To me, books have always been a perfect companion on a trip and this time when I went on a week long road trip to coastal Orissa with my family, I completed a fascinating nonfiction (it has no connection to the trip) – a biography of Jawaharlal Nehru by Shashi Tharoor. The short biographical work, “Nehru: The Invention of India” depicts the journey through the life of Nehru. In fact it was Tharoor’s honest attempt to explore Nehru’s legacies – and he brings out the good, bad, and ugly sides of it.
Tharoor weaves the personal facets with historical happening through an interesting account of Jawaharlal Nehru’s life. The son of one of colonial India’s most famous lawyers, the young Jawaharlal had British tutors and was educated at two of England’s most élite establishments, Harrow and Cambridge. And yet he found his calling in politics and followed Mahatma Gandhi into British Jails. He was a cosmopolitan who became the hero of the nationalist and was moved by the plight of peasants because of his socialist convictions – yet some of his mistakes haunt common citizens in their day to day living, as there was a huge gap between his vision and the reality, to what Tharoor states, “India’s challenge today is both to depart from [Nehru’s] legacy and to build on it.”
The book is well researched from different sources and written in a manner that appeals. Tharoor through his candid writing brings out the fact that Nehru, as the architect of modern India, turned his country into a democracy and a potential industrial centre but again shackled it to a heavily regulated socialist economy. He was in fact a bundle of contradictions. If Nehru put India on an international plane by strengthening foreign relations, he also conferred on India its most serious political problem, the insurgency in Kashmir.
One of the chapters describe how a Hindu-nationalist leader once accused Nehru of being “English by education, Muslim by culture and Hindu by accident” which Tharoor felt was apparently true. Islam, in Nehru’s view, was a fundamental part of India’s culture. His great treatise on his nation’s history, The Discovery of India, written when he was put in jail by the British, describes the diversity of religions, cultures, kingdoms and empires that have coexisted in India as facets of a single timeless civilization that had lain dormant under British rule but was about to awaken with terrific force.
Although often indecisive and frivolous, Nehru never lost the sparkle to inspire his fellow Indians. The phrase he used to describe his nation’s independence—it was, he said, India’s “tryst with destiny”—still haunts his countrymen with a sense of their potential for greatness; the speech in which he used the phrase, his midnight address to the nation at the moment of independence, remains a hallmark.
But, as Tharoor points out, even during Nehru’s own lifetime, his halo began to fade. His concentration on industrialization, rather than reforming the primitive agricultural sector, led to food shortages by the late 1950s. The state-controlled economy bred corruption and stagnation. Kashmir was another growing problem; as Tharoor notes, most Indian commentators blame Nehru for his decision to take the Kashmir dispute to the United Nations, thereby turning it from a domestic matter into an international issue. finally, in 1962, the Chinese invaded India—a crushing humiliation for Nehru, whose reputation as a world leader collapsed overnight.
However, one needs to accept Nehru with all his glaring failures. “Nehru was that rare kind of leader who is not diminished by the inadequacies of his followers, let alone his own limitations. India’s foreign policy has changed tremendously today, and our international role remains deeply rooted in the vision, character and principle of one man, Jawaharlal Nehru,” says Tharoor.
On the whole Tharoor offers a riveting account of a great statesman with a unique public intellectual. This is an informative and easy read for anyone who would want to have a crisp idea of the principles that governed the life of Nehru.