The remarkable friendship between the great industrialist Ghanshyamdas Birla (G.D.) and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, as described by Ram Niwas Jaju (G.D. Birla: A Biography) makes for engrossing reading. The friendship survived their not seeing eye to eye on many political and economic issues "for, in reconciling the old with the new, Nehru wanted a socialistic pattern of society, whereas G.D. stood for a capitalist structure".

Jaju describes how G.D. would ask for advice on international affairs and also advise Government on financial matters, so that "whenever G.D. went abroad, he acted as an informal ambassador of India. G.D. would often advise Nehru that he should not just advocate doctrinaire socialism, but set economic goals and leave it to the industrialists to achieve them".

But what sustained this unique friendship were the little acts of kindness and affection they regularly exchanged: "In 1948 Nehru greatly appreciated the rose plants G.D. presented to him, and on 27 November, 1948, Indira Gandhi wrote a letter to G.D. saying, ‘The plants that you sent made father and me very happy. They decorate our drawing room. All those who see the flowers praise them. Many thanks for having sent them to us.’"

A letter from Nehru’s secretary, John Mathai, dated 17 April, 1953 indicates that Nehru thoroughly enjoyed the mangoes sent by G.D. The latter regularly sent birthday gifts to Nehru: "On 12 November, 1959 G.D. sent a cheque for rupees 70151 to Pandit Nehru on his birthday, and this was returned by him, since the leader’s conscience did not permit him to accept any present or cash on that day even for a good public cause. He wrote to G.D.: ‘The last few years you have been sending me cheques on my birthday and I accepted them thankfully, since to have returned them did not seem appropriate. But I have been troubled on this issue, since, though I have great regard for the good wishes inherent in those gifts, I now realise that it is improper for me to accept them. I hope you will understand my predicament and will not take it otherwise. I am thus returning the cheque you so graciously sent me.’"

G.D. returned the cheque, but drawn this time in favour of the Prime Minister’s National Aid Fund.

In 1953 when there was a labour dispute in a couple of Birla factories at Hyderabad, Nehru, like a concerned friend, gave his comments in a personal confidential letter to G.D., where he mentioned the attitude of the labour leaders, and also their claims. "In Nehru’s socialism," writes Jaju, "there was room for a mixed economy and also for the Birla brothers. For this reason, despite the constraints he experienced, G.D. continued to contribute to the economic development of the country."

In the 1950s G.D. wanted to take on gigantic and basic industries. "We have received proposals from Britain," G.D. wrote to Nehru’s secretary on 20 April, 1953, "for manufacturing explosive substances, and from Germany for starting a steel factory in collaboration. I am now sixty and am least interested in starting some new business merely for more money. My only interest is greater production in the country. I just want to know whether I can proceed in the matter. I want no commitment from the Government, but only want to know the policy of the Government in such matters."

The Government did not grant him the necessary permission.

Of course, G.D. was above being embittered. On 5 January, 1965, he penned a fine, perceptive tribute to Jawaharlal Nehru, The Great Man: "Nehru was an emotional man. Sentimental people like him have never become efficient administrators, nor have they been right evaluators of others … But Nehru was at the same time a great philosopher … Jawaharlal had the great quality of being free from all prejudices … His greatest contribution to India is that he not only formulated but firmly established democratic institutions and traditions. He was also indissolubly wedded to democracy. He never lost faith in democracy and refused to compromise on the issue which to him was dearer than anything else."

Courtesy: "G.D. Birla: A Biography" by Ram Niwas Jaju. Published by Vikas Publishing House Pvt. Ltd.