The Last Englishman to Rule India

Ashis Nandy

  • Nehru: A Tryst with Destiny by Stanley Wolpert
    Oxford, 546 pp, £25.00, January 1997, ISBN 0 19 510073 5

Is there something in modern South Asia’s intellectual culture that prompts scholars to separate the private from the public lives of their subjects and deploy the public as a defence against the private? What are the anxieties that afflict middle-class intellectuals whenever someone delves into the personality of a national hero? Are they afraid that their own inner lives and the ambivalences they live with might be exposed? Do the carefully crafted public selves they erect for their heroes hide deeper feelings of betrayal by those same heroes?

Gandhi’s ruthlessly confessional autobiography has always been a bit of an embarrassment to India’s Westernised middle classes, the last remnants anywhere of the Edwardian English gentry. It is usually seen as an exception, however. Everybody suspects that Gandhi’s eccentric anti-modernism had something to do with his refusal to maintain separate private and public ledgers. In his autobiography a medieval Christian preoccupation with sin and atonement sits uncomfortably with a Hindu preoccupation with purity and impurity.

I raise these questions not in order to answer them, but to put in context the responses to Nehru, a book which many Indians have found obscene and untruthful. Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964), India’s first prime minister, is a living presence in the politics of contemporary South Asia. Freedom fighter, maker of modern India and Third World leader, he represents for many an entire phase in the Southern world’s search for freedom, justice and equity. The memory has faded in recent years, but this extraordinary figure still remains a potent test of conformity and dissent. In that sense, to assess Nehru is to take a political position. Some remember him as a nationalist, negotiating the principles of modern statecraft in a resolutely traditional society and suffering the hangover with fortitude. To them, he was one of the finest products of the cultural exchange between East and West, absent-mindedly brought about by British colonialism. To others, he was primarily a public intellectual, respectful of tradition, but not rooted in it. They see him not only as reflecting the culture of the Gandhian freedom movement but also as the final judge of what modern India was to retain of its colonial heritage.

For others he was an indecisive romantic, out of touch with the realities of the world and even more with village India. They see him as Gandhi’s lotus-eating disciple who, while paying lip-service to the guru, systematically subverted his vision. They blame the Mahatma for foisting him on the country, and accuse Nehru of being a soft leader of a soft state, who deployed Gandhi’s quixotic, toothless, quasi-anarchist politics as a substitute for realism in international affairs, with devastating results. Some even accuse him of being a lackey of Western capitalism, mouthing socialist slogans to disarm his progressive critics and of being so anxious to build India in Europe’s image that even his anti-Americanism looks phoney, a pose struck to impress the English aristocracy, from whom it was borrowed in the first place.

How does the present generation of Indians read Nehru and his record, now that socialist doctrines are a shambles, the internationalism of the prewar years looks dated and the anti-imperialist slogan has lost its resonance? What meaning does he have for Indian intellectuals, reportedly more confident now of their culture and less starry-eyed about the centrality of Europe in the world? To them, Nehru the leader of the freedom struggle and the country’s first prime minister matters less than Nehru the man, trying to reconcile a whole series of contradictions he shared with many of the first generation of post-colonial leaders in Asia and Africa: between the experience of participation in a mass movement and of running a state, between persistent cultural traditions and the demands of modern statecraft, between ideology and realpolitik, between past and present, between East and West. In this sense, Nehru’s personality offers a synoptic history of the inner tensions felt by significant parts of Indian society. The equivocal political culture he built around these oppositions was once a national consensus, but in the last two decades it has become controversial and divisive and this has set the tone for Indian reactions to Wolpert’s book.

