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Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, December 14th, 2003


Nehru: A Political Life

by Judith M. Brown

Rational Elitist

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 West?

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 revolutionary.

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 of India.

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 reasons.

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.

Pankaj Mishra's novel The Romantics was published in 2000. He is working on a life of Buddha.

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