Review Article: Nehru
London, Routledge, 2003, ISBN: 415250161X; 299pp.; Price: £45.00
New Haven, CT, Yale University Press, 2003, ISBN: 3000938553; 407pp.; Price: £25.00
London School of Economics
Date accessed: 1 April, 2023
Forty years after his death, much of Nehru’s world has been lost, its certainties eroded, its structures demolished. The European empires which Nehru challenged have long since disappeared. The Cold War, from which he fought hard to insulate the Third World, has come to an end, replaced by an unipolar world in which the neo-imperialist superpower, the uncovenanted legatee of earlier empires, presents dangerous new challenges to the sovereignty of nations. The model of state-led socialism, which Nehru and a generation of nation-builders saw as the key to development and the fight against poverty and inequality, has failed. Many of the new nations whose independence Nehru championed are now in deep crisis, a painful commentary on the failures of Nehru’s dreams of a new world order.
In India itself, Nehru’s legacy has come under sustained attack. One government after another – whether his own successors or other alliances – has dismantled the state-planned ‘mixed’ economy he worked so hard to put into place. The Congress, which he had led and which was the lynchpin of the system of governance, has disintegrated. The party itself – its recent pyrrhic victory at the polls notwithstanding – is a shadow of its former self. Nehru’s commitment to a secular India has been openly challenged by increasingly strident Hindu nationalists; and his old faith in progress, liberalism and inductive rationalism is no longer in fashion with India’s intelligentsia, once his natural allies but now influenced by post-modernism and flirting dangerously with Hindutva. Ironically, many of Nehru’s erstwhile critics on the left, who used to attack his middle-of-the-way compromises, today rally to defend his ‘legacy’, and the debate about its relevance is arguably the big issue of contemporary India.
So it is timely to have two new works on Nehru, one by an old hand with a lifetime of research and writing on Gandhi and modern India behind her; the other by a Young Turk eager to win his spurs. These add to a not inconsiderable existing body of biographical literature, but avoid some of its pitfalls. Both Judith Brown and Benjamin Zachariah avoid sensationalism. Neither are hagiographers. Both have avoided the prurience of tabloid history.
For her part, Brown has set her sights ambitiously high. Her aim is to write a definitive biography of Nehru, intended to displace Gopal’s comprehensive three volumes as the standard work. She brings to this task new sources (in the main, Nehru’s private papers between 1947 and 1964, to some of which she alone has had access) and an historian’s perspective. For some parts of Nehru’s political life, she has achieved what she set out to do.
The point, however, is that Nehru’s long career in Indian politics was divided into several different phases. For much of the time before independence, the young Nehru was used by others, whether by Gandhi and his lieutenants in the High Command or by Jawaharlal’s own co-adjutors on the left. He was more often a figurehead than his own man, whose charisma and enthusiasms were convenient ways of disguising the hard facts of machine politics. In the endgame before transfer and partition, his role was more visible and substantial than it had been in the 1930s, but others still called the shots. In post-independence India, Vallabhbhai Patel, the Bismarck of modern India (or, in a bathetic key, the Gordon Brown to Nehru’s Blair), was the leading architect of India’s constitution, the guardian of its unitary system of governance and the iron statesman who integrated the princely states. Only after Patel’s death in 1952 was Nehru his own man.
Brown is best on Nehru before 1947. Here, her knowledge of the workings of nationalist politics enables her to situate Nehru’s political life securely within the constraints within which he operated. Paradoxically for an historian of Gandhi, Brown displays a greater natural empathy with Nehru. In consequence, her finely drawn and multi-faceted portrait of Jawaharlal gets the measure of the man: his integrity and the passion he brought to the causes he espoused but his tendency to shy away from confrontation; his concern for the disadvantaged and the under-privileged but his lofty and often impatient paternalism; his capacity to work long hours but his convenient reliance upon his father’s financial support; his curiosity – wide ranging and eclectic – but which was not matched by depth of understanding or mastery of detail; his inclination to worship heroes but his arrogant and unjustified contempt for those he deemed to be lesser beings; and, significantly, his capacity more or less to realise what the problems were but, as Brown perspicaciously observes, his lack of tenacity of mind and purpose to impose solutions upon them. For these insights alone, this book deserves to be read.
