We went hungry the night Nehru died; it was just understood there would be no dinner. We went to see his body lie in state at Teen Murthy House the next day and again to join the funeral procession for the third time to pay homage to the urn containing his ashes. This was my first vaguely political experience and left a lasting imprint.
You could say we were a Congress family. In the sixties most people were. Anyway there were no alternatives then. The Jan Sangh, never a contender for power, was seen a party of banias. Yes, those were times you could call a spade a spade without fear of being politically incorrect.
For a long time the respect for Nehru was really little more than inheritance. Till in my forties I read Nehru’s Discovery and realized that my intuitive admiration was on a solid foundation. Nehru had a better understanding of the sweep of history than most historians. His ability to connect the dots between India and the world was uncanny. It is my firm belief that irrespective of how we may evaluate it, Nehru built India in his own image.
Democratic, liberal and with a secular, scientific temper. And did so virtually single-handedly as by the time he took over in 1952, Gandhi, Bose and Patel were no more.
Big people make big mistakes. His China policy was a disaster for which the country paid a heavy price. His preference of higher education over universal education was also debatable. But who doesn’t make mistakes?
To me what he built was more magnificent. In my roll call of honor Nehru will always be at the top, close to Gandhi.
The only person who could come close to Nehru in my estimation was Vajpayee. This may raise many hackles but this is my journey and I have to be honest. I believe that interesting people make extraordinary leaders. And Vajpayee was one such. Here was a perpetual outsider. At no point in time could his party or even the opposition simply assume him. He had a personal perspective and was unafraid to voice it. in his own way was firm though there were exceptions.
Not the world’s finest poet but just the fact that in the middle of running a country with coalition pressures, he was able to relax enough to write a few verses makes him special. Maybe it the sensibility that poetry gave him or his natural personality that made him appear affable and approachable.
Even more than Nehru, Vajpayee was a father figure, someone you could go to and explain your problem and expect a hand on your shoulder. No wonder he had friends across the spectrum which helped him make an essentially bigoted party look respectable. And become a magnet for talent. The more one sees the current dispensation the more one respects Vajpayee.
Rajiv was a different kind of influence.
For us in our twenties, he was like us. He was an unusual combo. A non-politician content to remain exactly that. He spoke a language we had never heard before. He talked of telecom, computers and globalization. Strange as it may seem today, he had no supporters. Banks and offices went on strike. The opposition laughed at him. Even his own party-men and women sniggered behind his back. But he stayed the course.
Twenty-five years later we know he was right.
Advani is a tragic figure. Tough to place him though in sum I think I quite like him. His only failing was purely circumstantial. He belonged to the Vajpayee era and was destined to always be number two.
There is little doubt that the new virulent avatar of the BJP was created by him. To him the credit for having discovered, long before media and political pundits that there was a resurgent India waiting to be tapped.
His change of heart after a visit to Pakistan, whether genuine or out of convenience certainly won my respect. It cannot be easy to garbage all that you have for all your life particularly with benefactors from Nagpur breathing over your shoulder. And he did it.
And what about the Ramjanam Bhoomi disaster and the lives lost? I have no answer.
Curiously, my maximum learning came from Nehru’s daughter. By her time I was older and able to understand the finer nuances of politics and governance.
Wish she had taken her father as seriously as many of us did and read The Discovery of India. If Nehru allowed his global world-view to fashion his outlook, Indira’s world-view was led purely by petty, personal, pernicious likes and dislikes. No wonder in due course she would become a role model for the new age Indian politician. Ruthless, remorseless and regressive.
If she taught me anything, it was the need to temper power with humility. If you dont have humility, get it from somewhere.
As for Rao and Singh, I find them an intriguing combo. Just the fact that we have a system that can throw up such people as Prime Ministers is heart-warming. Particularly in hindsight today as we witness shrill and mindless rhetoric replacing logic.
In a country that worships charisma here were two boring faceless people making it to the top though in unusual circumstances and having done that, change the narrative of the country from resigned acceptance to unbridled optimism. MMS would go further. He would win a second term which no non-Nehru family member had ever done.
To me both together and singly proved a crucial point. If you want to hit sixes, stop looking at the score-board. Leaders too conscious of their popularity ratings are genetically incapable of making dramatic changes. Big changes adversely affect interest groups and create immediate unpopularity.
Neither of the two were vote-catchers and so loss of personal popularity was at best a theoretical concern. This gave them incredible elbow room. Strangely out of all our charismatic leaders they brought about the most radical changes.
This is still work-in-progress and therefore tough to evaluate.
But three learnings stand out. First, that powerful people are their own worst enemies. Sooner or later they start living in a world that exists only in their own mind. Secondly, the ability to attract talent is a bigger asset than most realize. You can neither dream nor even execute magnificent dreams without talent. And lastly, no matter how powerful, you need to be able to make friends. Or at the bare minimum, not create enemies.
Also work in progress.
It’s all very well to be different but for a politician whose only product are his ideas, the ability to present them coherently is critical. Rahul comes through as a bits-and-pieces politician as he has been unable so far to create and disseminate the Rahul Gandhi world-view. No one really understands the Rahul Gandhi world.
Arriving at these conclusions was interesting journey for me. When I started writing this I had no clue what I would write as thoughts were scattered. One of the exercises I did was to ask myself the following 11 questions which provided a stimulus for the thinking.
This is fun. Try and answer them. Have fun:
1. If he/she was your boss, who would I feel most comfortable to carry bad news to?
Vajpayee, Rajiv, Advani
2. Who would I want to spend an evening with?
Vajpayee, Rajiv, Advani
3. Who would I trust if the nation was facing an enemy threat?
Modi, Indira Gandhi, Vajpayee
4. Who will the nation be most secure with?
Nehru, MMS, Rahul
5. Who will make me rich?
MMS, Vajpayee, Modi
6. Who would I avoid meeting as much as I could?
Modi, Indira Gandhi
7. In whose team would I hope to find more interesting people?
Vajpayee, MMS, Rahul
8. To whom will I go with a confession?
Nehru, Vajpayee, Rajiv
9. Who would make me feel proud as an Indian?
Nehru, MMS, Vajpayee
10. Who would I fear making a power point presentation to?
Modi, Nehru, Indira
11. Who would I look forward to making a presentation to?
Vajpayee, Rahul, Nehru