One badly blemished Brahmin

Jawaharlal Nehru - Nehru
May 30, 1997

Only a handful of 20th-century politicians have equalled Jawaharlal Nehru's worldwide prestige. I recall that in south India of the 1950s and 1960s, it was the custom to hang framed portraits of Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru on living-room walls, next to icons of the Hindu deities. People paid this tribute of their own volition. Outside India, western liberal-left circles were delighted by Nehru's dependability as a democratic ruler, so unusual in post-colonial Asia and Africa, and by his tireless pleading for an end to the cold war. On social reform, countless enlightened people in India and abroad thought Nehru their dream revolutionary, endowed with all the zeal for progressive change of the species but blessedly free of its penchant for violent excesses. Heaven seemed to have dispatched a Russellite agnostic to lead a seventh of humanity, mired in incredible poverty, extreme and millennial oppressions of caste and class and the strife fuelled by bigoted religion, onto the highway of progress. If The Manchester Guardian or The New Statesman of the 1950s had been asked to name an ideal prime minister, they would very likely have picked Nehru.

Independent India's first prime minister tried very hard indeed to fulfil these vast expectations; he was one of the most hard working of rulers. But by the time of his death in 1964, after 17 years in office, even his admirers, though as loud as ever in their encomia, were sounding rather strained. Under Nehru, India had seen considerable industrial growth, but the conditions of life of the vast majority were as shockingly wretched as before. The eloquent paladin of democratic and sane revolution had not even attempted to mitigate this mass penury with any serious social reforms, let alone a revolution. Something had gone strangely wrong.

This sombre, momentous and mysterious failure would seem to be an exceptionally promising subject for a biography. More than most people, Nehru embodied contradiction. And his complex and attractive personality acquires extra fascination by virtue of his books and letters, which are often entrancing in style and content.

The biographer of such a man needs most of all Stracheyite detachment, a sense of irony and a grasp of the constraints imposed on politics by social forces, particularly the peculiar ones imposed by Indian conditions. But Nehru's biographers have been sadly deficient in these qualities. The standard full-scale biographies by Michael Brecher and Sarvepalli Gopal are all too typical, pervaded by a simplistic liberalism that assumes that the foundations of property and power in societies can be overturned by argument. They do not see that Gandhi and Nehru did not, as righteous legend would have it, free India by the force of nonviolent resistance - rather, the British chose to leave when, after the second world war, the balance of global power turned against them.

This latest Nehru biography, by Stanley Wolpert, a historian of India at the University of California known for his study of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, and a collection of biographical essays by the veteran official Nehru historian, B. R. Nanda, belong to the dominant school of liberal myopia. The light they throw on Nehru's debacle is largely involuntary.

Nehru saw beyond facile 19th-century constitutionalism and the communal conflicts based on religion and caste that formed Indian politics in the nationalist era; he showed how outdated that politics was, seen against the social and economic demands of our century. Neither of these authors pays much attention to Nehru's sense of history and modern social forces, crucial in laying the intellectual basis of his political prestige.

Wolpert is especially oblivious. For him Nehru is a spectacular upper-class democratic political entrepreneur with some leftist views that merit no serious discussion because they were mostly deluded. He likes the theatrical brilliance of Nehru's conduct amid hectic events in colourful, crowded, chaotic old India, portraying him as something of an Indian version of John F. Kennedy. He delights in such things as the 101 silk saris given by Nehru's fabulously wealthy father to Jawaharlal's sister for her wedding, or the king cobra which once had free run of the Nehru mansion.

Yet he has no gift for bringing together details so as to convey the atmosphere of a person's life, nor can he make us see people or places. India and Nehru's social milieu remain a great gaudy fog in the background; there is no systematic consideration of the country's divisions of religion, language, caste and class, and how such basic factors affected the scope of Nehru's politics and explained the outlook of his friends and enemies. People who were important in his life are introduced with such uninformative remarks as that they were "dark" or came from "West India". You need to know a lot about India and Nehru to benefit from Wolpert.

