Nehru: A Political Life
A review by Pankaj Mishra
The headmaster's report was unambiguous when Jawaharlal Nehru left Harrow in 1907.
"A thoroughly good fellow and ought to have a very bright future ahead of
him." As it turned out, the good fellow did rather less well at Cambridge,
ran up a few debts living fashionably in London's West End, and struck a few political
poses in his letters to his father. During his seven years in England, Nehru was
often, as he confessed, "almost overpowered by the sense of my solitary condition".
This was the loneliness of the man who feels deprived of intimacy with his native
as well as his adopted culture. It stayed with Nehru, giving his persona its attractive
tinge of melancholy, long after he met his mentor, Gandhi, and became the official
heir of the leader of the Indian masses.
Barely four years before he became the Prime Minister of independent India,
he was still telling himself that "You do not represent India or the average
Indian; you cannot walk in step with the West. It is your fate to fall between
the two". During the decades when a free India was a beguiling fantasy,
Nehru relieved his solitude through intellectual work. He read widely in history
and politics, especially during his stints in prison. He wrote long letters,
and two books, Autobiography (1936) and The Discovery of India
(1946), which express, in forceful, often portentous, prose, Nehru's sense of
his own and India's role in world history.
It is not hard to imagine this sensitive public-school boy, like the Anglophilic
Parsees at Oxbridge, becoming a liberal British MP, with a house in Chelsea
or Hampstead, who rises occasionally in Parliament to give a good speech on
a matter of international importance, and who is known primarily for literary
productions of middling quality.
But the inheritance of this most Anglicized of Indian leaders, granted to him
in perpetuity by Gandhi, was of a size and scale that most of his peers at Harrow
and Cambridge could only dream of. If the young Nehru appears to be someone
looking for a cause that could rescue him from his loneliness, and give meaning
and weight to his life, much of his restlessness, passion and impatience in
later years seems to come from this realization: that he had a whole subcontinent
on which to inscribe his ideas and inspirations.
Not surprisingly, his most dramatic and stirring literary creation was India
as both a civilization and as a potentially great nation. This was then a more
radical idea than it seems now. For the British colonialists had claimed to
be offering the natives the benefits of Western civilization while telling them
that they were too disunited and backward to form a nation yet. Nehru was among
the more eloquent of middle-class Indian nationalists, who retorted that India
already had a great civilization, which though damaged by foreign rule could
be turned into a modern nation, with the help of Western political, economic
and scientific knowledge.
This grand vision of an ancient civilization miraculously remade into a proudly
self-sufficient nation was what Nehru as a freedom fighter wished to convey
to the majority of India's population. He wanted to inform the peasant "with
his limited outlook, of this great country for whose freedom we were struggling".
It was, particularly, the peasants, described by Nehru as dull and "uninteresting
individually", who induced in him a "feeling of overwhelming pity
and a sense of ever-impending tragedy". Their pitiable state clarified
to Nehru what he needed to do with India, which in his view had dropped out
of the march of world history: "I was eager and anxious to change her outlook
and appearance and give her the garb of modernity".
How often in the twentieth century did the Asian and African student adrift
in the Western metropolis come into his own as a leader of the masses; how often
uprooted men found an identity and vocation in the causes of revolution and
nationalism; and how often have these same revolutionaries sought to reshape
those that they consider, usually presumptuously, their "people" in
order to be able to match, if not undermine, the power and prestige of the modern
Luckily for India, the admiration Nehru developed for the liberal political
traditions of Britain was authentic and deep. India was thus saved the dark
fantasies that bred elsewhere, in the spiritual desolation of, for example,
Zhou Enlai and Pol Pot in Paris. Although Nehru, like many intellectuals in
the 1920s and 30s, was fascinated by, and wished to emulate in India, the Soviet
attempt to turn a primarily agricultural country into an industrial superpower,
he was also, by his own wry admission, too much of a bourgeois to be a violent
Winston Churchill was among the Western Cold Warriors who thought that Nehru
could give India "the lead, at least in the realm of thought, throughout
Asia, with the freedom and dignity of the individual as the ideal rather than
the Communist Party drill book". Nehru seemed to be fulfilling at least
partly their hopes when he declared his intention to achieve the kind of economic
growth Stalin had achieved in the Soviet Union, but without Stalinism. India,
Nehru asserted, would be a democracy; and shortly after Independence, hundreds
of millions of poor, illiterate people became, theoretically at least, full
and equal citizens of the Republic of India, bestowed with rights that not even
the French and American Revolutionaries had thought of. The possibility in India
today, however shrinking, for debate and dissent owes much to Nehru's personal
commitment to democracy.
