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Mainstream, Vol XLVII No 24, May 30, 2009

Nehru, the Parliamentarian

Tuesday 2 June 2009, by R Venkataraman


It is a privilege for me to address this distinguished gathering of parliamentarians, authors, scholars and journalists, assembled here today to honour our first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, on his 96th birth anniversary. A little over twentyone years ago, he left us in deep desolation. But he has handed over to us a priceless legacy of his thoughts and writings which continue to live with and inspire us. Nehru dominated the post-war world scene as an outstanding visionary, humanist, thinker, writer, statesman and internationalist without a peer in his time.

As our Prime Minister, he was a one-man institution, combining in himself not only the qualities of leadership but also of self-appraisal and self-assessment. He had the unique ability to detach himself from the scene, look at it from afar and assess its success or failure. One will recall the self-portrait he drew of himself in the National Herald. Nehru was a democrat par excellence, a compassionate judge of others but a critic of his own actions if he found them wanting in one respect or the other. As a parliamentarian, Nehru in many ways was unique among our leaders. He could hear a contrary view with patience, see the merit, if any, in a criticism and re-adjust and revise his views where necessary.

These are the hall-marks of a true democrat, a true parliamentarian, a true statesman, who intuitively perceived the problems of growth and development, of modernisation and progress, from the angle of the large majority of people. Always receptive of new ideas he would listen sympathetically to the humblest of the humble in India and elsewhere. Nehru’s image, sharply etched in our minds, as clear as when he lived with us, is that of a lovable, composite personality, whose thoughts and deeds were actuated by the highest values of life. His humanism, embracing the brotherhood of man and his artistic, scientific and modern outlook, placed him high among the world’s leaders of his era. Indeed, there were few who, through their lives, exemplified like Nehru the qualities of rationalism, sensitiveness, intellectual inquisitiveness and breadth of vision. A friendly adversary, devoid of rancour or malice, of pettiness and deception, he kept an open mind on the problems of the day. Not surprisingly, he stood out as one of the greatest parliamentarians in free India.

As we all know, Nehru was a revolutionary in approach to life. He detested faddism, fossilised wisdom and dogmas, unsupported by reason. But he always welcomed the cut-and-thrust of arguments, redefining, refining and reforming new ideas in the process. Many a time he discerned new facets of an emerging situation through others’ eyes. His integrity and honesty, rectitude and wisdom, his instinctive realisation of people’s needs, made him an immensely popular leader. Fastidious and disciplined, he accepted parliamentary codes of etiquette and behaviour graciously and implicitly.

I have attempted to sketch with bold strokes a map of the Nehru vision, personality and mental landscape as an introduction to the theme you will be discussing today in several contexts, historical, geopolitical and socio-economic in nature, as well as from personal, party, political and national angles. Without anticipating your deliberations, I might dwell on Nehru’s thinking in regard to representative bodies in India.


Before our independence, Nehru felt that the representative bodies under Dyarchy which the British gave us were debating societies. He along with Rajaji and Sardar Patel was not enamoured of council entry. He respected the informal “parliaments of the people” which he attended day after day in the villages, small towns and metropolitan cities of India. He had an instinctive regard for the voice of the people. He listened to it. He heeded its cautionary notes. He was led by the people as much as he led them. He believed in what might best be called grassroot local bodies, which were intimately in touch with the people.

After India became independent he constituted our Parliament as the authentic voice of the people. He was for franchise to all people of India even when many of his colleagues had doubts about the sudden introduction of adult franchise to the large mass of uneducated people in the country. Nehru encouraged frank, free and uninhibited expression of opinions and views. He might disagree with what another speaker would say but he defended the other’s right to say it. I underline Nehru’s democratic temper because occasionally we are impatient with contrary opinion, and do not weigh dispassionately the ideas and suggestions of others nor try to evolve a consensus on an issue of national or international significance. I emphasie this aspect because I feel that Parliament should be a free forum to articulate the voice of the people. It has to be a dynamic institution, deriving strength from a discussion of every conceivable point of view and reaching a consensus out of the diversity of approach. It would, indeed, be a sad world if everyone agreed with everyone else.

Our country has been enriched by debates and discourses throughout our history. In the most sacred realm of man’s relations with God, Universe and Nature we have held a wide spectrum of views. This has enabled us to see the whole truth as well as segments of truth. In ideal conditions, parliamentary democracy should imply a ceaseless search for truth in politics, the quest for solutions to current problems and the emergence of collective wisdom. In a famous speech in Lok Sabha on March 28, 1957, Nehru spoke at length on parliamentary democracy analysing with rare candour and insight, the merits and hazards of democracy. I shall now quote from this address which is relevant to your seminar:

We have gone through, during these five years, a tremendous amount of work. The speeches have covered, I do not know, how many millions of pages, questions have also been asked, and altogether a vast quantity of paper has been consumed. Yet, the historian of the future will probably not pay too much attention to the number of speeches or the hours which the speeches have taken or to the number of questions, but rather to the deeper things that go towards the making of a nation. Here we have the sovereign authority of India, responsible for the country’s governance. Surely, there can be no higher responsibility or greater privilege than to be a member of this sovereign body, which is responsible for the fate of the vast number of human beings who live in this country. All of us, if not always, at any rate from time to time, must have felt this high sense of responsibility and destiny, to which we had been called. Whether we were worthy of it or not is another matter. During these five years we have not only functioned on the edge of history but sometimes plunged into the processes of making history.

