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NEHRU: The Invention of India
by Shashi Tharoor. Arcade Publishing, 2003. 304 pages. $24.95

Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India, is an inexhaustible subject, but few biographers have dealt with it with the objectivity, lucidity, and stylistic grace of Shashi Tharoor, eminent diplomat at the UN. In Nehru: The Invention of India, Tharoor, the author of eight books, delineates the life and legacy of Nehru, the spiritual heir of Mahatma Gandhi, and architect of the secular democracy that India has managed to remain since becoming an independent country in 1947.

Tharoor starts with Nehru’s birth and upbringing in a wealthy Kashmiri Brahmin family in Allahabad. His father, Motilal Nehru, was a flourishing, Westernized lawyer who wore Savile Row suits and sent his son to Harrow, an English public school, and Cambridge. Nehru was an unremarkable student. He passed the bar exam without any interest in law, and also studied at the London School of Economics. These were formative years that shaped Nehru’s mind: his resentment of colonial injustice, his attraction towards Fabian Socialism, his agnostic rationalism, and abhorrence of communalism. He returned to India in 1912 and married a girl chosen by his parents, 10 years his junior. When he was in England, his father kept him informed of the political events in India, and his interest in politics increased after his return to India. Nehru’s encounter with Gandhi in 1919 forever changed his life. He became intensely immersed in Gandhi’s satyagraha movement. He courted incarceration several times from 1921 onwards, often neglecting his wife and daughter, Indira Priyadarshini, born in 1917.

Tharoor outlines in vivid detail the momentous events that took place in India that alienated nationalist Indians from the imperialist British Raj, and hardened their resolve to achieve total independence rather than accept the tepid constitutional reforms offered by the Raj. The Jallianwallah Bagh massacre, a black day in British imperialist history, accelerated Gandhi’s non-violent non-cooperation movement in India. Nehru was, in the meantime, drawn closer and closer to Gandhi, and the feelings were mutual, even though the younger man often became impatient with his mentor’s cautiousness and strict insistence on not allowing the ends to justify the means. Gandhi groomed Nehru as his successor when he persuaded party members to elect Nehru as the president of the Indian National Congress in 1929, passing over Vallabhbhai Patel, who was more experienced and pragmatic. Nehru carried the torch passed on to him, and was drawn increasingly into Gandhi’s satyagraha movement. Motilal Nehru’s death in 1931 strengthened the bond between his son and Gandhi, who now became his spiritual father.

Nehru was catapulted to national prominence, thanks to the subtle machinations of Gandhi. Tharoor points out: “Jawaharlal Nehru at forty-six was the glamorous face of Indian nationalism just as Gandhi was its other-worldly deity.” But Nehru did not allow this power and mass adulation to corrupt him. Tharoor quotes an article in the Modern Review, in which Nehru, under a pseudonym, criticized himself, and warned of the dangers of early prestige and power that may tempt him to become a dictator. Nehru’s nationalism and adherence to democratic principles, however, were incorruptible. Nehru’s vision for India was always a secular one. He was troubled by the religious slant of politics, whether Hindu or Muslim. Even Gandhi’s frequent reference to Ram Rajya as the ideal paradigm for India was anathema to Nehru.

Tharoor presents Nehru with his strengths and weaknesses. He stuck to principle even when personal freedom was at risk. In spite of his patrician upbringing, he was able to connect with the masses. However radical Nehru was in his social, political, and economic views, he always put “party loyalty above private conviction.” Sometimes this led to Hamlet-like ambivalence on his part. He was given to too much theorizing, sacrificing decisive action. He had a mercurial temperament but was also charming, warm, and courteous. According to Tharoor, Nehru left an indelible mark on India by building a formidable industrial and intellectual infrastructure, and ushering India into the era of nuclear and space technology, all under the rubric of democracy. The IITs that Nehru nurtured in his time are producing some of the most sought-after technologists in the world.

The four pillars upon which Nehru’s legacy to India rested are, according to Tharoor, “democratic institution building, staunch pan-Indian secularism, socialist economics at home, and a foreign policy of non-alignment.” Of these, only the first pillar still stands. Secularism is giving way increasingly to communalism in the divisive doctrine of “Hindutva,” Nehru’s socialist economics turned out to be a total failure. The state-owned industries and agencies bred the worst form of inefficiency, and stifled economic growth, leading to what was derisively referred to in economic circles as “the Hindu rate of growth.” C. Rajagopalachari called the regulation-ridden economic policy “the license-permit-quota Raj.” Nehru’s foreign policy was also a failure. With his deep mistrust of the West, he did not warm up to President John F. Kennedy when Nehru visited the U.S. in 1961. The Kashmir issue was not settled bilaterally but taken to the UN at Nehru’s insistence. His romantic vision of Sino-Indian friendship clouded his judgment of China’s intentions, and he was caught flat-footed when China annexed Tibet in 1962, and invaded India’s northern borders along the McMahon Line, flouting Nehru’s principle of Panch Sheel. Non-alignment had outlived its usefulness in foreign policy.

Nehru was a dreamer, a visionary. To him “India was a world in itself, a culture and a civilization which gave shape to all things … Some kind of a dream of unity has occupied the mind of India since the dawn of civilization.” In dreams begin possibilities. His most important contribution to Indian democracy, according to Tharoor, is the discovery of the notion of “Indianness,” for the first time in 1947, which transcended geography, religion, and culture. Tharoor’s sensitive portrayal of Nehru and his times is a welcome addition to the 15 biographies of this towering figure in modern history.

  1. Lakshmi Mani taught at the Rochester Institute of Technology for 20 years. She writes on American and Indian-American literature, and is a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow.