An argumentative Indian
Gaurav Kanthwal

Nehru's India: Select Speeches Ed. Mushirul Hasan. OUP. Pages 278. Rs 425.

Sixty years after Independence, have we realised that the "tryst with destiny" was just an invitation to participate in a democratic process, more vigorously, than we had done in the past? Through J.L Nehru’s speeches, this book reminds us the distance we still need to cover to have a tryst with destiny. Mushirul Hassan has subtly selected Nehru’s most engaging speeches for this volume. Not surprisingly most of them come from his ‘Prime Minister Years’, a time when the edifice of Modern India was being laid down.

It begins with an apt introduction, elucidating the charismatic personality of Nehru in a calibrated tone. Yet, laying emphasis on his greatest asset-cosmopolitan outlook and his belief in cross-cultural exchange. Divided into five sections, the speeches given in the Constituent Assembly and the much-cited ‘India Becomes Republic’ speech constitute the first section. While Nehru depicts the state of a fledgling nation, at the same time, his voice reverberates with the optimism as he sees an illustrious future for his nation.

The second section recounts Nehru’s historic decision of joining the Commonwealth projected an image of a broad-minded global player to India. He withstood fierce criticism and single handedly persuaded the House with his conviction. For the first time, India took a ‘leadership role’ in world affairs. A feature, worth emulating for other nations was the equidistance from superpowers of the world. The non-alignment and Panchsheel grew out of this basic principle of peace and harmony. And this equidistance still remains the cornerstone of our independent foreign policy. In it, he championed the cause for which Mahatma Gandhi stood steadfast.

Goodwill among people, whether nationally or internationally, held a central place in Nehruvian Weltanschauung. Speaking in the Constituent Assembly, he philosophically said, "I am a bad bargainer. I am not used to the ways of market place`85 but when you are decided about a certain thing, then you must hold to it to the death, but about other minor things it is far better to gain the goodwill of the other party." He believed goodwill was the pressing need of the hour in a world ridden with the Cold War and bitter animosity. Pluralism, communal harmony and secularism ingrained in our society could mitigate the miseries the world. These themes run through the third section.

As described in The Discovery of India, Nehru’s India is an "ancient palimpsest on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed, and yet no succeeding layer had completely erased what had been written previously."

Though self-confessed ‘dabbler’, Nehru’s versatility in history, science, culture, and language comes to the fore in speeches made at wide ranging events. He did not believe in paying mere lip service that would have done little to the stature of this gentle giant. In establishing Indian Council for Cultural Relations, IITs, Sahitya Akademi, several museums and art galleries Nehru saw the holistic growth of our nation.

The volume would have been inconsequential at this time, had it missed speeches delivered on crucial subjects like states reorganisation, language issue and minority reservations. Apart from providing historical perspective, they enunciate the sanguine intent for the peace and prosperity of the nation. It is a matter of great concern that this benevolence has distorted to vicious malevolence in present times. Perhaps historians have a task cut out at hand.