Jawaharlal Nehru: the inveterate letter writer

His correspondence with chief ministers reveals a struggle between Nehru the visionary and Nehru the pragmatist


Jawaharlal Nehru did not write only to his family, colleagues, and supporters; he also had lengthy exchanges with his critics. Photo: Baron/Getty Images
Jawaharlal Nehru did not write only to his family, colleagues, and supporters; he also had lengthy exchanges with his critics. Photo: Baron/Getty Images

There are many ways to celebrate the various legacies of Jawaharlal Nehru in the year to mark his 125th birth anniversary. His love for children is an obvious contender, for a holiday named Children’s Day. His commitment to pluralism and tolerance is another in the current global climate. Even the Nehru jacket has made a fashionable comeback in recent decades.

A lesser known, almost forgotten side of Nehru’s persona is his letter writing. In times when the cheapest way to communicate was the post, it is no surprise that Nehru and his contemporaries wrote letters. Especially during the freedom struggle, when they were in and out of prison, with few options to communicate.

But what sets Nehru apart from many of his contemporaries is the range of his correspondence. In his letters to Gandhi, we glimpse Nehru the disciple; raising political, philosophical, and moral questions. In his letters as a Congress leader, we see a programme builder, inspiring and mobilizing the troops. In his exchanges with Vallabhbhai Patel, we see the beginnings of Nehru the political strategist. In Letters from a Father to His Daughter, a compilation of his letters to a 10-year-old Indira from prison, we get a peek at the loving father. Nehru shares mythological stories and political realities with his young daughter, who knew her father mainly through those letters.

Nehru did not write only to his family, colleagues, and supporters; he also had lengthy exchanges with his critics. His correspondence with Jayaprakash Narayan and C. Rajagopalachari stand out in this regard. Narayan criticized Nehru for not being socialist enough while Rajaji criticized him for taking socialism too far. He debated both through detailed personal letters exchanged over many decades, where each side tried to persuade the other, with the utmost civility and respect.

The tenor of Nehru’s letters shifted as prime minister when nation building took precedence. An incredible record of his tenure as prime minister is Letters to Chief Ministers (1947-64), edited by G. Parthasarathy. Through five exhaustive volumes of his fortnightly letters to chief ministers, we get acquainted with Nehru, the architect of free India. The various drafts of his blueprint for India unfold before us, as Nehru commands, persuades, discusses, and strategizes, in these fortnightly letters.

Madhav Khosla, a brilliant young constitutional scholar, in his new volume Letters for a Nation: From Jawaharlal Nehru to His Chief Ministers (1947-63), makes a selection from letters to chief ministers, or ‘fortnightlies’. In his immensely accessible volume, Khosla reacquaints us with Nehru the architect. Khosla has thoughtfully curated letters on the numerous issues on which Nehru wrote to chief ministers during his tenure into five main themes: citizenship in a partitioned state, democratic institutions, socialist planning, war, and foreign diplomacy. Reading through the volume, it becomes evident that Nehru is clearly the man in charge. Yet he attempts to cooperate and collaborate with local leaders, both from the Congress and from opposition parties like the Communist Party of India.

Khosla’s volume organizes the letters chronologically within each theme. The reader is able to discern Nehru’s ideas for India and also track the evolution of these changing views on important issues. Often one gets the feeling of witnessing a struggle between Nehru the visionary and Nehru the pragmatist. In his correspondence with chief ministers, the pragmatist usually wins.

In 1964, with Nehru, this glorious tradition of writing fortnightly letters to chief ministers also died. In 2004, Manmohan Singh revived the tradition. But in an administration dogged by opaqueness and corruption, the letters to chief ministers seemed almost irrelevant, though history may judge otherwise.

Today, we have in Narendra Modi a prime minister with a clear vision for India. While it is very different from the Nehruvian vision, it would be helpful to get a similar insight into his mind and ideas. Modi is an excellent communicator, and seems technology savvy, active on Twitter, and in connecting with citizens. Yet tweets, campaign speeches and press conferences are not an adequate substitute for detailing policy ideas, as Nehru did in his fortnightly letters. Given Modi’s experience as chief minister, and stated desire to move towards increased federalism, it will be wonderful if he revives this tradition of letter writing.

I am not romanticizing Nehru, nor am I nostalgic for a slower time when our beloved leaders wrote hand-written letters. In fact, there is very little of Nehru’s economic policy that I agree with or endorse. I disagree with Nehru on important principles like property rights, and the role and the size of government. Yet, I admire Nehru’s prolific letter writing and I am grateful for its consistency and frequency. It provides an insight into his mind, one I need as a scholar, even to foster my fierce disagreement with his views.

Shruti Rajagopalan is an assistant professor of economics at State University of New York, Purchase College.

More From Livemint