Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Nehru: the Invention of India

Nehru: the Invention of India
© 2003 Shashi Tharoor
282 pages

The movie Gandhi introduced me to many of the key figures in India’s independence movement and early political leadership, and beyond Gandhi no man interested me more than the Mahatma’s right hand, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. Gandhi’s commitment to nonviolence stemmed from his near-mystic religious beliefs, but Nehru held fast to those convictions without religious training. The close relationship between the two men in light of their differing religious convictions fascinated me, so I decided to read a biography of Nehru,  India’s first prime minister,

Nehru emerges from this book as an iconic figure for Indians: their Thomas Paine, George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln all converge under his mantle. Nehru defined the necessity of independence, participated in the movement, and attempted to steer the ship of state around sectarianism and political subordination to the world’s superpowers. Nehru is in ways more western than eastern: largely nonreligious, educated in England, and valuing western political theory more than eastern religious principles. Interestingly, he and Gandhi come to the same conclusions from different approaches on various subjects.  For instance, Gandhi believes in self-sufficiency as a spiritual value while Nehru sees it as a Marxist necessity: without economic independence Indians are doomed to political bondage of one form or another.

Tharoor presents an easily digestible narrative here that is sympathetic but not protective of Nehru. Tharoor clearly admires him for his pragmatic idealism, integrity, and internationalism, but sees Nehru’s political leadership as flawed, particularly in the realm of economics and foreign affairs. The ending chapter – following Nehru’s death – attempts to summarize Nehru’s influence on the stated he helped create and dominated for so long. Regardless of Nehru’s administrative shortcomings, he is for me as interesting a politician as I’ve never encountered. He reminds me of Marcus Aurelius: thrust into the spotlight unwillingly, wary of the power he possesses, daunted by the responsibility, and yet determined to make his character prove worthy of the challenge. Most remarkable for me was the way he checked himself: at a time when no one would criticize him, he wrote to a newspapers anonymously warning that “Nehru has all the makings of a dictator in him”.

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