Can we, dare we, compare Jawaharlal Nehru and Narendra Modi? Yet, of all the Prime Ministers who succeeded Nehru, only Modi has the chance to match him. Nehru still holds the record of winning three elections in a row. Modi has won two so far. The next election is not till 2024 and, most likely, he will win a single-party majority yet again.
Nehru was prime minister already before the 1952 election. His record of 17 years at the top is unlikely to be equalled by anyone. Not that Modi could not win a fourth election but Modi abides by Sangh Parivar discipline and will retire when he is 75 in 2025. Nehru died six months short of his seventy-fifth.
Nehru was a late starter. He went to Harrow (a leading school in England) at 16 and then to Cambridge University, leaving no mark. Indeed, till his 30th year, he had no achievements to his name. If he had, his biographers would have seized on them. It took him till he was 40 in 1929 to acquire a sort of Marxist ideology after he went to Brussels for an anti-imperialist conference organised by the Comintern. A fascination with the Soviet Union and admiration for planning and technology remained. Motilal Nehru secured the Congress presidency for Nehru before passing on the burden of looking after Jawaharlal to Bapu. It is the next 34 years which are crowded in Nehru’s life.
Contrast this life with Modi’s. He left home at 16 and became self-dependent. He then had 35 years on the road as an RSS volunteer. He walked through India educating himself. Nehru flowered as an author in prison and reported on his ‘discovery of India’ during his last prison sentence.
The first proper ‘job’ Nehru had was at the age of 57; when he became de facto Prime Minister as head of the Interim Government. But he became his own man only after Gandhi passed away. Modi was sent by the Parivar to be chief minister of Gujarat at the age of 51, without any preparation. Since then, he has won all the five elections he has fought and been head of one or other government for 18 years.
The one thing they have in common is a concern about India’s position in the world. Nehru pioneered the Non-Aligned (anti-American) Movement. Nehru was a leader of the Afro-Asian group of countries who shared an anti-Imperialist ethos. He proudly escorted Zhou Enlai at Bandung, welcoming Communist China to the world. Zhou was misled into thinking that Nehru, the anti-imperialist, will give back to China the Tibetan territory taken by Lord Curzon. But Nehru was an Indian nationalist first and anti-imperialist second. He refused to yield any territory.
The Chinese outwitted Nehru and took Aksai Chin anyway. Even so, he did not fancy a fight. Parliament would not stand for appeasement. But Parliament underestimated Chinese strength. Nehru had left the defence forces to Krishna Menon’s care. It proved to be a mistake. A brilliant ideologue and powerful speaker, Menon was divisive and incompetent at defence.
Nehru ordered the Army to throw the Chinese out. India was humiliated. No NAM nation came to help India; only the US and Israel did. India forgave him. Modi can learn from Nehru what not to do.