Panditji also gave a historical background to the choice of parliamentary democracy, which has saved our society against major upheavals witnessed in some parts of the world. Nehru said:

We chose this system of parliamentary democracy deliberately; we chose it not only because to some extent, we had always thought on those lines previously, but because we thought it was in keeping with our own old traditions, not the old traditions as they were, but adjusted to the new conditions and new surroundings.

But Nehru knew that it is the most difficult system of governance. It imposes on MPs an obligation which is formidable. I should like to underline the fact that parliamentary democracy is one of the most exacting applied sciences. If we, as a whole, do not rise up to reach the levels of Nehru, democracy could be a hollow system, a mockery of what it should be. Nehru defined the many virtues parliamentary democracy demands of its practitioners. In Nehru’s words:

Parliamentary democracy demands many virtues. It demands, of course, ability. It demands a certain devotion to work. But it demands also a large measure of co-operation, of self-discipline, of restraint…..Parliamentary democracy is not something which can be created in a country by some magic wand. We know very well that there are not many countries in the world where it functions successfully. I think it may be said without any partiality that it has functioned with a very large measure of success in this country. Why? Not so much because we, the Members of this House, are exemplars of wisdom, but, I think, because of the background in our country and because our people have the spirit of democracy in them.


Nehru respected Parliament and wanted that the Parliament should be made an effective instrument for democracy in India. He used to attend Question Hour regularly even on days when his Ministry was not involved in the day’s interpellations. He used to watch young members struggling to put their questions, with sympathy and encouragement. He wanted the Ministers to be fully informed of their charge and frowned upon Ministers trying to evade answers. During his presence in the House, Ministers were afraid of asking for notice unless the question was totally unrelated to his subject. He also used to join in the laughter with others when delicate humour came out of a question or an answer. Nehru used to hear the debates in his room through the microphone. Whenever there was any interesting debate or some hot exchanges, he would quietly walk into the House and without disturbing the proceedings take his seat in the back bench and watch the proceedings. Whenever policy had to be stated or clarifications to be offered, Nehru intervened in the debate and raised the level of discussions. He was particularly appreciative of the young members’ efforts and even when they made mistakes, he gave them an indulgent smile. On all important debates Panditji himself used to choose the speakers on his side and he would even brief them on the party line.

Nehru was a strange mixture of patience and impatience. When senior leaders of the Opposition like the late Shyama Prasad Mookherjee used to taunt him in the most elegant parliamentary language, Nehru used to wait his turn to give a stinging reply. At the same time, he was impatient with mediocrity and with reactionary views. Once he burst out in Parliament against one of his own party members saying he was parading obscurantism and mediaevalism as nationalism. In the party meetings, Panditji used to give fullest scope for expression of views by the members. On several occasions members used to insist on their right to speak and Nehru would just sink in his chair allowing the members to have their say. He seldom interfered in the inner-party democracy and encouraged the competitive spirit amongst members. Even though his party had an absolute majority in the House and he himself personally enjoyed the greatest confidence of the people, he never used his strength either to steam-roll the Opposition or to beat down any divergence of opinion in the party.

His personal style during sessions of Parliament is now legendary. Not only regular but impeccably punctual in attending Parliament, Nehru was a model parliamentarian. In Nehru’s deference to the Chair, the first Speaker of the Lok Sabha, Shri G.V. Mavalankar, could not have found a more exemplary paradigm and, yet, even for Nehru the Speaker’s bell would ring. No one was beyond Parliament’s prerogative. That was Nehru’s contribution. Of his courtesy to Members of Parliament in the Opposition those members themselves were most vividly aware. It will be recalled that the first no-confidence motion to be tabled against the Central Government was during Nehru’s tenure. Acharya Kripalani’s resolution was foredoomed to failure by the arithmetic of seats, but Nehru was not the one to make light of it. He sat patiently through attack after attack and then, before Division, answered the charges with every respect to his erstwhile fellow-warrior-in-arms, the Acharya, and to other Opposition leaders. Reference was often made to the ‘brute’ majority enjoyed by Nehru in Parliament. Well, Nehru could not have helped the numbers that the Indian electorate gave him. But strength in the seats which his party held, never affected his equipoise. Nehru was not the one to have courted any of the brutish implications of a majority. In fact, in another rare tribute paid to him by an Opposition Leader, Prof Hiren Mukerjee, Nehru was described as a “gentle colossus”. It was his innate gentleness and his gentlemanliness that made Nehru an ornament to Parliament.

Nehru’s adherence to the doctrine of Panchashila in foreign affairs is well-known. I would like to draw the attention of this gathering to another set of five doctrines which Nehru gave to India. His approach to India’s destiny was based on five tenets: (1) Parliamentary Democracy; (2) Planned Development; (3) Secularism; (4) The Scientific Temper; and (5) Socialism. Nehru dedicated himself unsparingly to these ideals.

May Nehru’s inspiring association with Indian democracy and parliamentary system continue to inspire us and the succeeding generations of parliamentarians.

[Inaugural speech at the Seminar on Nehru and Parliament, New Delhi, November 14, 1985]

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