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Bejeweled: Tharoor’s Nehru

February 2004
Bejeweled: Tharoor’s Nehru

Fifty-six years after independence from Britain and four decades after Jawaharlal Nehru's death, it's still hard to imagine that modern India could have come into existence without this towering figure of the twentieth century. Shashi Tharoor, in his trenchant and fast-paced biography, makes that acknowledgement of Nehru's importance with an apt title for his book. It's also interesting to note that an earlier biography of this famous leader, written by another Indian M. J. Akbar about fifteen years ago, is titled Nehru: The Making of India. Nevertheless, much has changed in India and around the world since that book's publication.

In this timely reappraisal of the ?invention' of modern India, it is the perspective of Nehru from the vantage point of early twenty-first century that makes Tharoor's even-handed work so fresh and compelling. Apparently renewed interest in Nehru is widespread because, coincidentally, Judith Brown also came out with a new biography of him, and it has been reported that Sunil Khilnani is working on another one. What adds to the current fascination with this subject is that, in recent years, Nehru's reputation in certain quarters seems to have suffered a steep decline. Although by no means uncritical of him, Tharoor's concise yet capacious biography can be read as a thoughtful defense of this icon of Indian nationalism.

All the tenets of Nehruvianism ? described as "democratic institution building, staunch pan-Indian secularism, socialist economics at home, and a foreign policy of non-alignment" ? have been debated over the years. There can be no denying, though, that the durability of strong democratic and secular traditions, despite being under strain in contemporary India, is a testament to Nehru's lasting impact on the nation. As another Indian writer, Ramachandra Guha, puts it, "Democracy and diversity, or better still, democracy with diversity ? that is Jawaharlal Nehru's legacy to India."

Some other aspects of his legacy, however, have become controversial. Reflecting on another pillar of Nehruvianism, Tharoor writes: "For most of the first five decades since independence, India pursued an economic policy of subsidizing unproductivity, regulating stagnation, and distributing poverty. Nehru called this socialism." The dark era of colonialism, from which India had just emerged, and the influential non-capitalist policies of that time made Indian leaders distrust foreign investment and free enterprise. As an incorruptible idealist who was greatly moved by the poverty he saw around him, Nehru's intentions for India were always honorable, and it cannot be denied that certain aspects of his economic planning ? such as his passionate embrace of science and technology, for instance ? have paid off handsomely. As many commentators have noted, the IT revolution in India wouldn't have been possible without Nehru's emphasis on higher education.

One can also argue that, to a certain extent, Nehru was right to nurture and guard the fragile Indian economy in its infancy. But, as Tharoor points out, this "mantra of self-sufficiency might have made some sense if, behind these protectionist walls, Indian business had been encouraged to thrive." Unfortunately for India, the creation of what Rajaji derisively called the ?license-permit-quota Raj' distorted and retarded the economy for several decades, condemning it to what economists dubbed ?the Hindu rate of growth'. It did not help that Nehru was such a giant that, with the notable exception of Rajaji (who left to start the Swatantra Party in 1959), there was nobody of equal stature to challenge the socialist approach. "Nehru's economic assumptions demonstrated that one of the lessons history teaches is that history often teaches the wrong lessons," Tharoor observes with typical shrewdness.

After Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru remains the most renowned figure from twentieth-century India. Nonetheless, for a leader who reached such immense heights of fame and achievement, Nehru did not show much promise in his childhood and youth. The Amritsar Massacre of 1919, an "event that sealed the fate of the British Raj in India," was a significant turning point for him, and the influence of Motilal (his father) and Gandhi (his mentor) was immeasurable in those crucial early years.

In his classic autobiography, Toward Freedom, Nehru describes his experience on a train after he made an investigative trip to Amritsar in 1919. On the return journey to Delhi, there were some military officers in the same compartment, and he was deeply shocked by what he heard and saw. "One of them was holding forth in an aggressive and triumphant tone," Nehru writes, "and soon I discovered that he was Dyer, the hero of Jallianwalla Bagh, who was describing his Amritsar experiences. He pointed out how he had the whole town at his mercy and he had felt like reducing the rebellious city to a heap of ashes, but he took pity on it and refrained."

For Nehru, however, this momentous event was just the start of a lengthy and arduous race to independence, and Tharoor shows in absorbing detail how the freedom fighters overcame various obstacles to reach that glorious finishing line "at the stroke of the midnight hour" on August 15th, 1947, when Nehru emerged as the first prime minister of India with an eloquent speech that stirred the entire nation. Although the story is well documented and "it is based on no new research into previously undiscovered archives," Tharoor skillfully manages to sustain the tension of the unfolding drama. There are fascinating glimpses of all the major players in this saga, but given the scope of the work, it's understandable that Nehru remains the author's main focus. One hopes that Tharoor will get a chance to explore the other stalwarts more fully in another book. The price of independence was partition, and despite the best efforts of some of these leaders to avoid it, the division of India became an ugly gash that permanently disfigured the subcontinent.

For the next several years, Nehru remained an adored captain at the helm as he carefully steered his ship through both calm and turbulent waters. He was feted everywhere he went, Nehru jackets became fashionable, and the young nation's prestige was enhanced because of his stature. More than anybody else in those formative years, it was this titan who presided over the creation of modern India. Sadly, though, the golden period came to an end too soon, and Nehru's renown took a plunge in his final years. Given Nehru's preeminence in the world, foreign affairs had always been his forte, but it was the Indo-China debacle of 1962 that came as the last blow. As Tharoor remarks, "It is sometimes true that one's greatest failures emerge from one's greatest passions." Nehru never really recovered from that disastrous war and its aftermath, and less than two years later, the seventy-four-year-old leader died in his sleep after suffering an aortic rupture.

Throughout this elegantly written book, Tharoor remains judicious in his assessment of Nehru's strengths and shortcomings, and he is often acutely perceptive in his analysis of historical events. Winston Churchill, a great hero of the West in the twentieth century, never had a high opinion of Indians and he was implacably opposed to India's freedom. Yet, toward the end of his long life, even this crusty old imperialist called Nehru the ?Light of Asia'. As an Anglophile youngster who grew up in an aristocratic and somewhat westernized household, Nehru hadn't liked his first name (meaning ?precious jewel'), which he found a tad old-fashioned and difficult to pronounce. This name, however, turned out to be wonderfully appropriate because, in the course of his extraordinary life, Jawaharlal Nehru truly became the ?Jewel of India'.

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