The great relief in the shape of the United States (US) Presidential election result has made 2020 a less unbearable year. The White House now looks like reason’s home.
The very opposite happened 75 years ago.
In the April of 1945, when President Franklin D Roosevelt, respected across the democratic world, died of a protracted illness, the White House suddenly had a question mark settle over it. No one knew what Vice-President HS Truman, who had entered that building, was like.
What was India’s reaction? The Congress’s entire leadership was in jail. Mahatma Gandhi, from his Poona prison, sent Eleanor Roosevelt a telegram typically prophetic of him: “My humble condolences and congratulations. Latter because your illustrious husband died in harness and after point where allied victory had become certain. He was spared humiliating spectacle of being party to peace which threatens to be prelude to war bloodier still if possible.”
Vallabhbhai Patel, from his Ahmednagar prison, wrote to his daughter, Maniben, on April 14: “Yesterday we had news of President Roosevelt’s death. Much was expected of him in the future. In today’s selfish world he stood out as a strong man interested to some extent in the world’s welfare…No one knows what God wants and where He wants to take this world.” Jawaharlal Nehru, in the same prison, writing what was to become The Discovery of India, described Roosevelt as one whom “many people all over the world looked up to”, as “a man of vision and high statesmanship”.
So, there was uncertainty, worry, even fear over the future. Let us, on this anniversary of Nehru’s birth, look at him, in that year, 1945.
A prisoner at Ahmednagar, the 56-year-old Jawaharlal had been working on writing what was to become the great book that I have just mentioned. He was to dedicate it: “To my colleagues and co-prisoners in the Ahmednagar Fort Prison Camp from 9 August 1942 to 28 March 1945.” These colleagues included Vallabhbhai Patel (67), Pattabhi Sitaramayya (62), GBPant (55), Maulana Azad (54), JB Kripalani (54), Asaf Ali (54), Syed Mahmud (53), Narendra Deva (53), PC Ghosh (51), Shankerrao Deo (47), HK Mahtab (42). Six of the 12 managed to produce books of moment — Nehru wrote his Discovery; Azad penned his collection of letters, Ghubar-i-Khatir; Mahtab documented the history of Orissa; Kripalani did a study of Gandhi; Deva reconstructed a Sanskrit work from French; and Sitaramayya wrote a valuable diary.
An altogether new activity held and bound Nehru with Patel — gardening. Sitaramayya noted in his diary: “In front of his verandah the Sardar has grown … blue flowers interspersed with a few pinks ( which ) present a beauty… of heavenly glory.” And as for Jawaharlal, the diarist wrote that the man was “sowing, digging, planting, pruning, watering and weeding…in the hot sun with his hat on and in pouring rain with his raincoat.” Kripalani said Jawaharlal had turned “a barren and dreary compound without even a blade of grass” into a place of beauty.
But we can be sure that behind all this there was great anxiety about the country’s fate and the uncertain, war-weary world. Nehru wrote in the pages that were going to become his famous book: “Mr H G Wells has been telling the world, with all the fire of an old prophet, that…it is the system of nationalistic individualism and un-coordinated enterprise that is the world’s disease…Prophets are ignored and sometimes even stoned by their generation.”
Nehru had no idea, at this point, of when he would be released, when India would have its own government. He didn’t know that events would move fast, that he would become India’s prime minister, and his gardening companion, the deputy prime minister, but that the man both of them regarded as India’s path-finder would be assassinated.
He did not know that, as Prime Minister of India, he would be addressing Asian and African leaders at Bandung on April 22, 1955, saying: “The leaders of great nations like the President of the United States of America have to carry a world of responsibility…a tremendous burden.”
President-elect Joe Biden’s burden is about the world’s safety — from errors and terrors, nuclear, chemical, biological. It is also about the world being made safe from its own globe-warming, globe-infecting ways. He will be helped by an India that speaks not in terms of “nationalist individualism” but of world safety.
Writing in his Ahmednagar cell Nehru said: “Unity is always better than disunity but an enforced unity is a sham and dangerous affair, full of explosive possibilities. Unity must be of the head and heart, a sense of belonging together…” Biden is speaking of that belonging together. He knows what he has inherited.
On this anniversary, we may ask: “Do we know what we are inheriting?” Are Nehru and Patel gardening India today?
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor
The views expressed are personal