Remembering Nehru as chancellor of Cambridge

London: As members of the University of Cambridge`s Senate today queued in their traditional long black gowns to vote for the next chancellor of the 802-year- old institution, many remembered that Jawaharlal Nehru almost became its chancellor in 1950.

There is much interest in the `historic` election since this is the first time a proper election is being held to the constitutional head of the university since 1847, when Prince Albert was elected.

Since then, there was no occasion to hold a proper election, with dons deciding the incumbent among themselves. So far, all the chancellors since the post was created in 1246 were aristocrats, bishops, generals or princes; but no longer.

The candidates for the 108th chancellorship now are a billionaire Lord and former politician (Lord Sainsbury, the official candidate), a Shakespearean actor (Brian Blessed), a human rights lawyer (Michael Mansfield) and an Indian-origin grocer (Abdul Arain).

Voting for the post is being held today and tomorrow, with the result expected on Sunday. The Senate membership is estimated to be over 150,000. University sources told PTI that some members had come from Hong Kong and US to vote.

Senior university figures recalled that in 1950, several university dons proposed Nehru`s name as a candidate for the chancellorship when the incumbent, Jan Smuts, died. The official candidate then was Lord Tedder, while Nehru was nominated by his supporters without giving him an opportunity to withdraw.

Records and reports in `Varsity`, the student newspaper of the university, reveal that even though Nehru felt honoured to be nominated, he felt he could be of no service as he was busy as India`s prime minister, and eventually persuaded his supporters to withdraw his candidature.

Those who had nominated Nehru included Bertrand Russell, E M Forster and Lord Mountbatten. It was after much persuasion and efforts by Nehru and the then Indian high commissioner V K Krishna Menon that his candidature was eventually withdrawn.

Nehru sent a cable to Menon from Delhi when his nomination was announced that "embarrassing questions are put to me" and that "on no account am I going to be a party to a contest". He added that the reaction in India was also "strongly unfavourable" to his contesting the election.

The records show that Nehru`s supporters in Cambridge were reluctant to agree to his withdrawing his candidature, arguing that they had the right to elect whom they wished.

But Menon managed to persuade them that Nehru would be embarrassed. But since Nehru`s candidature was withdrawn after the last date of withdrawal, the election had to take place, with only one candidate, Lord Tedder. In the event, the election was held on 10 November 1950 with the time allowed for votes reduced to 2pm to 2.30pm.

After half hour of voting, with about 200 votes cast, Lord Tedder was declared elected, much to the disappointment of Nehru`s many supporters. Nehru studied at Trinity College, Cambridge, from 1907 to 1910.