* The author seeks to set the record straight on Krishna Menon, who was vilified in his lifetime as the defence minister who lost the China war
* Menon and Nehru came from the same Fabian socialist background
* Ramesh holds that genuine right wing scholarship has not grown in India
At a time when the word “intellectual” is loosely used as a pejorative term for those who disagree with the government politically, former minister Jairam Ramesh’s riveting biography of VK Krishna Menon could not have been more opportune. For the 744-page tome, published by Penguin, dwells on this complex intellectual, his relationship with his ideological soulmate, Jawaharlal Nehru, and how the friendship between the two helped shape the stirring times they lived in. A Chequered Brilliance: The Many Lives of VK Krishna Menon is also the portrait of an age, through which a cast of dazzling characters, vividly portrayed, walks through.
Could there be a Krishna Menon in the fractious world of today’s politics, one in which the rulers would like the sword — or trishul — to be mightier than the pen? “For Menon to find a place in today’s politics, you need a Nehru, because Krishna Menon would not have been Krishna Menon had Nehru not embraced him intellectually and given him space, got him into politics, got him elected to the Rajya Sabha and then the Lok Sabha and inducted him into the cabinet,” Ramesh replies.
Nehru, he tells BLink, was “an intellectual Prime Minister, who valued intellect. He surrounded himself with intellectuals — and these were all non-political figures”. Among them were the scientist Homi Bhabha and statistician PC Mahalanobis. But political thinker Krishna Menon was special for Nehru saw him “as an intellectual soulmate and an ideological comrade”, especially since he was “not comfortable with the provincial leaders of the Congress Party, who he felt were traditionalists”. Menon, by contrast, was “a modern science-oriented, left-leaning, liberal intellectual whose friends in England were Nehru’s friends, who read the same books, moved in the same intellectual circles. So Nehru got a lot of intellectual stimulation from Krishna Menon”.
The only other similar relationship that he knows of was that between Indira Gandhi and bureaucrat-adviser PN Haksar (the subject of an earlier book by Ramesh). “But that only lasted between May 1967 and January 1973. Again without Indira Gandhi, there would be no Haksar. It requires two to play the game.”
So why is “intellectual” a bad word today? “It is an anti-intellectual government. Also, most intellectuals in India have been left wing, which the present government has tried to devalue. The great historians, scientists and economists of India have all been by and large left wing, liberal left wing.” Genuine right wing scholarship, he points out, has not grown in India.
Menon and Nehru, he goes on to say, came from the same Fabian socialist background. “They had the same views, the same sympathy for the Marxian mode of enquiry, though they were not Marxists… There was a remarkable consensus in the 1950s that India was a multi-religious society, but the State must be secular. There were debates in the Constituent Assembly, but the matter was settled when the Constitution came into being in 1950.”
Did Nehru have an overwhelming influence on today’s Congress? “The Nehruvian stamp on the Congress comes only after the death of Sardar Patel in 1950,” he says.
Ramesh recalls in his book how Nehru threatened to resign twice — first in early 1950 on the issue of East Pakistan. “We almost went to war and he wants to be a one-man peace army, go there just as Gandhi went to Noakhali, but he cools down and the Nehru-Liaquat Pact is signed in April that year.” Then there was a contest for the presidentship of the Congress, and Purushottam Das Tandon, who represented a conservative section in the party, was supported by Patel, he adds.
“The Congress embraced both what today would be called the secularists and loosely what would be called the communalists. I won’t call Tandon a communalist because that is today’s language. Judged by the debates of those times, Tandon was a traditionalist, Patel was a traditionalist, Nehru was a modernist. That debate took place but with the death of Patel in 1950, Nehru’s hold over the Congress Party certainly consolidated and strengthened.”
But what made the era different, he stresses, was that people articulated these differences and worked towards a common platform. “And the Congress became that common platform.”
Ramesh also seeks to set the record straight on Krishna Menon, who was vilified in his lifetime as the defence minister who lost the China war. “Menon is made the villain of 1962,” he says, but adds that Morarji Desai, then finance minister, also bears responsibility. “Any proposal for increased spending on defence was shot down by him (Desai), saying that… any spending on defence was an insult to the memory of Gandhi… I have presented the evidence that shows how as finance minister, he constantly sabotaged efforts to increase defence expenditure.”
Krishna Menon was pilloried in Parliament, and Nehru’s own cabinet was divided on China. After 1958, Ramesh says, Nehru was in a period of “biological and political” decline. “His writ doesn’t run, it is the autumn of the patriarch… India has a huge foreign exchange crisis and the western influence is growing. Nehru’s cabinet is divided into the right wing led by Govind Ballabh Pant, SK Patil and Morarji Desai, and there is a left wing headed by Menon and KD Malaviya, and Nehru is trying to mediate between the two. But Nehru couldn’t sell the negotiation formula to his own cabinet.”
Providing an interesting footnote, Ramesh recalls that one of those “most critical of Menon’s negotiated settlement” was Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then a first-term MP. But, he adds, in 2003, as prime minister, Vajpayee went to China and signed an agreement with his Chinese counterpart on Special Representatives to negotiate a border settlement. “So in a way history has vindicated Menon’s politics.”
Indeed, Krishna Menon retains his relevance even today, for he played a major role in framing the Constitution — and the Preamble — which have become the rallying cry for widespread protests against the new citizenship law.
(The article was first published in BLink on January 30, 2020)
Smita Gupta is a senior journalist based in Delhi