Since the Indian bourgeoisie was too small to be at the avant-garde of modernity,
Nehru hoped that a rational elite equipped with the power of the colonial State
it had inherited from the British would resolve the Indian problems he had identified:
poverty, feudal oppression, the power of religion and superstition. He thought
that, just as had happened in Europe, mass education and the rapid economic
growth achieved through industrialization would turn the peasants into self-aware
citizens of a nation-state. With this optimism, Nehru decided to build a socialist
society through a centralized, planned economy. In the first decade after Independence,
he inaugurated big dams and heavy industries, describing them as new temples
All this would have been anathema to Gandhi, who denounced modern industrial
civilization for emphasizing economic growth above everything else and making
slaves out of human beings in its pursuit of an unrealizable ideal of happiness.
But his disciple had fewer doubts about the redeeming power of modernity for
millions of poor Indians.
"I hunger for constructive work on a large scale", Nehru had written
in the years before Independence, and this hunger was to remain undiminished
until the day he died, almost literally of exhaustion, in 1964. As the supreme
director of a state that planned to produce its own citizens, he described his
nation-building work in grandly pedagogic terms. It made him a hero to Anglicized
Indians who longed, as an insecure minority in post-colonial India, for a role
and identity that placed them well above the dull peasants. Nationalism was
the official ideology of the privileged people who took it upon themselves to
set up what Nehru had described in his speech on Independence Day as India's
"tryst with destiny".
For what seems like a long time, the sheer force of Nehru's belief and rhetoric,
and the twentieth-century glamour of words like "democracy" and "socialism",
have mostly prevented close examination of the messy Indian realities that lie
behind them. Judith M. Brown's Nehru: A Political Life is one of the
first biographies to appear after the swift undermining of Nehru's cherished
projects (secularism, socialism and non-alignment) in the 1990s and the seizure
of state power by the Bharatiya Janata Party, a political organization with
a millenarian ideology. Disappointingly, Brown chooses not to reflect on these
recent events, how they might be related to the way Nehru saw and ruled India.
She mentions that "the idea of India" as put forward by the Congress,
"was often couched in cultural terms that often emphasized the Hindu foundations
of the nation". But she makes little attempt to explore the continuities
between Nehru's secular nationalism and the Hindu nationalism that the current
ruling elite in India has embraced.
Brown, moreover, seems overly fond of such flat-footed phrases as "his
life offered a window into Indian politics" which she uses three times
within the space of five pages. Preferring analysis to narrative, she gives
little attention to Nehru's emotional life. You still have to go to Sarrepalli
Gopal's biography (1976-84) for an account of Nehru's intellectual development.
Nevertheless, a reasonably broad and fruitfully critical view of Nehru as anti-colonial
leader and Prime Minister does emerge from Brown's book. She does not abuse
the advantage of hindsight. She acknowledges sufficiently the immense problems
Nehru inherited from an imperial administration; her judgements usually seem
fair. Nehru comes across as a solitary, often isolated, intellectual and visionary,
exceptional perhaps in India with his Western education and outlook, but bound
in his thinking to the political and economic orthodoxies of his time, and limited
finally by conservative members of his own government and party who had little
interest in bringing about the changes he proposed.
Brown thinks that Nehru realized too late in the day the fact of overpopulation,
and its impact on his economic model. She claims to see pragmatism in Nehru's
foreign policy of non-alignment, although it is fair to say that Nehru believed
sincerely, at least until India's disastrous war with China in 1962, that the
land of the Buddha and Gandhi should stand for something other than the crude
hypocrisies of realpolitik.
