Contenders at the Pyre – The Sunday Times, 31 May 1964


The Sunday Times  – May 31, 1964

It was like a Pharaoh’s going. When they burned him by the river, his soul crossed the water. The people, in their millions (I cannot estimate a million, but millions are always recognisable) stood on a low ridge in a great horseshoe a mile across in the dust haze, watching the speck of orange flame of the pyre in the burning teatime sunlight, and the tiny figures circling the pyre, priests at an altar.

Most of them were political priests. I was closer, 30 yards away, among the Parliamentary mourners. I could watch everything. The family remnant was there, on the high platform surrounding the pyre – Indira (Nehru’s daughter, his “Indu” – Moon), her son, Nehru’s sisters; and, here and there, were real priests. The rest were politicians – contenders, those with minds not so much on the past, on the dead, but on the future of the living, specifically themselves. As the flames kindled, they came up, that select group of potential successors, each with his flowers to throw, a last prayer to mutter, a log to add to the pyre.

The oceanic multitude stood around like a great army conducting a siege, waiting for the citadel to be delivered to them. I have never seen so vast a mass of humankind gazing with one mind upon anything so tiny.

The contenders were all bobbing about: Morarji Desai, in his Nehru cap, trim and rather canine, whom Nehru had replaced as Finance Minister last September; Nanda, the lean and straggly “stop-gap” Prime Minister, a pleasant and woolly man whose quirkish elevation (as the longest serving Cabinet ma) has reportedly stirred, at 66, a certain desire to retain the mantle; and little Lal Bahadur Shastri himself, five feet high, looking like a pugnacious child with huge luminous eyes and a rosebud mouth. And all the others like Kamaraj, the Congress Party President, and Jagjivan Ram, the Untouchable, and T.T. Krishnamachari, the new Finance Minister, and Krishna Menon.

Four hours earlier I had seen Menon in a mob of dignitaries and delegations and chanting, lamenting groups in the Prime Minister’s house. It was before the cortege had formed up and dragged through the teeming streets. He was already looking wild and fanatical in a way which made it impossible to resolve the emotions burning in him: his eyes inwardly flaring, as it were, and his grey hair brushed out from his head like flames. And the same lot were there too – Morarji issuing quiet instructions, Nanda dealing with the distinguished foreigners; and in a room at one side, the Service chiefs, bluff and brisk in all the welter.

In the house, we had filed past the tilted body on its trestle of lilies and roses and marigolds: the minute waxy head that had controlled one sixth of the human race. But you barely noticed the half naked holy man, the vast slabs of ice and the whirring fans and all the clamour of prayer and lamentation. You noticed the single, grey figure right beside the bier, wholly exhausted, leaning back against the wall, facing her father’s face: Indira Ghandi. She had been there all night. And you noticed how, among all the friends, the enemies of her father also (whom she recognized perfectly well, though most of them were enemies, underneath, in private) were filing past, bobbing to the body and to her in vicarious obeisance. And all the contenders, the potential inheritors of the immeasurable power that must belong to any ruler of India.

Menon is significant no longer for himself but as a symbol of the Far Left. When the cortege set out he was to discover – perhaps in a way he had never been brought to realize before – that no one in the crowd was for him. Traveling immediately behind him I could see the way they fought to get a glimpse of him, under the dark roof, as aquarium fish gather at the inflow; but no one called his name; as soon as they saw him they were silent. He sat there at 3 m.p.h. with a face of stone, staring ahead. Yet Menon in temporary alliance with Desai on the Right could block little Lal Bahadur.

Of all the contenders, Lal Bahadur Shastri has fewest enemies on the way up; he is too nice a man to have made enemies on the way up. He is also too clever. It is so easy to underestimate him. When Nehru appointed him (in January, 1961) to succeed the great Pandit Pant, it was commonly presumed he would trail in the grooves of his predecessor, a mannikin substitute for a national giant.

He turned out signally more successful in that most awesome of the Indian Cabinet roles. One recollects October, 1961. The campaign for a Sikh-majority State was at its most hysterical. Nehru was faced with a challenge that undercut not only his authority but the very premise of the precarious Indian Union. At that point, the Sikh’s leader, Master Tara Singh, entered a fast until death or until the Central Government acceded. For forty eight days India was at a crisis pitch, Shastri did not waver. The Master ate – and ate humble pie. Shastri had done more. He had called the bluff of the entire campaign: it crumbled. We can accord him pluck and good judgment.

The other factor for Shastri is the Congress Party. Desai is the only one left at the forefront of events with the makings of a legend; and a legend helps among the voting peasant masses who, in Hindu fashion, will sanctify their leaders and would elect God of they could. The brave and flinty Desai is a noticeable ascetic and there, above the bare floor where he lives, hang two pictures, Christ crucified and Buddha in lonely meditation. As Shastri once remarked to me, “In our country there is great respect for those who suffer, or who are prepared to suffer.”

But the Party, not the peasantry, picks the leader. And Shastri is beloved by the party, to which he devoted scrupulous attention; while Desai’s support, comparatively, is a dry and patchy thing. Shastri does not win his way by issuing orders, but gathering the opinion of his colleagues he quietly reforms them in his own mould so that all are jointly convinced their will has prevailed.

Nehru trusted him. That is an asset. His father was a lowly fellow – a clerk in old father Motilal Nehru’s law office. Lal Bahadur  (the name means “courageous gem,” the Shastri being no more than a Hindu degree), though thirteen years her senior, used as a boy to play with little Indira (now forty seven). She is Left of him politically, but she is his friend from infancy.

As for Indira herself, the embodiment of true grief among such loud and (I regret to report) sometimes assumed bewailings, her influence at this critical moment in Asian history rests upon her will to exercise it. That will just now is bled white. When I talked with her last (a few months ago) and she described the chatter about her succeeding her father as “idiotic,” and insisted that she would rather give up her national committees and the enmeshing political fringe for anthropology, I hesitated about how to interpret it. Today, this day, I have no doubts. Yet even now, a deadlock these coming hours between Shastri and Desai could throw up her name as well as Nanda’s.

And then, Shastri can gather legend quickly. H is in the Ghandhian tradition, which means so much because it is the Hindu tradition. He is outwardly unassertive, his indifference to personal comfort and luxury is unforced and part of himself. He is more thoroughly Indian than Nehru, the “spiritual half-caste” could be. He has never once set foot outside the Indian subcontinent, unless you count Nepal. Whoever succeeds will be less fundamentally English, a stepchild of our island culture, than the old Harrovian “Panditji” who simply had to write off a fan letter (as Prime Minister in 1948) to Bernard Shaw to tell the old man of his deep influence upon him.

Nevertheless this change will not of itself change India (or indeed its policy). India has already accepted and absorbed the British, like all her past conquerors. The greatest multitudes among Thursday’s route gathered in Rajpath (Kingsway) between Lutyens’s noble secretariat building and the megalith canopying George V in stone.

Entering (for example) the Presidential residence of  Dr. Radhakrishnan, the Sandhurst-stamped officer of the bodyguard, will lead you past portraits of Curzon and Wavell into the presence of the turbaned philosopher-President, who explains concurrently India’s need to enter the spiral of Western material progress and the Hindu interpretation of perfection as “absolute stillness, stagnation, death.”  India is already a synthesis no single death can alter.

And so with external policy also. Non-alignment will be replaced less easily than Nehru’s lack of realism when physically challenged (as by China). Nehru was so above events as barely to be touched by the peoples’ instinctive reaction to them: he was a seventeenth State, the flower of them all, justifying their roots, turning their base emotions into fine intentions. Any new leader now will have to obey the peoples’ plural blood when it is roused, as China roused it.