However, for the period in Nehru’s life when he had the most influence and authority, where least is known and where judgements call to be made, Brown is less sure-footed. After the Great Divide, Indian politics were shaped by a new constitution, a different balance between a centre and increasingly demanding states (soon to be organised on the basis of language), all within a context of full adult franchise, superintended by an Election Commission with unprecedented powers (with huge implications for the survival of democracy in India). This too was a time when the Congress, adapting to new conditions, dominated the political scene through a system which effectively managed both the party and the government, and when Nehru and his pet advisers embarked on experiments with state-led development.
On none of these matters does Brown display the flair and confidence she has when she is in familiar territory. Instead of teasing out Nehru’s particular contribution to these essential structures of the new India, she gives a long and exhausting list of the many trials and tribulations which this embattled Prime Minister faced as a daily diet: opposition and intrigues inside the Congress, Hindu communalism, demands by linguistic communities, and – somewhat bizarrely – even the relatively minor controversies about Christian missionaries. A chronicle of how Nehru reacted to these problems (or ‘dealt’ with them) is no substitute for analysis. We need to know why and when these problems emerged, how they were connected with each other. Nehru’s mainly ad hoc ‘responses’ to these problems played a significant role in changing the balance of power within the ruling party, both inside parliament and in the country as a whole, in ways Brown does not fully assess. Nehru’s idiosyncratic style of leadership – however much it may have fudged the issues – has left a deep mark on the office of Prime Minister, and has given it an overweening role in the Indian political system, something which Brown has failed to bring out. Given Brown’s contribution to understanding of the huge significance of the Congress constitution which Gandhi imposed in 1920, her failure to analyse and assess Nehru’s role in the framing and the working of India’s constitution of 1950, with the crucially important consequences it had for relations between centre and provinces and for the competing regional elites, is another glaring omission.
Zachariah’s Nehru is a very different kettle of fish. Neither a conventional biography, nor a systematic analysis of Nehru’s ideas, the book falls rather between two stools. Zachariah’s approach, refreshingly irreverent if somewhat idiosyncratic, is to discuss those aspects of Nehru and those of his predicaments that interest him, regardless of their relative import in the wider scheme of things. For instance, the reader is treated to a long disquisition on Iqbal’s poem (and the song for which it provided the lyrics) ‘Sare Jahan se achchha’, but only the briefest mention of Nehru’s role in the failure of the Cabinet Mission. The Socialists and Communists, close to the author’s heart, get more space than such players on the Indian stage as Gandhi or Patel (who is caricatured as a representative of the Hindu right in favour of a Hindu state, which he was not). On everything that bores him Zachariah is glib and facile. What he writes, for instance, on the constitution of 1950 and Nehru’s part in it is short, sloppy and simply incorrect.
But nonetheless Nehru is fun to read: lively, provocative, sometimes stimulating even when it is palpably off the rails. What saves the book is that Zachariah cares deeply about his subject and has many good ideas. Primarily interested in Nehruvian thought and its genealogy, he recognises the constraints in practice on these experiments with ideology. He is sceptical about the extent to which Nehru’s early flirtations with Fabianism and socialism explain his ‘later engagement with a gradualist and top-down socialism’, and rightly so. Such an interpretation attributes, as he argues, ‘too much reasoned choice and too little Realpolitik to the phenomenon of Nehruvian governance, and too much freedom of choice to Nehru himself’ (p. 25). Zachariah is particularly good on ‘planning’ under Nehru and the origins, both pragmatic and intellectual, of state-led development. Planning was a way by which Nehru was able to circumvent the party bosses in the states and their powers under the constitution. That these plans were not ‘socialistic’, either in origin or aim, is another of Zachariah’s better points, albeit one which has been made before by others.
Zachariah’s critique of Nehru’s views about Indian identity and secularism, as set out in The Discovery of India, is convincing. So also is his characterisation of Nehru’s ‘solution to the problems of Indian cultural unity’ as accretive and synthetic, relying on crude and often paternalistic stereotypes. Nehru’s contribution here, as Zachariah argues, was to ‘disarm the view of Indian culture as ‘Hindu’, thus allowing ‘a Hindu majoritarian ethic’ to ‘hide behind a secular view of an overarching Indian culture’ (p. 147).
Sadly, Zachariah is more interested in how Nehru came to have his sometimes muddled and less-than-rigorous ideas than in how and to what extent they were implemented. Did planning fail because it was ill-conceived or did it fail because it was refracted and broken by India’s social circumstances? Did ‘Indian secularism’ falter because it was a half-baked intellectual compromise with Hindu majoritarianism or because its achievement depended on institutions – whether the Congress party, the bureaucracy or the police – in which high-caste Hindus, whose commitment to secularism was often equivocal, were overwhelmingly dominant?
