A letter from Nehru to Priyanka

Smita Gupta | Updated on January 03, 2020 Published on January 03, 2020

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru at his desk. File photo/The Hindu archives   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES

From a great-grandfather to a great-granddaughter, ahead of her 48th birthday

We never met — you were, after all, born eight years after my death — but I have been following your life from the distant realm I now inhabit. You are so like my beloved Priyadarshini — dear to behold, but dearer still when sight is denied — that it is sometimes uncanny. I know many people have remarked on this resemblance, but forgive a great-grandfather for this sentimental prelude.

You will celebrate your 48th birthday in a few days — on January 12 — and yet this is the first time that I am writing to you. I have had time enough to write to you, but I used to think, when I cannot take part in the work outside, why should I worry? But the real reason why I put off writing to you was that I had begun to doubt whether I know enough to teach you, so complicated is the world that you live in and so insurmountable are the problems the Congress is facing.

I have been depressed by the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the successors of a hateful ideology that we tried so hard to defeat during the freedom struggle, and through the first few decades of the Republic. More depressing are the ineffectual attempts of the Congress to challenge the forces trying to divide our beloved country on religious lines.

For the past few weeks, however, I have been watching something that has lifted my spirits immeasurably. I have seen young people pouring out on to the streets, spilling out from the universities, protesting against a National Register of Citizens, and the recent passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. What was particularly moving for me was the sight of fearless young women, some in hijabs, challenging the ruling establishment and willing to risk life and liberty to protect the Constitution.

To my tired old eyes, now wide awake, it looked like a re-run of the freedom struggle, its ideals intact, its methods the same that Bapu had taught us to use — the tools of non-violence. Only the actors had changed, and the oppressor was not a colonial power but a democratically elected regime.

After many years, I began to feel that, perhaps, all that we — Vallabhbhai, the Maulana, Ambedkar, Subhas, and so, so many others — fought for, following Bapu’s wise counsel and direction, each in our different ways, has not been in vain. To see the national Tricolour fluttering above protest rallies in different parts of the country today gave me goosebumps. To discover that the Constitution that we had worked so hard on under Ambedkar’s brilliant guidance has become the new Holy Book, as it were, for so many people, especially the young and idealistic, has almost made up for its neglect all these decades.

By some coincidence, it was also almost exactly 100 years ago that Bapu introduced the concept of Satyagraha to India: the first Satyagraha Sabha took place on April 6, 1919, to protest against the infamous Rowlatt Acts that stipulated stricter control of the press, arrests without warrant, indefinite detention without trials and juryless in-camera trials for proscribed political acts. Today, the people of India are peacefully protesting against the patently unconstitutional Citizenship Act.

When we were first introduced to Bapu’s methods, we realised that this was something very different from our noisy politics of condemnation..., long speeches always ending in the same futile and ineffective resolutions of protest which nobody took very seriously. This was the politics of action, not of talk.

I look at today’s young people and I see the same politics of action. India is once again at a crossroads and every man, woman and child must participate in restoring the pluralism that makes it the great country it is.

And that is why I was so struck by your recent visit to Lucknow, when you dodged the police to meet the family of retired IPS officer SR Darapuri, who has been a tireless campaigner for human rights, especially Dalit rights, and who — like a growing number — has been imprisoned for undertaking a peaceful protest against the Citizenship Act.

I was also pleased to hear you may soon be moving to Lucknow full time to take up the task of reviving the Congress in Uttar Pradesh, where so much of the freedom struggle was fought.

And this brings me to why I am writing to you — and what I really want to say to you and your brother, Rahul. Looking ahead to the next decade, if you two are serious about restoring the Congress to its former glory, and want the people and your political allies and rivals, alike, to take you seriously, you must take politics seriously — it is a 24-hour occupation. You have to be committed satyagrahis, not fashionable dilettantes, fortunate enough to have been born in a well-connected and privileged family. You cannot make the occasional dramatic appearance just to grab eyeballs, as the current expression is, I believe. You cannot simply wait for the BJP to fail.

