A portrait that got Jawaharlal Nehru wrong (2 June 2018)

(My column in Mint Lounge, June 2 2018)

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Sometime during the Emergency, soon after she threw democratic sobriety to the winds and assumed unprecedented powers, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi attended to the relatively minor matter of banning a book. It was a biography of her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, authored by the British historian Michael Edwardes. But like much else about the Emergency, this too was an overreaction—the book, Nehru: A Political Biography (1971), had already been slammed by critics across the world, and the ban merely did it the favour of undeserved publicity. It was, one scholar noted, guilty of the “worst sort of reductionism”. Another found it full of “questionable statements”, while a third challenged the writer’s claim that it was based on 25 years of research. A more confident daughter, then, would have simply scoffed at Edwardes and his ill-received production, but something triggered Mrs Gandhi to go out of her way to demolish Nehru and, thereby, award it eternal life.

I picked up Edwardes’ book last Sunday—27 May, Nehru’s death anniversary—and found that while it deserved its terrible reviews, it was by no means a candidate for a ban. A peculiar union of dry wit and hot air, the message here is that India’s first prime minister was a man who rose on the shoulders of others, and, when there was nobody to help him, collapsed into a heap of contradictions. Nehru had no redeeming qualities—a line that has endeared Edwardes to a particularly shrill political lobby today—and his life was a swirling puddle of badly-thought-out emotional responses. Indeed, “emotional” is a word that appears a great deal in this biography. His flirtation with theosophy was emotional; his sense of identification with India’s peasants was emotional; his desire for the unity of the Congress party was emotional; his socialism was emotional; elections were “an emotional release after the drama of independence”; and even his five-year plans were emotional. In sum, Nehru was nothing but overrated emotion.

In theory, this is interesting—after all, we still have politicians prone to sentimental displays—but there is enough in the book to make many uncomfortable. On the one hand, there are casual, sweeping claims, such as the suggestion that the first post-1947 election “was essentially a travesty of democracy”, or that the massacre by General Dyer at Jallianwala Bagh was because he “panicked”. On the other, there are also elements which punch holes into the grand narrative we have built for the nation. It is quite true, for instance, that in our anxiety to deify leaders, we obscure their human limitations. So, for example, Subhas Chandra Bose—a charismatic, revolutionary figure—is left looking plain rude when we learn that he dismissed Mahatma Gandhi as “an old, useless piece of furniture”. Indeed, Gandhi himself is startlingly presented as an “unofficial ally” of the British—the colonial authorities apparently engineered arrests in a way that ensured he remained in charge of the Congress, because they preferred his verbose non-violence to the dangerous radicalism of others. In other words, the British deserve some credit for the Mahatma’s success.

The most interesting discussion, however, is where Edwardes approaches the internal dynamics of the Congress—the constant tussle between left, centre and right, every faction conscious about maintaining unity but determined to assert its policies. In this context, Nehru is presented in an intriguing fashion. He was, we are told, a man with grand rhetorical abilities but confused ideological commitments. Gandhi, the author claims, permitted Nehru to give many speeches while keeping him on a “leash” when it came to genuine political decisions. His “emotional” socialism also served as an instrument for Congress bosses to keep real socialists away from seats of influence. Meanwhile, Sardar Patel and the right wing cemented actual control of the organization. When Nehru did object on the rare occasion, “Gandhian blackmail” reined him in. In all, the dynamics are interesting, and Edwardes’ charges are many—the book would have benefited if only he had made the effort to also prove them.

But the book’s greatest flaw in painting Nehru as a witless shuttlecock between an “essentially communal” Gandhi and a Patel-led capitalist lobby is that Nehru’s own urbane, progressive vision is eclipsed deliberately. Edwardes admits that after independence, when the Congress had no shortage of parochial leaders, Nehru’s unmatched appeal meant they could never eject him and implement “obscurantist” ideas. While Patel is correctly lauded as the “true founder of the Indian state”, Edwardes forgets that Nehru was the founder of modern Indian democracy—India’s dawn depended on both. He plays down, for instance, Nehru’s 1931 Karachi resolution as a sop to his ideals—in fact, this document on “Fundamental Rights and Economic and Social Changes” asserted principles enshrined now in our Constitution. Nehru was not enough of a politician, Edwardes complains, perhaps oblivious that it was precisely this quality that made him special to millions of people.

To Edwardes, Nehru was an accident of history—the wrong man at the right place—rather than someone who earned his stripes. The author arrived at this conclusion and produced over 300 pages detailing it, without access to even one of Nehru’s vast collection of private and official papers. Nehru himself might merely have laughed at the provocation. After all, in 1937, he wrote an anonymous article criticizing himself to encourage his people to hold their leaders accountable. Questions, he knew, must be asked of all tall leaders, but perhaps out of personal affection, or on account of a thin skin, Nehru’s daughter does not seem to have agreed with this principle. So, she banned what was a poorly argued book, denying it its natural demise, and granting it a place of honour among those who resented Nehru then and fear his memory even today.

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