Neither Zachariah nor Brown provides full answers to these important questions about Nehru’s project and its legacy. However, in their very different ways, both these works will encourage historians and political scientists in the future to pose these questions in a more informed and rigorous way. For a definitive assessment, Nehru still awaits his historian.
Reply of an 'Idiosyncratic Young Turk'
It would perhaps not be inappropriate to begin a reply to a review that illustrates the autonomy of the text and the irrelevance of the author by asking whether the Young Turks used spurs. Or, for that matter, with a commentary on mixed metaphors and misplaced historical analogies (Patel and Bismarck? Who, then, was the Kaiser?). But this would merely be another indication of what the reviewer refers to as my ‘idiosyncratic’ approach. (I may note in parentheses that this, coincidentally, is in consonance with what she calls ‘Nehru’s idiosyncratic style of leadership’.) I am not, nor have I ever been, a Turk; nor am I particularly young.
Dr Chatterji appears to have read only a few selected bits of my book. She finds a few things in it worthy of praise, but on the whole she appears to be less than positive: perhaps the adjectives ‘glib’, ‘facile’ or ‘sloppy’ are clues to this. She makes a number of strong assertions about my interpretation of Nehru’s life and times, and makes it clear she disagrees with my interpretations: it is at times ‘palpably off the rails’; and ‘falls between two stools’ (‘avoid clichés like the plague’, I was told as a young writer). Does this suggest that there is a definite set of rails, or indeed two stools, which must constrain writing about Nehru? Historical writing, as any undergraduate has hopefully been taught, does not rely on assertions without evidence, and much of what she writes about my book is difficult to deal with without asking for a basis in some sort of evidence.
Part of the reviewer’s annoyance appears to come from my choice of areas of emphasis: the lyrics of Sare Jahan Se Accha, the space given to socialists and communists (I am not, nor have I ever been, a member of the Communist Party), the lack of space given to the Congress right. Other disagreements, the grounds for which remain obscure because none are stated, relate to what I have actually written (as opposed to what I might have written had I been someone else): for instance, Dr Chatterji objects to my ‘caricature’ of Patel as belonging to a Hindu right wing and in favour of a Hindu state; and to my reading of the process of writing a constitution for India, which she describes as ‘simply incorrect’.
On a number of these points, it is indeed possible to have a meaningful exchange of ideas. Regarding Iqbal’s poem: I used this to illustrate a recurrent theme in my book, that of the ambiguity of the categories ‘Hindi’, ‘Hindu’ or ‘Hindustani’; but perhaps the point was not made strongly enough to get through to the reviewer. On communists and socialists – but also various other groups and parties – I think an understanding of the politics of the Nehruvian period cannot be attempted without reference to other important political forces. Biographical writing, and writing on Nehru in particular, has long been constrained by an excessive interest in the persona(e) or personality(ies?) of the individual; a larger canvas seemed to me to be necessary in order not to fall into that trap. This is especially important in writing about Nehru, where constraints of sources mean that most writers work from the same set of available sources (more on this point below). Were the communists and socialists really as important as I make them out to be? Or Swatantra? Or the Congress for Cultural Freedom? I think so; I would welcome informed disagreement on this and other points.
By far the strongest assertions made in the review seem to relate to the figure of Vallabhbhai Patel. Dr Chatterji attributes to Patel the role of ‘leading architect of India’s constitution’ (which is the only clue I can find as to why she thinks I am ‘simply incorrect’ on the constitution of 1950). Patel is allegedly also ‘the guardian of [India’s] unitary system of governance’ and ‘the iron statesman who integrated the princely states’. In the last of the three areas, to use a cliché Dr Chatterji has left unused, Patel proved his mettle (though I am not sure about his metal). It may also be suggested (as I have) that Patel stressed institutional continuities with the British Raj and was reluctant to dismantle many aspects of the administrative and repressive apparatus of imperial rule that would be of assistance to a new state building its power. Whether this amounts to his guardianship of a ‘unitary system of governance’ is open to question (constitutionally, of course, the unitary principle was specifically rejected: India has a federal structure, albeit with centralising tendencies).
Patel’s role in providing the Indian constitution with its basic structure (as ‘architect’) did not strike me; but the longest written constitution in the world will inevitably leave space for argument about what its central aspects are. However, if Patel had had his way (to the extent that his way can be judged by what he wrote himself), Indian citizenship, one way or another, would have privileged ‘Hindus’, reducing Muslims and other minorities to the implicit status of foreigners. That this is not more widely accepted in the existing historiography is largely a result of the correspondence that discussed this remaining private, due to Nehru’s insistence on secular politics in the public domain (he could not police his colleagues’ thoughts), and to the necessity that Patel and Nehru maintain public solidarity.
