History has always been an indispensable part of Indian society. People across India daily begin their day with chants that have their origin in the Bronze Age and pepper their conversation with epics that have been told and re-told since the Iron Age.
Indian politics is no different. From tinkering with city names to making grandiose claims of past achievements, revisiting the past has become a common practice. The exercise, in a sense, has become about finding glory in the past.
The most recent brushes with history on the political front have been in the form of attempts to magnify or diminish the stature of personalities of the past. An apparent effort on similar lines with regards to Jawaharlal Nehru’s legacy has generated impassioned conversations in the media during this election season. Nehru has often been at the receiving end of historical reproval. During such times it is instructive to revisit American moral and political philosopher John Rawls, who had crucial insights to offer on how to assess historical figures.
An important argument that Rawls makes is that the giants of the past should be understood in the context of their times rather than ours. The benefit of hindsight is usually an unfair vantage point to pass judgements on the actions made by people in the past. Nehru is an appropriate case in point. His posthumous legacy has often taken a hit for a wide variety of reasons. Most recently, in the case of Masood Azhar, the blame for China’s initial stance to block the UN resolution to designate him as a global terrorist was alluded to him. The “original sin” on Nehru’s part has been his support for China’s membership into the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) despite India being seemingly offered the position twice.
It would, however, be a more objective to look at Nehru’s position in the context of his times. The idea of India being a permanent member of UNSC was first floated in 1950 by the US. The UNSC had been formed a few years ago after the end of the Second World War with the US, the Soviet Union, the UK, China and France as its permanent members. However, things became complicated after the communist revolution in China in 1949. The old leadership escaped to modern-day Taiwan, forming the Republic of China (RoC). Meanwhile, a new communist leadership established the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in mainland China. As US foreign policy was driven by curbing the spread of communism, it did not recognise the legitimacy of the PRC and ROC continued to represent China at the UNSC.
In January 1950, the USSR even walked out of the UN in protest against the US refusal to recognise the PRC. It was in this backdrop that the US approached Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, Nehru’s sister and diplomat, with the idea of unseating China from the UNSC and putting India in her place. India was seeming to be a potential ally for the US in an Asia that was rapidly becoming red. This seemed even more plausible after India supported a few US-backed resolutions in the UNSC to thwart North Korean aggression in the Korean War.
But to the US offer, Nehru responded to Pandit saying: “India because of many factors, is certainly entitled to a permanent seat in the Security Council. But we are not going in at the cost of China.” Nehru held the UN to be a robust forum for conflict resolution and its sound functioning required it to be truly representative of the world’s nation states. So, the representation of PRC at the UN was a vital component of his foreign policy. He also did not wish to build any animosity with India’s biggest neighbour by delving into Cold War politics. Moreover, by the time the idea was put forward, USSR was back in the UNSC and even if India would have responded positively, the Soviets would have vetoed it. So, the matter ended there.
In 1955, Soviet Prime Minister Nikolai Bulganin brought up the same issue on Nehru’s visit to Moscow. Their exchange has been recorded in verbatim. It has not been reproduced here for the sake of brevity but when Bulganin indicated that Soviets have considered proposing India’s place in the Security Council, Nehru responded by saying that this would only create tensions between India and China, and it should not be done until China’s admission into the body. In response, Bulganin agreed that it was not the right time to push for India’s membership. The exchange gives the impression that the Soviets were only testing India’s views on the matter and the offer was not sincere. Even if it was, the US would have vetoed it since India’s relations with them had deteriorated by then.
Thus, India was seemingly offered the UNSC membership twice but in both cases the offer could not have materialised since multiple forces were at play. History can, therefore, be a tough taskmaster if inferred without context. The history wars that are increasingly taking place in the current political arena should be wary of such limited outlook. It is crucial that through these dialogues, Rawls’ reasoning be followed and sweeping judgements with the benefit of hindsight be avoided. When history is distorted to be used for partisan battles, the people risk losing their touch with the past and with it a sense of commonality and belonging.
(Amit Kapoor is chair, Institute for Competitiveness, India. Chirag Yadav is senior researcher, Institute for Competitiveness who has contributed to the article. They have recently published a book The Age of Awakening that talks about economic history of India post independence)