The Indian line of duty

The Dynasty - The Idea of India
August 1, 1997

A certain ambivalence hangs over the 50th anniversary of the end of British rule in India, as if no one, Briton, Indian or Pakistani, quite knows how - or even what - to celebrate. But a number of books have been published or are promised and, judging by these two, we are in for a summer of good reading.

Both deal with Indian politics in the 20th century and Jawaharlal Nehru is central to them both. Yet they are very different in scope and approach. Although they will be enjoyed by the same readers, they operate at different levels and arrive at different ends. One is a popular narrative account that simplifies and reinforces existing stereotypes about Indian history, the other is a brilliantly perceptive essay that moves the argument on.

The Dynasty is the book of a four-part BBC 2 television series, which began last week. All the ingredients of good popular drama are exploited: a family emerges, it rises and it falls. The principal characters are at once attractive and flawed. They seem ordinary, but, of course, they are not. As the advertising for the series puts it: "One family forged the destiny of India, providing the prime minister for 37 of the 50 years of independence. But they paid a terrible price. For three generations, they were able to win power through the ballot - and twice bullets and bombs tore it away.'' Moreover, although this is a distinctively Indian family, all its members are wonderfully educated, cosmopolitan and anglicised and, although not without occasional temperament, so urbane and reasonable.

Motilal, the founding father, is an ambitious and successful lawyer. He has a son, Jawaharlal, on whom he dotes and to whom he can deny nothing. Jawaharlal is, successively, spoilt rich playboy, nationalist leader and, for 17 years, world statesman of distinction. But all does not go well: he is seen in crucial ways to be ineffectual, and doubts about the dynasty are sown. But the family carried with it some special responsibility for holding India together: "after Nehru who?" was one question frequently asked; and the implication of "after Nehru what?" was answered only too often with the glib argument that India would fall apart, its inherited machinery of government would give way to anarchy and its secular democracy would be destroyed.

So Indira, Jawaharlal's only daughter, succeeds, not for positive but symbolic reasons. And, because she is a woman, she is perceived as being weak and capable of being managed by powerful men. Soon, however, she shows her mettle, displaying a dazzling aptitude for factional and popular politics. Alas, she has a less attractive side, and power begins to corrupt insidiously. One son emerges as her evil genius, though fate ends his political life before it had really begun, and Indira is pulled back from tyranny. Politics are rougher now, though, and she meets a brutal and untimely end at the hands of those entrusted with her safety. Her other son, Rajiv, an amiable man and full of domestic virtue, is thrust unwillingly forward to take on the family burden. He begins well but becomes ensnared by cronies and is cruelly assassinated in the prime of life. The story ends with Motilal's great-great-grandchildren, bereft but mercifully too young to be sucked immediately into the maelstrom of Indian politics.

This is, of course, a good old-fashioned history of kings and queens, and much is gained from the telling of the story in such a dramatic way. The trouble is that it leaves the reader very ignorant of the context in which the rulers ruled, or of the changes that took place during the century that made government so much more complicated and difficult. There is not a great deal of evidence in the book of any serious thinking about modern India, and much of the historical literature of the past half-century is left untouched. The needs of a television documentary have set the methodology and determined the approach. This means reliance on film rather than on paper archives, and on interviews rather than on books and articles. This is not without benefit, for Jad Adams and Philip Whitehead have chosen their informants well - there is, for example, quite inspired use of the memories of B. K. Nehru, who has lived through most of the period covered by the book and whose judgements are always shrewd and perceptive - but this tends to put greater emphasis on more recent times, and to focus on Mrs Gandhi as tragic heroine.

What is surprising is the apparent short measure meted out in this story to Jawaharlal Nehru. After all, he was leader for the longest time and is without question one of the greatest statesmen of the century. But at the century's end we have difficulty coming to terms with him: he is just too hard to fathom.