Nehru brought to the freedom movement a touch of 19th-century European radicalism – notably Fabianism – and the social-democratic theories of the interwar years. Though sometimes accused of being a closet Marxist, he was nothing of the kind. His Marxism was filtered through the British university system and Bloomsbury. The genteel socialism he espoused was partial to Marx’s romantic universalism and soft on Lenin’s vivisectionist Soviet laboratory. Though the British socialists were a fractious lot, they derived their ideology from various editions of social evolutionism and claimed to be the dissenting children of the Enlightenment. Their thinking would shape the future of almost all post-colonial societies, which had to work with 17th-century European ideas of the nation state, nationalism, a secular public sphere, development and democratic politics, even though most of these ideas made no sense at the grassroots. Neither Fabianism nor the other schools of democratic socialism condoned the ruthless social engineering associated with Leninism – and they certainly took a stand against Fascism – but they all endorsed forms of social intervention that could be hitched onto scientistic concepts of history, modernisation and development.

Democracy – in the limited sense of institutional and cultural tolerance of dissent and diversity – had clear antecedents in Indian tradition, but there was little cultural support, save among the urban, semi-Westernised élite, for the other ideas derived from the European Enlightenment. As a result, the modern ideology of the state quickly divided the political class into insider and outsiders. South Asia had its own political and communal traditions as well as its distinctive ideas of how to relate the sacred to the profane; and, as it happened, the British-Indian state had tried to maintain links with them, not only during the first eight decades, when it did so openly, but also afterwards, less openly and perhaps less self-consciously. Since 1947, the Indian state, hungry for big power status, has adhered more aggressively to the Euro-American, global, apparently perennial model of statecraft.

Nehru’s part in this was crucial. He belonged to that section of the freedom movement which was convinced that the main crime of the British Empire was its failure to share with its subjects the vision of the Enlightenment, and its tendency to peddle a distorted version of that vision in the colonies. On this view, the challenge facing the former colony was to equal its erstwhile masters by fostering true Enlightenment values in the public life of the hot, dusty plains of India. It had picked up key concepts of political order and governance from Anglo-Saxon academic texts, concepts reasonably uncontaminated by their implementation in European and North American politics. Transferred in their pristine form, they would have probably suffered a natural decline but for Nehru’s genius. He rammed them down the throats of state and regional leaders, reconciling national élite and local leadership and making single-minded use of the national media. Under his leadership, the Indian state gave these ideas a longevity to which, culturally, they were not entitled.

Both nostalgic admirers and hostile biographers admit that, without Nehru, these ideas would have seemed less deeply embedded in Indian public life. What they do not admit is that this success was built on Nehru’s internal contradictions. However European they may look to many, his cultural roots, family life and early conditioning, even the charming ambivalence and uncertainties of his political style, were all identifiably Indian and Brahminic. He might have seemed terribly modern or cosmopolitan to his admirers in the middle classes, but to the rest of India he was never an alien presence. His cultural distance from the majority of Indians, who faithfully voted him back into power in election after election, was not a political liability, but rather the source of his charisma, appropriate to his stature as a Brahminic philosopher-king. By the time he died, this charisma was associated with the ideas that he propagated. To a sizeable section of the urban, high-caste middle classes, they seemed perfectly compatible with Indian traditions.

It was only the series of crises during Nehru’s last years and after his death – starting with the débâcle of the India-China border war, then in the mid-Seventies the Emergency and the suspension of civil rights by his daughter, and the unnerving separatist movements in Punjab and Kashmir in the late Eighties – that again raised fundamental questions about the ideology of the state which was popularised by Nehru.

By now the political culture was changing. Democratic politics was bringing to the centre of public life people and communities that had previously been on the margins. These new entrants were introducing a different set of concerns and aspirations. True, Nehruvian ideology had strengthened the roots of Indian democracy – no mean achievement when, in the name of resisting the Soviet Union, democratic regimes were everywhere being snuffed out by the world’s most powerful democracy. However, this success itself had to lead to a new phase. Nehru’s ideology could achieve hegemony only as long as political participation and mobilisation had no ‘unmanageable’ elements and remained confined to those to whom it appeared natural and universal.