Gandhi, though the sponsor of Nehru's political career, consistently rebuffed his protege's attempts to endow the nationalist movement with an antilandlord and anticapitalist programme. This caused a running and, at times, bitter debate between them, which these two books see as a clash of personal outlooks. They imply that Gandhi's conservatism is easier to appreciate now, as a prescient doubt of socialist gospel. What we are not told is that the Congress party Gandhi led was, behind all the glorifying vapours of mahatmic spirituality, a tough, mean coalition of landlord and commercial interests. Gandhi's role as spiritual superman in politics had been made possible by his ability to work with Indian vested interests.

Yet Nehru never abandoned Gandhi, though the diaries and letters cited abundantly by both these books show he came close to it at times. What more than once drove Nehru into almost complete despair was the way Gandhi repeatedly suspended his famous civil disobedience campaigns just when they seemed on the verge of doing the British serious harm, and allowed himself to be drawn by them into long lawyerly negotiations producing measly concessions. The nationalist struggle, in effect, lapsed for years while, as Nehru noted bitterly in the mid-1930s, Gandhi devoted himself to such things as "writing long articles on the relative merits of cow and buffalo milk!....the great planks of village uplift".

Did Nehru have to endure Gandhi's caprices? By the 1930s, he was very popular. Many prominent leftist intellectuals urged him to break with the archaic medicine man and take the lead in building a dynamic, socialist, national movement. Nehru was too canny for such a blunder. When, at the close of the 1930s, Subhas Chandra Bose, another leading nationalist, tried to wrest control of the Congress party from Gandhi in favour of a programme of uncompromising civil disobedience, Nehru stood aside. In a hard fight, the old bull drove the rash young challenger from the Congress herd.

Both Wolpert and Nanda rightly give much space to the Bose-Gandhi feud. But they do not draw the obvious conclusion enjoined by Nehru's passive stance: his role as a leader depended on his willingness to compromise with Gandhian conservatism. Wolpert and Nanda emphasise that Nehru realised, as Bose did not, that there was no hope of rallying the country without Gandhi. But they never ask what gave the Mahatma his unique hold on the populace. Nehru himself, when confronted by this question, would enthuse vaguely about Gandhi's "amazing insight into the Indian peasant mind". The truth, which Nehru never faced squarely, and of whose importance these biographers do not have an inkling, is that Gandhi's ability to mobilise the Indian people for nationalist purposes derived from his charisma as a Hindu holy man. Gandhi's use of Hindu imagery to convey his political message, as in his comparison of the ideal state to the Hindu mythological Ramraj ("Rule of Rama"), has often been criticised as religiously divisive, albeit unintentionally so. Yet it was precisely pre-Gandhian nationalism's failure to develop a political idiom that could impress the mass of Indians that had confined it to provincial coteries.

Leaving strategy to the Mahatma's mystic promptings exacted a terrible price, not least when, after the second world war, it became clear the British were about to do what the great Congress slogan demanded: Quit India. A refrain of Wolpert's is that Nehru was perhaps more to blame than other nationalist leaders for India's partition, because he took the lead in rejecting schemes for Hindu-Muslim political unity based on disproportionate Muslim legislative representation offered by Jinnah, leader of the separatist Muslim League.But what had given Jinnah so much time to mobilise his forces? Those long disillusioned periods of quiescence imposed on the national mass movement by the Mahatma. Wolpert, like so many historians of this subject, cannot see that the Congress had no real option but to accept the borders the British chose to give. He blames Nehru sharply for not letting the Muslim League take sole charge of the transitional government in order to salvage unity, following a typically dramatic proposal of Gandhi. He leaves unexplained why Jinnah would not have used the exclusive power Gandhi proposed to confer on him to seize far more territory for Pakistan than he in fact got.

