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.

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