This is another way of saying that Nehru the man was more Indian than Nehru the political ideologue. His mentor Gandhi was shrewd enough to recognise that Gandhian politics had a better chance of survival in the interstices of Indian society under Nehru than under a more determined state-builder. Gandhi suspected that, like many true, Westernised Brahmins, Nehru was a fragmented, uncertain person who often had his second thoughts first. A common question in India has long been why Gandhi chose Nehru as his heir over other contestants, notably Vallabhbhai Patel. Patel was a tough, practical, state-centered politician, apparently less cosmopolitan and more native in style, an Indian Bismarck. I have always found the question inane. Why would Gandhi, of all people, choose as his political heir a Bismarck, however native in style, when Nehru, by keeping his options open, would give a more pluralist direction to India’s quest for a humane society? Nehru’s self-doubts, his contradictions and his muddle-headed style of government ensured that openness. In his refusal, or inability, to reduce every policy to a matter of binary choice, he was much more Indian than Patel. However, the question haunts India’s political culture even today, for the answer defines where one stands ideologically. If one answers with an embarrassed silence, one is of course a Gandhian; if one says Gandhi made a mistake, he should have opted for Patel, one is either a political realist or a Hindu nationalist.

Gandhi may have given Gandhism a breathing space in Indian politics. But once Nehru died, the shortcomings of progressivism, especially its inability to touch the hearts of a large proportion of the Indians now entering politics, became obvious. The small élite that swore by it became isolated, in part by opting for the ‘real stuff’ – the hard-nosed modern statecraft that his daughter Indira Gandhi insisted on as the mark of a ‘mature’ country. For the rest of the population, concepts of governance were needed that were more deeply rooted in cultural realities, above all in a concept of citizenship that would seem less alien and thus offer less scope for unnecessary ruthlessness, hyper-competitiveness and amorality.

All this ensured a gradual erosion of Nehru’s stature and Gandhi’s phoenix-like re-emergence. The young and politically active – exploring new possibilities in areas such as the environment, gender, anti-militarism, human rights and alternative science and technology – all drew their inspiration from Gandhi, not from Nehru, except perhaps in matters involving human rights, where Nehru’s influence was sometimes vaguely acknowledged. Even the peace movement, identified the world over with Nehru’s advocacy of denuclearisation, tried to hitch itself to the neo-Gandhian movement. The strangest case has been that of the movements which arose to combat growing ethnic, religious and sectarian divisions. For them, Nehru remained the elegant symbol of formal or official secularism, but there had been a clear shift of emphasis. Everyone, even the ungrateful leftists for whom Nehru had done so much by way of state patronage, now turned to Gandhi for ideas that would make sense to ordinary Indians. And Gandhi, as we all know, believed that those who felt religion had nothing to do with politics understood neither. Though he talked of secularism once in a while, his own version had little to do with the passionate and religious style popularised, via Nehru, of European traditions of radicalism and anti-clericalism. Today, in the wake of the demolition of the Babri Masjid, a large number of intellectuals and non-government organisations have issued strident defences of secularism, but a secularism which, to be more acceptable, is gradually changing colour, to resemble, a little late in the day, the Gandhian concept of ecumenism.

In this new political culture a new, mythic Nehru is crystallising, with another set of cultivated ambiguities and obfuscations being superimposed on the always changing memory of his rule. Since the entry of his daughter and two grandsons into politics – all of whom were to become unacceptable, for good reasons or bad, to a large section of the élite, particularly the intelligentsia – he has gradually turned into the symbol of a lost utopia. In this shift, the state and its propaganda machine have played a crucial role, for the raison d’être of this Nehru is basically to soften criticism of the dynasty he founded. For many Indians today, Nehru embodies a ‘successful’ synthesis of the traditions of the freedom movement, the search for dignity and stature in the international world, faith in India’s future as a standard urban-industrial power, and the Brahminic preference for social theories and ideologies uncontaminated by the inferior consciousness and imperfect rationality of their prospective beneficiaries. It is to Nehru that India’s Westernised, Brahminic middle classes look back as a symbol of independent India’s innocent dreams of equalling or beating the colonial West at its own game. Nehru now represents a painless process of industrialisation, urbanisation and development, made all the more attractive by a touch of cultivated anguish at the passing of an ancient culture. The belief that he bedded the aristocratic English wife of an aristocratic English Viceroy, the ultimate symbol of British paramountcy in India, works in his favour, tingeing even his sexuality with nationalist aspirations.