After independence, Nehru used his mastery of progressive rhetoric to fend off demands for radical social change: the latter, he suggested, had been bypassed by the speed of scientific advances. However, the usefulness of the old British way of doing things was apparently unweakened by science. Nanda mentions one fact that shows just how standpat Nehru was in power: the official rules of business of the Indian Civil Service, that "steel frame" of the British Raj, were, says Nanda, "retained in toto, the only change being the substitution of the word 'Minister' for 'Executive Councillor' and 'Prime Minister' for 'Governor-General'." After dozens of pages praising Nehru's tireless labours as an administrator and parliamentarian, Nanda ends by confessing disingenuously that there were "doubtless failures and deficiencies". These turn out to be "the failure to foresee the population explosion, to enforce land reforms, to accelerate universal elementary education...'' In other words, Nehru did not tackle the most vital tasks facing him. Some "deficiencies".

It is true that the landlord interests basic to Congress made it impossible for Nehru to enforce land reform. But there was nothing to prevent a determined campaign to end illiteracy, which Nehru never undertook. Nor did he practise something as simple as speaking in Hindi rather than in English. To a very large extent, Nehru's endless activity, for which he is praised in these books, went in servicing the British-derived administrative system, that Kipling called the "mighty machine for doing nothing''.

Wolpert is content to attribute the near-uselessness of Nehru's regime in alleviating mass destitution to the autarchic economic model he chose for independent India, with its bias toward state planning. This is a gross oversimplification of the issues. China, comparable to India in population size and poverty, pursued a far more state-controlled form of economic development at this time, but this did not stymie China's decisively better performance, measured by its people's average longevity and levels of nutrition. For China, unlike India, underwent profound social reforms, especially sweeping land reforms. That is why the belief of today's Indian rulers that through the free market Indian can emulate the speed of Chinese economic growth, is utterly misguided.

Neither Nanda nor Wolpert faces up to one disastrous trait of Nehru's which came to the fore after independence: his mania for appointing relatives to high office, including woefully unqualified persons. Nanda, as an Indian conformist historian of Nehru, simply avoids mention of this awkward topic. Wolpert adopts the tone of an indulgent aunt, treating Nehru's nepotism as an endearing weakness; if he appointed his daughter Indira as Congress president, which made it possible for her to take over as prime minister not long after his death, then this was simply the good old fellow's desire to pass on his legacy to Indira, his "darling Indu". That sort of "dynastic democracy'' is good enough for poor India, is the patronising implication. But when we remind ourselves that the rule of Indira Gandhi involved a year and a half of brutal repression, with the constitution suspended, massive corruption on a vast scale and the widespread takeover of Indian politics by criminals, we might wonder whether Nehru deserves all the adulation these books give him as the father of Indian democracy.

Apart from questions of interpretation, there are several howlers by Wolpert that are difficult to accept from an established professor of Indian history. Two examples: Krishna Menon, an important and controversial colleague of Nehru's, probably his closest friend, is said by Wolpert to have been "impoverished at birth". In fact Menon was born to a very rich family in south India, as described in a biography of Menon cited by Wolpert in his bibliography. (He later, as is well known, lived in poverty in London, because his father refused to fund his chosen career as a lobbyist for Indian nationalism.) And Sarojini Naidu, a well-known nationalist leader who began life as a minor versifier in English, is referred to as "India's national poet" at the end of the 1920s, when Rabindranath Tagore, the great Bengali poet who won the Nobel prize and became the composer of the Indian national anthem, was one of the most celebrated poets in the world.

Indian politics today tends in two chief directions, towards, on the one hand, parties reflecting the demands of the lower castes and, on the other, parties based on Hindu nationalism. Neither of these forces takes its inspiration from the Bloomsbury Brahmin. It is well worth asking why Nehru, a colossus in his day, is now marginalised in Indian political thinking. Wolpert has persuaded a major publisher to give him well over 500 pages to write the objective biography of Nehru that is badly needed. It is a wasted opportunity.

Radhakrishnan Nayar is a writer on international affairs.

Jawaharlal Nehru: Rebel and Statesman

Author - B. R. Nanda
ISBN - 0 19 563684 8
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £16.99
Pages - 312

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