Dominant in life, not in posterity

September 10, 2004

In this biography of Nehru, Judith Brown mentions how she felt privileged when she caught a glimpse of him in 1962. "I sensed I was seeing a person of profound historical significance as I watched him from the back of the crowd in the airport, the diminutive figure bidding a temporary farewell to his country." I saw Nehru early one morning in 1952 when, as a student, I was walking to my school in Bombay and also felt the presence of a handsome charismatic figure. He was my first and, alas, best Prime Minister (thus far).

But Nehru is derided today in India and forgotten abroad. On November 14 last year, the anniversary of his birth, I was in Delhi and witnessed little interest in him, apart from family-based Congress Party celebrations. Yet he is truly a pioneering figure in 20th-century world history. We are familiar today with Third World leaders taking their part in global affairs, but back in 1950 Nehru was the first and only plausible leader in the recently decolonised South Asia.

He became a bridge between East and West in the Cold War, mediated in the Korean War and provided China with a contact with the US in those fraught McCarthyite days. He committed the Indian independence movement to the then-novel idea that freedom from foreign rule had to ameliorate the condition of the majority of poor citizens economically and socially. If the Constitution of India contains a chapter on fundamental rights and a chapter on economic and social rights written before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed, it is in the main thanks to Nehru's modernist vision.

Brown has been given access to most of Nehru's papers by Sonia Gandhi, his granddaughter-in-law. Brown reminds us that when Nehru was born in 1889, the world did not know of cars and electricity, planes and radio. Before he died, he knew of space travel, split atoms and computers. In 1889, empires were a fact of life and the British one was a world-dominant power. If, by 1964, when Nehru died, the British Empire had been wound down and other empires were shrinking fast, it was in some ways thanks to the Indian independence movement led by Gandhi, whose heir Nehru was.

But Nehru was different from Gandhi. Born into the wealthy family of barrister Motilal Nehru, he went to Harrow and Trinity College, Cambridge.

After a life of luxury in Britain and qualifying for the Bar he returned to India. Gandhi, who had also been a barrister at the Inns of Court, had been to South Africa and was back in India. His anti-Western, ascetic and often antirational approach to politics puzzled the Nehrus, father and son, but his charisma captured them. They gave up their life of luxury to join him in the anti-British struggle.

This background takes up about 60 pages of the book. The next 300 are about the many facets of Nehru's life before independence, as a doughty fighter in the Congress Party for economic radicalism and political anti-communalism, for democracy and equality. Nehru was at once elitist, bossy, impatient of others' imperfections and devoted to democratic institutions and practices. He spent several stints in jail for his political agitation and managed to write four eminently readable books, including his Autobiography and The Discovery of India , which earned such generous royalties for the rest of his life that he never took his salary as prime minister.

But it is as India's first, and longest-serving, Prime Minister that he made his best contribution. If India is one of the most active democracies in the world today, as well as the largest, it is principally thanks to Nehru. He built up democratic parliamentary institutions scrupulously and, indeed, was even accused of not doing enough to encourage the growth of opposition to him. He wrote to the various chief ministers of federal India to educate them in national and world affairs and to broaden their visions.

He pursued a policy of non-alignment in the midst of the Cold War and built up the Third World alliance at a pioneering conference in Bandung in Indonesia in 1955. He had a vision of Asia as a force for peace like his vision for India as a country dedicated to peace and non-violence.

Alas, his life ended in several reverses to these ideals. His China policy failed and a war broke out between the two countries in 1962, which shattered him after all his efforts to help China deal with American boycott at the United Nations. His economic policy of planned industrialisation is blamed today for saddling India with top-heavy industrial structures and slow growth. His dream of a socialist pattern for Indian society was just that - a dream. But as in the case of those other nation-builders, Ataturk and Mao, his legacy is more under the skin, absorbed in the psyche of his nation than in any visible monuments.

For such a complex life, Brown has managed a well-researched, competent biography, about modern India as much as about her first prime minister. I have a few quibbles: V. P. Menon was not in the Indian Civil Service and the 1959 Congress was not a triumph for Nehru's agrarian policy but for Charan Singh, who became India's shortest-serving prime minister in the 1970s.

Lord Desai is director, Centre for Global Governance, London School of Economics.

Nehru: A Political Life

Author - Judith M. Brown
Publisher - Yale University Press
Pages - 407
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 300 099 2

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