Remembrances: Indira Gandhi pays tribute to Jawaharlal Nehru along with grandchildren Rahul and Priyanka   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES


Over the last five and a half years, the Congress has been going through a severe crisis of credibility. A defeat as devastating as the one the party suffered in 2014 — and then again in 2019 — in almost any other major political party around the world would have called for a change in leadership. But not in the 128-year-old organisation that brought freedom to India 72 years ago? Even after Rahul stepped down as president in May 2019, and asked the party to choose someone not from the family? Or was it that he conveyed that he did not really mean it? Why do I keep hearing that anyone who might have stepped up would have been cut down to size?

It disappoints me every time I hear that any change that could be contemplated has to be made within the limitations of the dynastic framework. Is this why we fought so hard to get rid of our foreign yoke, to replace one set of masters with another — even if they belong to my family? I never wanted Indira to follow me as Prime Minister, as anyone who has diligently followed the history of those years will tell you. It was Kamaraj and the rest of the Syndicate who installed her — and, to her credit, she defeated Morarji Desai in an election for the leader of the parliamentary party. In the end, she became a Prime Minister who had her critics among the middle class but was much loved by the common people. If she erred in imposing the Emergency in 1975, she paid for it. But by imposing my grandson Sanjay on the party, she made a mistake that the Congress is still paying for — it set off a trend, a belief that only someone from our family could lead the party.

We are a family with much to be proud of, but we are not infallible. In 1937, when I was elected for the third consecutive year as president of the Congress, I used a pseudonym — Chanakya — to write an essay titled ‘Rashtrapati’ in the Modern Review. I wrote, “In spite of his brave talk, Jawaharlal is obviously tired and stale and he will progressively deteriorate if he continues as President. He cannot rest, for he who rides a tiger cannot dismount. But we can at least prevent him from going astray and from mental deterioration under too heavy burdens and responsibilities. We have a right to expect good work from him in the future. Let us not spoil that and spoil him by too much adulation and praise. His conceit is already formidable. It must be checked. We want no Caesars.”

And yet I find that your mother, Sonia, for whom I have the greatest admiration, has headed the Congress for close to 20 years — which makes her the longest serving president.

I also find that the Congress has not found it necessary to introspect on its two successive defeats in a general election. You have many bright and experienced people in the party — why not have an open discussion on why you lost and what you should do next? India did not win her freedom on the wisdom of one man; as prime minister, without constant discussions with my comrades — who often disagreed with me — I would not have been able to lay the foundations for this country, or create the many institutions that a democracy requires. In the end, running a party, building a nation, is a collective enterprise, and no one family contains so much experience, knowledge and good judgement.

Finally, I want to emphasise the importance of ideological clarity. Over the last three decades, as the BJP has moved to the political centre stage, the Congress has defined its secularism in opposition to the former’s exclusivist ideology. But, only too often, I have watched it faltering on the slippery ground of secular practice, swinging between advocating a middle path and plotting a frontal battle against Hindutva.

Till the mid-1980s, as a big tent party that accommodated a large swathe of political opinion and ideologies, the Congress managed its ambivalence on secularism because it was electorally strong. Then came the anti-Sikh riots in 1984, following Indira’s assassination, the Shah Bano case in 1985, the opening of the locks of the Babri Masjid in 1986, the permission to hold shilanyas for a Ram temple in Ayodhya in 1989, and the failure to protect the Babri Masjid from destruction in 1992 — all under Congress watch. The party’s inability to craft a well-considered strategy to counter the rise of the Hindutva forces ideologically while accommodating the Other Backward Classes, riding the Mandal wave, saw the party’s electoral footprint shrinking.

Today, I hear the Congress is wary of supporting the youth protests across the country vigorously as it feels that the BJP will use it against it to portray it as a pro-Muslim party. It would rather, I have learnt, talk about the poor state of the economy under the present BJP government. Of course, the Congress must talk about the economy, but if the Congress continues to lack the will or conviction to fight the BJP ideologically, India’s liberal democracy will remain under threat. And we cannot allow that to happen.

I have written a very long letter — and I hope you will share it with your brother and mother, and perhaps with your children, young Raihan and Miraya: Perhaps they could also be encouraged to choose a career outside politics. Pardon me for using parts of the letters that I wrote to your grandmother more than 90 years ago in this missive. Somehow, some words still hold true; and some things never change.

May your labours bear fruit.

Goodbye, Priyanka.

Smita Gupta is a senior journalist based in Delhi


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Published on January 03, 2020
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