She faults Nehru and not just on China for developing as Prime Minister
a "vast and unsuitable public role for himself". The loneliness of
the Western-educated, literary-minded man was a clear handicap here. Nehru was
driven by a belief that other people would see his point about industrialization,
secularism, socialism, etc, once they embraced his own rational and historical
outlook and discarded their obviously false and backward beliefs. He viewed
religion and its role in Indian life with distaste; it was something to get
over in a modern and democratic nation. This made him insensitive to Muslim
fears of being ruled by Hindus in independent India the fears that led eventually
to the demand for Pakistan and to the partition of British India.
For Nehru, the history of India had furnished proof of how there could be unity
in diversity. When Partition brutally exposed the limits of such idealism, Nehru
became even more determined to maintain what he called "national integrity"
a resolve that began to degenerate, in Kashmir and the North-East, into the
Indian state's colonial-style obsession with law and order.
And when, after Nehru, the poor grew more restive, the ruling elite more corrupt
and India less governable, his daughter Indira Gandhi perfected the rhetoric
about national security, internal and external enemies, that the middle-class
Hindu nationalists now use almost daily to legitimize their rule. Robert Mugabe
in Zimbabwe is the latest exponent of the post-colonial equivocation, which
proves how easily a fearful and impotent political elite can turn the State
from an instrument of pedagogy into a means of coercion.
Last year, the BJP government in Gujarat was voted back to power with a massive
majority. This was just a few weeks after it supervised the massacre of 2,000
mostly poor Muslims. There is no doubt that Nehru would have been horrified
by this degeneration of democracy into a majoritarianism that feeds on the BJP's
hectic demonizing of Muslims; and that he would have been appalled to see how,
while claiming to carry out the tasks of nation-building, the post-colonial
Indian state has killed and uprooted its own citizens, built nuclear armouries
and threatened catastrophic wars, all with a kind of moral authority and prestige
that the colonial state never enjoyed.
Brown mentions how, towards the end of his life, a sad and frustrated Nehru
had a "renewed appreciation of Gandhi's concerns for the poor and underprivileged,
and his insistence on working from the grass roots upwards . . . rather than
depending on the structures of the modern state and the actions of a bureaucracy
inherited from the Raj". It is not clear if Nehru ever came closer than
this to abandoning, or even reconsidering, his faith in the ideological beliefs
of his time.
He was among the many intellectuals in the mid-twentieth century who assumed,
even if they didn't always spell it out, that it was only a matter of time before
everyone in the world became modern: that is, started to wear a tie, work in
a factory or office, vote, pay taxes and drive a car. This vision now looks
increasingly unfeasible, if not absurd, and not only for the obvious ecological
The middle-class elites, Western and non-Western, who worry about the growing
challenges to it from fundamentalist Islam, are often heartened by the example
of India, the world's largest democracy, and its growing middle class of engineers,
doctors, scientists and software tycoons. But what Judith Brown's study reveals
is how even the most benignly paternal and successful among the great post colonial
modernizers (Nasser, Sukarno, Nkrumah) has left a bewilderingly mixed legacy
for his country.
It is, of course, easy to write off the rise of a xenophobic nationalism, the
ravaging of the environment, the cult of nuclear bombs, and the murder and displacement
of hundreds of thousands of people as the regrettable but unavoidable price
India pays for becoming modern. It is still possible to retreat into a faith
in the nation-state and universal suffrage; to believe that the current chaos
is only a phase to a brighter future, and that, as Nehru wrote, "the world
is marching towards the desired consummation" of history. Such metaphysical
beliefs the residue of nineteenth-century Europe flourish even amid the
ruins of Nehru-style modernity in India. But you can't help wondering if they
are meant to illuminate, or merely to help reconcile us to, the strange place
where history's march of progress has brought us.
Romantics was published in 2000. He is working on a life of Buddha.