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March 08, 2004
In the preface to Nehru: The Invention of India, Shashi Tharoor describes his book as a reinterpretation of an extraordinary life and a career and of the inheritance it left behind for every Indian, without presenting any new research into previously undiscovered archives. To a great extent, he has succeeded in this goal, and The Invention of India provides a captivating and balanced account of the life and times of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru.
Given Nehru's central role in leading India in the tumultuous times leading up to and just after Independence, the book also gives new perspectives on many important subjects. Amongst those that the book addresses are Jinnah's role in bringing about Partition, the internationalisation of the Kashmir issue, and the manner in which Nehru almost single handedly put down deep roots for India's democratic and secular ideals and defined the very concept of what it means to be an Indian.
The early chapters in the book trace Nehru's progress from childhood to youth, and his transformation from a 'not-quite-prodigal, not-yet-prodigious' young man, who returned to India in 1912 after stints at Harrow and Cambridge, into a nationalist leader under the tutelage of his father, Motilal Nehru, and Mahatma Gandhi. Nehru's cosmopolitan Kashmiri Pandit upbringing and English education formed the core of his personality. Tharoor quotes a Hindu Mahasabha leader who described Nehru as 'English by education, Muslim by culture, Hindu by accident', which was meant as an insult but may have given the lifelong secularist and internationalist a great tribute instead.
Tharoor paints a fascinating portrait of India in the years leading up to Independence and Jinnah's single-minded pursuit of Pakistan that led to partition. The book provides new perspectives on Nehru's actions which may have endangered Congress-League cooperation in response to the Cabinet Mission Plan, and his role in blocking England's 'Plan Balkan' which would have devolved power to the provinces, including the princely states, and sundered his vision of a united India and Indianness.
The post-Independence portrait of Nehru is that of a leader overwhelmed by the task of dealing with the carnage of Partition and building a nation out of a mosaic of princely states. Many view Nehru's Kashmir policy as a disaster, and his decision to appeal to the United Nations is considered to have been a monumental blunder. Tharoor, an undersecretary general at the UN himself, views this as unreasonable, since 'Pakistan could just as easily have raised the issue at the UN' and British diplomacy may well have played a role in internationalising the issue to India's disadvantage.
Nehru was a lifelong internationalist, and world affairs had always been his favourite subject. However, Tharoor points out that there never was an explicit correlation between the principles he affirmed and the needs and interests of the Indian people. Foreign policy was an end in itself, rather than being a means to promote the security and well being of the citizenry. It was this disconnect that led Nehru to articulate a naïve and excessively moralistic foreign policy, which was often an object of ridicule. One of the interesting revelations in the book is that Nehru turned down a US offer for India to take Taiwan's empty permanent seat on the Security Council, and he urged that it be offered to Beijing instead. China returned the favour by humiliating India in the 1962 war.
Ogden Nash's doggerel published during his 1961 visit to the US sums it up quite well:
Just how shall we define a Pandit?
It's not a panda, nor a bandit.
But rather a Pandora's box
Of sophistry and paradox.
Nehru's socialism has been the subject of much debate and has been described by rediff.com columnist Rajeev Srinivasan as the Nehruvian penalty of 50 wasted years. Tharoor describes Nehru as being instinctively suspicious of every foreign businessman, 'seeing in every Western briefcase the thin end of a neo-imperial wedge.' His socialism was a curious amalgam of Fabian idealism, a romanticized concern for the 'struggling masses', a Gandhian faith in self-reliance, a distrust of Western capital and a 'modern' belief in scientific methods like Planning. However, for all the criticism about the Nehruvian penalty, there is no denying one vital legacy of Nehru's economic planning -- the creation of an infrastructure for excellence in science and technology, such as the IIT system, which has become a source of great self-confidence and competitive advantage for India today. Yet it is striking, notes Tharoor, that none of Nehru's much vaunted institutions have replicated the pre-independence success of the likes of C V Raman, Satyen Bose, and Meghnad Saha.
Nehru's impact on India, concludes Tharoor, rested on four major pillars -- democratic institution building, staunch pan-Indian secularism, socialist economics at home and a foreign policy of non-alignment. All four remain as official tenets of Indian governance, but all have been challenged, and strained to the breaking point, by the developments of recent years.
Tharoor also makes an insightful observation that it was Nehru's 'Western intellect articulating an Indian heritage' that may have infused 'Westernisation' into Indianness, and this may have made possible India's ability to compete in the globalised world of the 21st century. All said and done, Nehru's idea of India has held, though his legacy to India remains a mixed one. If India succeeds, it must acknowledge that he laid the foundation for such a success; if India fails, it will find in Nehru many of the seeds of its failure.
Nehru: The Invention of India, by Shashi Tharoor, Penguin India
Ram Kelkar is a resident of Winnetka, Illinois, and heads a risk-management consulting firm. He is a graduate of the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, and the Wharton School.