Anniversary Special: Remembering Nehru, The Prime Minister Who Loved Criticism

| November 14 , 2017 , 09:49 IST

In the foreword of his book Text and Context, veteran leader Arif Mohammad Khan writes about Guardian’s foreign correspondent Taya Zinkin’s last interview with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1962. The interview was scheduled at 5:30 pm at the Prime Minister’s residence. Zinkin was carrying a copy of Michael Brecher's recently published political biography of Nehru.

Taya Zinkin in her memoir notes, 'It was 7 o'clock when he walked into the drawing room, looking exhausted. I had never seen him looking sloppy before. His jacket was not buttoned, his shirt was open, I could see wrinkles on his neck. A tired old man, I thought, and I felt profoundly sorry.’

Nehru apologised for being late, a courtesy that is not very fashionable these days. He saw the Brecher book and described it as the only good book written about him. Taya was surprised and she pointing out that it contained the 'severest indictment' of Nehru. Nehru replied, wearily, 'I suppose it is true…It is all fair criticism you know, and I must accept it.'

Zinkin’s episode is not the sole incident of Nehru accepting or rather admiring his own criticism. Days before his death Nehru saw a cartoon from famous cartoonist Kesava Sankara Pillai — better known as Shankar. The cartoon showed him running the final leg of a race with a torch in hand and party leaders Gulzari Lal Nanda, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Morarji Desai, Krishna Menon and Indira Gandhi in tow.


Nehru, the Prime Minister with a good sense of humour famously told him “Don't spare me, Shankar,” on May 17, 1964, 10 days before his death. These words were made immortal by a cartoon from Shankar himself.

In 1937, Modern Review of Calcutta had carried a piece on Jawaharlal Nehru who had been elected the President of the Indian National Congress for the third time. The piece was extremely critical of Nehru. According to Historian Ramchandra Guha the piece was not wholly flattering; it spoke, for example, of his "intolerance of others and a certain contempt for the weak and inefficient". It noted that his conceit was "already formidable", and worried that soon "Jawaharlal might fancy himself as a Caesar". This essay was written under the pen-name of "Chanakya". There was much speculation as to who the author might have been. It was later revealed that the author was none other than Jawaharlal Nehru himself.

Arif Mohammad Khan while narrating the Taya Zinkin interview writes “Nehru breathed the spirit and culture of freedom and democracy, in sharp contrast to many of today's leaders who preserve criticism in the recesses of memory in order to seek revenge’.