On Patel as a Hindu sectarian, therefore, I stand by what I wrote: among other things, he blocked Nehru’s attempts to move against the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh after that organisation’s involvement in the murder of Gandhi, preferring instead to incorporate its less ‘extreme’ elements into the Congress; and he was considered by Nehru and others to be personally responsible for the persecution of Muslims when he was Home Minister. Even in the 1930s, when Patel was hiding behind the legitimating banner of ‘Gandhism’, many in the Congress saw him as pro-Hindu as well as pro-capitalist: the dividing line between a ‘secular’ and a ‘Hindu’ right may be too sharply drawn in retrospective writing. I am happy to provide chapter-and-verse citations for these statements, but they are not even particularly new (a point Dr Chatterji is willing to make elsewhere: my ‘better points’, she says, have been ‘made before by others’). The correspondence is easily available, in printed form in the Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru; and the more general points were made, sotto voce, by Nehru’s official biographer, Sarvepalli Gopal, who was obviously constrained not to deviate too far from Indian nationalist narratives of the Congress’s secular character. The Congress was far from a secular organisation as a whole; it was a coalition that contained resolutely secular members, and a large section who hid their Hindu sectarianism behind the secular rhetoric that was obligatory due to the Congress’s official position. It is no longer terribly novel to say that the Congress was at least two parties (or tendencies), one of which was indeed the collection of upper-caste Hindu sectarians of the Muslim League’s propaganda; it may still be a little alarming if this is made explicit.
These last points are of greater general relevance than those discussed earlier. It would have been a great deal easier to deal with Dr Chatterji’s assertions had there been any evidence supporting her claims; as it happens, her somewhat dogmatic and definitely second-hand assertions regarding Patel are severely undermined by the fact that she even gets his death wrong by two very crucial years: he died in 1950, not in 1952, as a glance at my chronological table would have confirmed. Of course, had he lived two years longer, he might indeed have ‘called the shots’, or at least more of them, for longer, and changed the internal balance of power within the Congress, delaying Nehru’s ascendancy in post-independence India. A reader of this review might be invited to return to the narrative provided in my account, imagine Patel’s recovery from his illness, and construct an alternative scenario as a parlour game.
Two interrelated points need to be dealt with by way of conclusion: that of originality and of sources. My work sought to be an interpretative essay on Nehru and ‘Nehruvian’ politics that would serve both as an introduction to the subject and a guide to further work. Its two claims to newness rested on the decentring of nationalism as the dominant narrative convention underlying the retelling of the life of Nehru, and the restoration of the links between domestic and international politics that were characteristic of pre- and immediate post-independence India (with both of which the reviewer did not engage at all). The beginnings of some answers to larger questions of whether Nehruvian ideas, of ‘socialism’, of planned economic development, or of secularism were properly implemented or not should certainly be accessible to readers of my book.
Allegedly, Nehru still awaits a ‘definitive assessment’: this, I hope, is neither possible nor desirable. Ambitions of definitiveness, to which I do not aspire, belong in now outdated paradigms that imagine completeness and comprehensiveness in source material and interpretation. Even a ‘complete’ set of sources has implicit and explicit gaps, deliberate and accidental omissions, and the historian’s intervention, because it is an intervention, is also a reordering – again, this ‘insight’ has been part of a basic training in the discipline of history that has been available since the 1960s. More specifically, in the case of the Nehru papers, what we are permitted to see are culled, reordered, censored; and above all expurgated of traces of both controversial political moments and of a private life that was quite clearly both active and rewarding in many of its aspects. What we see are a combination of private papers cleared for (relatively) public research, the selections made by Sarvepalli Gopal and a few others, plus papers selectively released, often to a select group of persons who can be relied upon either to massage the public image of Nehru that is so integral to contemporary Indian politics and to the party that he once led, or at least not to disrupt it. We can and ought to add to this a few bits and pieces traced from among the papers of Nehru’s many correspondents, or from among institutional papers that were concerned with Nehru’s life, work, or perhaps merely his movements. It is now possible, for instance, to trace private moments and daily movements of Nehru on his various European journeys from British intelligence reports. But perhaps these new materials ought to be used not merely in biographical mode but for different purposes, in pursuit of new research questions.