Biographical studies of Nehru are plentiful. Most, however, are slanted. Almost no biographer or historian has, up until now, made an honest, systematic attempt to write on Nehru as a living, thinking, feeling individual. No scholarly biography, for instance, has grappled with his often troubled relationships with his parents, wife, sisters, daughter, son-in-law or, for that matter, his friends and colleagues. There are occasionally a few pages on these issues, but they are almost invariably shallow or casual. I remember Nirad C. Chaudhuri once complaining in a review of Sarvepalli Gopal’s three-volume biography that Nehru’s childhood and early years had been dismissed in fewer than ten pages. Gopal was not amused.

Yet, Nehru’s autobiography is one of the finest by a contemporary Indian – an account of someone to whom public life was not everything. The candour and insight with which he looks at himself, at his turbulent relationship with his father and, less directly, at his failed marriage, should put to shame some of the biographers, heirs, party hacks and family retainers who stand guard like so many petty clerks of the Government of India, ever ready to protect his memory by censoring it. By today’s standard, the autobiography may not be a great psychological document, but it remains, sadly, the best clue we have to Nehru’s personality, for, unlike his admirers, he didn’t see himself through rose-tinted glasses. He even once self-mockingly claimed that he was the last Englishman to rule India.

Nehru deserves at least one biography capable of balancing the public and the private selves, and Stanley Wolpert must be congratulated for making an effort to produce it. His book is primarily an attempt to read Nehru as a person, with Indian and world politics setting the context. It is a detailed account of his emergence as a public figure through his childhood, adolescence and young adulthood and of the way he organised his personal experiences to forge a public identity. Future generations of Indians will be grateful to Wolpert for this, although it is also the source of much of the hostility his book has attracted in India. Unlike ordinary Indians, the middle classes are unwilling to acknowledge that, at the end of the 20th century, writing about a person involves looking into his or her private passions. As a result, even ultranationalist journalists and politicians – who hate the Nehruvian worldview and what they consider to be his sentimental, woolly ideas – have attacked Wolpert’s book for being slanderous and smutty.

It is neither of these. If anything, it reveals the author’s identification with his subject and his fondness for the one Indian politician whose complex personal life matched and, perhaps, shaped the complexity of his attitudes to nationalism, the West, post-colonial India and the new breed of politicians coming out of the wood-work. There are also clues to some of the formative influences on Nehru’s intellectual life, his marriage and its destruction, his sexuality, and his attitude to his only child.

The book is not influenced by psychoanalysis though, given the hints Wolpert throws out about Nehru’s possible homoerotic involvement, some may suspect otherwise. On the early years, it is a straightforward chronological narrative, mostly unencumbered by analytic insights. It lingers largely on the available documents and letters, from which it quotes profusely. This gives it a certain authenticity, but also accounts for its bulk. The Indian establishment, needless to say, did not give Wolpert full access to Nehru’s correspondence, so he had to depend heavily on less than reliable memoirs and anecdotes – on M.O. Mathai, for instance – and on available private archives, of the kind Janet Morgan used in her biography of Edwina Mountbatten. The critics who accused Wolpert of bias could have fruitfully spent part of their energy demanding that those standing guard over Nehru’s papers, for less than honest reasons, release them for use by scholars. Wolpert has laid all the cards available to him on the table; the least his critics could do is to supply either new data or alternative interpretations of the existing material.

I have read Wolpert on and off for many years, starting with his insipid novel, Nine Hours to Rama, and ending with his biographies of Bal Gangadhar Tidak and Gopal Krishna Gokhale, two freedom fighters and social reformers, and of Jinnah, the classic liberal who paradoxically fathered the religious-nationalist state of Pakistan. I didn’t expect the world from this book because I knew Wolpert’s limitations as an intellectual and as a researcher. I knew that he was no Erik Erikson. The present biography is rewarding, but I would have enjoyed it more if it had been shorter with briefer quotes, and if Wolpert had set himself more modest goals, commensurate with his talents. Then those of us who have to live with Nehru’s heritage, and the political culture he so crucially shaped, might have understood ourselves a little better.