Nehru: A Political Life By Judith M Brown
Nehru: the invention of India by Shashi Tharoor
India: A family business?
By Salil Tripathi
30 April 2004

Once again, as India goes to the polls, the constituency of Amethi in Uttar Pradesh has attracted unusual attention. Another descendant of India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, is standing for that seat. This time it is Rahul Gandhi, the son of the Congress leader Sonia Gandhi and of the former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, both of whom earlier represented the constituency. Before Rajiv entered politics, his younger brother Sanjay represented Amethi - although he died in an air accident after a year. Amethi neighbours Rae Bareli, the constituency that Rajiv and Sanjay's mother, the former PM Indira Gandhi, represented. And Rahul's mother, Sonia, is herself standing from Rae Bareli this time.

Many Indians have asked: what are Rahul's qualifications to run for office, other than his pedigree? They also question Sonia's leadership of Congress and, over the years, questioned the entry of Rajiv, Sanjay and Indira into politics. Perhaps the more interesting issue is why, for 45 of independent India's first 50 years, voters decided to cast their lot with this remarkable family. This year's election is the first after the completion of a full term by a non-Congress government, and the time that Nehru's party has stayed out of power - now nearly eight years - is the longest since independence.

These eight years have coincided with not only greater challenges to the continuation of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, but also with the reassessment of Nehru's legacy. Many of Nehru's policies are being questioned, if not discarded. The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party leads India's ruling coalition. As the BJP rewrites textbooks and challenges conventional history, some leaders are denigrating pillars of secularism such as Nehru and his mentor, Mahatma Gandhi. Nehru built what he called the temples of modern India: its dams and centres of excellence in academia. Many BJP supporters want to rebuild a more literal kind of temple from the ancient Hindu past - by razing mosques.

Nehru was a scholar and a visionary who was practical enough to understand the limits of idealism. He learnt non-violence from Gandhi, but jettisoned it as PM, using force in Kashmir, Hyderabad and Goa.

Yet his own idealism was boundless,although shattered by reality - as when China invaded India in 1962. Intolerant of superstition and keen to promote the scientific temper, he disregarded traditional sensitivities. He could be autocratic, trusting only a select few.

These two new biographies do Nehru justice, revealing his strengths and weaknesses. Judith Brown's is a dispassionate political account, written with detachment but admiration. Shashi Tharoor's livelier, shorter essay has a more personal perspective, with apocryphal stories. Brown downplays the titillating aspects of Nehru's life. To her, the question of whether Nehru had a physical relationship with Edwina Mountbatten, wife of the last Viceroy, is not relevant. The warmth with which she filled his lonely life is. Tharoor dismisses the idea of an affair more emphatically.

One area Brown leaves unexplored is what Nehru did not do, despite his belief in women's emancipation. To his great credit, he reformed Hindu laws. He did not add- ress inequities in Muslim or Christian personal law, which allowed later Hindu nationalists to ridicule his "pseudo-secular" appeasement. While Tharoor does not directly blame Nehru, he demonstrates that his policies did lead to inequities.

Nehru had no time for religious rituals. His belief in India's inclusive identity was so firm that the Mahatma's use of religious symbols exasperated him. Brown finds supreme irony in Nehru, a young left-leaning idealist, being loyal to the deeply religious Gandhi. And she correctly allows her admiration to show through when highlighting Nehru's main achievement: the firm establishment of democracy in India. Compare his legacy with that of his contemporaries, such as Jinnah or Sukarno, or many other "fathers of nations" who led anti-colonial struggles and ended up as dictators-for-life.

We see the lonely Nehru struggling to create his identity, overshadowed by an illustrious father. We feel his frustration as he works with conservative colleagues. And we sense his irritation when the unpredictable Mahatma suddenly goes on a fast, obstinately pursuing a morally pure but less practical policy.

Nehru's loneliness manifests in his choice of friends (often foreigners), and in his unwillingness to delegate work. Tharoor resurrects the great cartoon by RK Laxman in 1956, when Nehru is performing as a one-man orchestra, single-handedly playing many instruments, each named after a government department.

That proved fatal - physically, emotionally and strategically. Nehru died of hypertension due to overwork, but the last straw was the Chinese invasion. He took on so much that he could not, and nor could anyone else, decipher Chinese signals.

There was inevitably a gap between what Nehru sought to achieve and what happened. Nehru's faith in Soviet-style plans placed inexperienced bureaucrats to run industries, usually leading to inefficiency and incompetence. Curbs on the private sector restrained business, redirected entrepreneurial energy to the wrong areas and bred corruption. Progressive legislation, like the abolition of untouchability or land reforms, remained on paper. Ambitious projects, such as large dams, seemed impressive at the time. While their benefits in food security and power were many, the environmental costs are being understood only now.

In foreign policy, crises like Suez and Hungary showed the limits of non-alignment. Tharoor and Brown are harsh on the foreign record: Brown singles out Nehru's inexplicable dependence on Krishna Menon, whose outbursts harmed India's image abroad. Tharoor is critical of Nehru for confusing the country's strategic interests with his personal idealism. India expressed its views on many things, but could not defend its interests.

This sanctimony irritated many. It prompted the poet Ogden Nash to write a piece of doggerel, which Tharoor resurrects: "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 had his flaws, but his vision, his humanity and his ideals surmounted them. Brown concludes that Nehru was "central to the making of modern India". Tharoor identifies the four pillars of Nehru's legacy: democracy, secularism, non-alignment and socialism. His measured verdict is that "Democracy endures, secularism is besieged, non-alignment is all but forgotten, and socialism barely clings on".

In his excellent chapter on Nehru's legacy, Tharoor points out that Nehru kept a bust of Gandhi and a bronze cast of Lincoln's hand at his desk. "The two objects reflected the range of his sources of inspiration: he often spoke of his wish to confront problems with the heart of Gandhi and the hand of Lincoln. Nehru's time may indeed have passed; but it says something about the narrowing of the country's intellectual heritage that both objects ended up in a museum - and his heirs just kept the desk."

By Salil Tripathi who is currently working on a novel set in South-East-Asia.