If he does not, he destroys himself or destroys India. Atheist China might misjudge this death as her vacuum to fill (and thus arouse India to implacable fury). Most probably, she will confine herself to pressing her claim to Sikkim and Bhutan, which Chen-yi, the Foreign Minister, sinisterly described the other day as “China’s southern Gateway” – outside Indian soil, but a useful diversion from the Laos theatre, and a deft means of further humiliating India diplomatically and even militarily before the Afro-Asian audience among whom India’s charisma has already faded.

But in this forum the new leader will start with the peculiar advantage of being the first major leader of a non-aligned post-colonial power to be rid of the tired and inhibiting role of hero of the independence struggle.

Similarly, Pakistan might be tempted to force the Kashmir issue. But the Pakistanis are gentlemen; the reaction of their Government and Press to Nehru’s death has been exemplary. Perhaps Ayub missed the chance of a lifetime to seize India’s affection by not flying to Nehru’s funeral – to meet him, as it were, in death in place of the “summit” that was to be next month. But affection grown sour can become acid; and Ayub is too shrewd to imagine that the new Indian government can risk in the near future any major shift over Kashmir.

The real threats to India’s new leader will be internal – arising first from the nature of India and its problems, and secondly from the greed of the power-hungry. He inherits the problems of poverty and backwardness and indiscipline that seem to compose the permanent character of India. The sister problem you could see thronged along the cortege’s route: it was like a gathering of all nations – light-skinned and dark, straight hair and curly, round eyes and slitted, and every few yards a different language. The sister problem is unity. The motley Indian nation hung around Nehru. He toured his country by inches; everyone knew him in the flesh. It is said of Nehru that he made the mortar of independent India with his own spittle.

It is by the separatist pull of India’s States that the unscrupulous can succour their ambitions.  If the thesis of Hinduism is the unity of the one and the manifold, its antithesis is when the manifold blackmails the one. The Central Government has already been subjected to fierce challenges from the States. The loyalty to the Centre of the great regional party figures, like the Madrasi Kamraj of the Dravidian South and Atuliya Ghosh of Bengal, built on the long march to independence, need not outlive this passing generation.

Thus all the contenders except Shastri and Premier Nanda are looking to their home political machines with which to grapple the Centre. Whoever succeeds will be compelled – to a far greater extent than the towering Nehru – to gather into his Cabinet the mighty regional voices, or their spokesmen.

Within this ethnic alliance, the new leader must also weave a political one. If India’s success in past years has slipped beneath expectations, many would ascribe it to a political ideology whose socialism crabs free enterprise no less than vice-versa.

Though the centre will probably produce Nehru’s first successor, polarization of Indian politics must now surely be accelerated. China’s glancing blow to India’s Communists, and the fall from office of Menon and Malaviya (former Oil Minister) perhaps makes the Left for the moment the weaker compared with the sober Right fastening upon Desai, and all the Establishment of money and privilege of contemporary India. But I can see the struggle at length resolving in to one between the extreme Left and the entrenched Right, captained by the political bandits emerging in the States – strong-arm men, perfunctory of principle, backed by money.

The Army could prove to be the third force. Nehru somewhat over-anxiously shielded himself against an ambitious military by constantly shifting the high command. But despite its fissures, the army cannot go on settling civil chaos (as it did four months ago in Bengal) without awakening to its power. It was entirely coincidental, of course – but when the funeral cortege reached Rajpath and the thickest mob, General Chaudhuri, the Commander-in-Chief, slipped, I noticed, from his closed car into the open jeep that led the mighty procession.

So all the principal players are there in the cortege or at the bier.  In my ear’s memory as I write is that strange, dolorous exaltation which has made the passing of Nehru seems as much a festival of immortality as a commiseration upon death.

I can see them circling the sacred flames, casting on their flowers and logs, and waiting like an army for the command to fulfill a single duty of overwhelming simplicity. Whether this duty is presented in the form of socialism or its opposite, it is not my place to prescribe. But as a commentator upon this bereaved country at this particular week of history, I must write that whoever is awarded the supreme office in these coming days or hours must wield his power with the inspiration of true leadership if ever this vulnerable giant, just now blinded in its single eye, is to regain its sight.