Title: Letters for a Nation: From Jawaharlal Nehru to His Chief Ministers (1947-1963); Author: Edited by Madhav Khosla; Publisher: Allen Lane/Penguin Books; Pages: 334; Price: Rs.599
Narendra Modi may well have taken a cue from the country's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, when he decided to address the nation over radio in talks titled "Mann ki Baat". During the 17 years he held office, Nehru did that too - by writing regularly to the chief ministers. But these letters were for the nation, each exposing his views on a variety of subjects as he presided over the destiny of free India.
Nehru wrote to his chief ministers on the 1st and 15th of every month. By the time his last communication went out on Dec 21, 1963, he had written nearly 400 letters, showing nation building to be a passionate affair demanding infinite patience. He wrote on communal violence, refugee crisis, minorities, corruption, rightwing and leftwing extremism, economic planning, domestic problems and, of course, India's relationship with the world at large. The letters painstakingly catalogued the nation's journey from 1947 to 1963, a year before Nehru died, broken by what he felt was the betrayal of China.
In thoughts and deeds, Nehru was far removed from Modi, the incumbent prime minister. The contrast was most evident on how Nehru, a Fabian socialist at heart, viewed communalism among the majority - "dangerous, because majoritarian communalism could claim to represent the entire nation". He was opposed to the "butchery of innocent lives" and never hid his contempt for the RSS. He knew what Muslim fundamentalism stood for but underlined that it was "wrong to lay stress always on the loyalty on behalf of the Muslims of India".
Again, Nehru made known his distaste for proselytism, but pointed out that Christianity "is as much a part of the Indian scene as any other religion".
In a June 1954 letter, he said of the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha: "If they do not show the fullest tolerance to the minority groups, then it will be bad for us."
Unlike most present day politicians, Nehru rarely tried to cover up his own faults, admitting that public complaints about "our inefficiency, inaccessibility, delays and, above all, of corruption" were not off the mark. He was not above mistakes though. He admitted that in his extreme desire to find a peaceful solution to the Kashmir conflict, "we have allowed ourselves repeatedly get more and more tied up". His understanding of China too was flawed. He appeared to trust them blindly at one stage; after the Sino-Indian war did take place, he said: "It is evident they had been preparing for some such invasion for a long time."
Nehru wrote with humility, of lessons India could learn from other nations and societies. He was convinced that freedom would be incomplete without substantive socio-economic outcomes. Only the highest standards of conduct in public life were acceptable to him. But none of these came to his rescue after the 1962 war with China. It broke his spirit, killed his idealism. These letters should be read by students of history, to know, at least from one man's point of view, how India progressed in the first one and a half decades after British rule ended.