Nehru played a key role in the final phase of the struggle for Indian independence, and he was prime minister of India in those crucial years of the 1950s and 1960s that laid the foundations of the Indian state; but much of what he held dear - the end of colonialism and the development of a state-planned economy providing the context for a secular, liberal and humane society - seem increasingly irrelevant to the 1990s. Much of what Nehru disliked about India, and tended to blame the British for encouraging, deliberately or implicitly - communalism, ethnic politics, religious revivalism, social violence - has appeared to gain rather than diminish in importance since 1947; and many critics, of right and left, blame his policies for India's poor economic growth and its failure to tackle domestic social and political problems adequately.

Similarly, by the 1990s, Nehru's belief that the international tensions between the communist and capitalist blocs that so dominated the 1950s could have been eased significantly by the creation of a nonaligned movement led by India, Yugoslavia and Cuba, seems unduly naive. We want to approve of him; we want to like him; but his achievements seem less than they ought to be and this makes us uneasy.

Sunil Khilnani's The Idea of India helps to explain not only what might have been happening in Indian politics during the past 50 years, but also shows how Nehru might be given his proper due. Khilnani's book is written with verve and its clear arguments are plausible and stimulating. It is not weighed down with narrative, but it can be read with pleasure and profit even by those who have little knowledge of Indian politics.

His central argument is that, in 1947, the nationalist elite, led by Nehru, was driven by a profound belief in the idea of India. "This principle animated the efforts to unite a huge, diverse and poor society and to transform it into a modern state fit to join what was seen as the ineluctable movement of world history.'' This project of "self-fashioning'' was beset with paradoxes and ironies. The book analyses these, seeking to explain why the "project of self-fashioning ... has brought India to the verge of becoming a major Asian presence, and which has given Indians real political freedoms; but one which continues to leave most of them in poverty, and which is now threatened by religious nationalism.'' From the start, Khilnani argues, the Indian state was weaker and more constrained than the critics of imperialism or the proponents of nationalism had assumed. And Nehru himself, with his vision of how India might move towards a truly civil society, was not a commanding voice in governing circles, at least until well into the 1950s. Consequently, conservative and religious forces remained strong, even if not very apparent, and effectively blocked more radical social reform; similarly, the state proved inadequate to achieve radical economic restructuring, for vested interests in town and country acted as dead weights within the system. And the irony was that this was made worse precisely because India had become a democracy.

Nehru tried to use the state to build a fair and open society. His understanding of history led him to believe that great material forces, yet ones that individuals could influence and in some ways direct, were working towards an equality that would achieve social justice and would transcend nationalism. His "discovery of India" was of a society that would be open and accommodating, that would recognise the richness of its historical experience and that would be generous enough in spirit to accept a mixed inheritance from the past without being in thrall to it: "In India today we are making history," he wrote to his daughter, "and you and I are fortunate to see this happening before our eyes and to take some part ourselves in this great drama.'' In reality, the past cast a longer shadow, and the development of democracy made the task of a new creation much more difficult. Not only was the status quo strengthened by the ballot box, but as democracy took a firmer grasp, and as demands upon the state became more fierce, so the representative and federal nature of the Indian constitution and the open nature of the principal political party, the Indian National Congress, were put under intolerable pressure. Now, by way of regular elections, the state would be used for immediate sectional economic and social advantage; and now its increasing authority would become more authoritarian and be used to redefine India in a more exclusive and totalitarian fashion.

Khilnani's book shows us, therefore, that we cannot expect to come to an understanding of Indian politics without trying to comprehend the world in which the politicians worked and the problems that confronted them. Put into context, Nehru's vision of a civil society, though it has proved difficult to achieve, deserves closer study; and his daughter's actions, while not necessarily forgiven, require better understanding. Politicians are to be judged not superficially but by their intelligence, their integrity and their courage. The history of 20th-century India has not been an easy one, but, from Motilal to Rajiv, this remarkable family has dared to walk abroad in India's service.

Gordon Johnson is president, Wolfson College, Cambridge, and author of A Cultural Atlas of India.

The Dynasty: The Nehru-Gandhi Story

Author - Jad Adams and Philip Whitehead
ISBN - 0 14 026396 9
Publisher - Penguin and BBC Books
Price - £7.99
Pages - 390

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