He should not be in a position to impose those on a nation especially when the nation was under attack. It's an irony to say that because he lead the nation towards independence, just a few months prior, precisely using the same moral force. In either case, consequences have to be acknowledged.