It was in 1952 that an enthusiastic youth armed with dozens of black and white photographs of the peoples and places of India approached Jawaharlal Nehru, the then-premier of the country, to seek his help in getting it published. He had been told by the local publishers that the book could be printed and might sell if the immensely popular Nehru wrote an introduction for it. Nehru met the boy and wrote the preface. But the story does not end here. The Prime Minister also helped him in procuring a scholarship to pursue the study of arts abroad. This incident, like numerous others, is a remarkable testimony of Nehru’s immense popularity and of how despite his position he could be easy approached by ordinary citizens.
Welcome, then, to the life and times of Jawaharlal Nehru as yet another biography, by Shashi Tharoor, hits the stands. Nehru, the charismatic leader and nationalist who played a major role in India’s struggle for independence and then went on to lead the country through its initial tumultuous years, has in recent times been the subject of intense criticism. There is much debate on his economic policies, his political indecisiveness (especially over Kashmir) and his governing polity such as excessive state control and interference, that set in the corruption, red tape and inefficiency that plagues India today. In addition, the rise of the right wing Hindutva brigade has also meant that the Nehruvian brand of secular politics is under considerable threat; indeed there are reports of some militant and vociferous elements demanding a ban on his brilliantly authored The Discovery of India. Nehru-bashing has become so commonplace that his role in the freedom struggle and in nurturing the initial stages of the Indian democracy is in the danger of being completely forgotten. Jawaharlal Nehru was therefore in the need of being rediscovered by his own countrymen, especially those born after Nehru’s death in 1964; this is the raison d’etre of Tharoor’s work.
To that end the book succeeds, and uninitiated readers are provided with a background of the Indian independence movement and post-independent India alongside Nehru’s political career. However, for those well-appraised with Nehru’s own writings as well as the historical developments of the period, there is little that is new. The book begins with Nehru’s birth in a wealthy Westernized family of British India. Education in Harrow and Eton was followed by bar at law in London. Much of these and his early years with the Indian National Congress under Mahatma Gandhi, etc., have been written about in great detail by Nehru himself in his An Autobiography. That Tharoor’s oeuvre is talking about the diversity and pluralism of India in its institutions and political democracy is very evident from his earlier book, India from Midnight to Millennium. Perhaps no other Indian leader symbolized and affirmed the pluralism of post-independent India more than Jawaharlal Nehru did. It is not surprising, then, that the book gives a fascinating account of Nehru’s commitment to secularism, to the nurturing of democracy and toward the establishment of diversity and a pluralistic setup in India’s political structure and institutions.
Many interesting incidents and anecdotes fill the book, such as that of the first national elections of 1952 when, as crowds cheered Nehru during his campaigns with “Pandit Nehru Zindabad” (Long live Nehru), he would urge them to say “Naya Hindustan Zindabad kahiye” (Long live the new India). Or of how his threats to resign both from the party and from the premiership of the country could quieten the entire opposition. Tharoor also quotes Soviet author Ilya Ehrenburg that for Nehru “Shakespeare did not overshadow Kalidasa, and he conversed with a Punjabi peasant as naturally as with a Cambridge professor.” Another point drawn out by the author and unknown to most readers is the unfair criticism that Nehru has faced for having propagated dynastic rule. This was never so, and Tharoor goes on to tell us how Nehru never groomed his daughter Indira (later to be the Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi) and often remarked “I am not trying to start a dynasty. I am not capable of ruling from the grave.” Indeed, he was succeeded by another highly admired politician, Lal Bahadur Shastri. Indira’s advent into the echelons of power was to occur later.
“My legacy to India,” Nehru had said, “is hopefully 400 million people capable of governing themselves.” Four decades after Nehru’s death, Indians have learned the habits of democracy well. As the recent election in India where the ruling party was routed out of power has shown, the people and the politicians have learned well the lessons on the power of the vote and the mandate of the people.