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Re-Engaging with Nehru

Sunil Khilnani

Books discussed   Nehru: A Political Life by Judith M. Brown Yale University Press, 2003   Nehru: The Invention of India by Shashi Tharoor Penguin India, 2003   Nehru by Benjamin Zachariah Routledge, 2004   The Essential Writings of Jawaharlal Nehru edited by S. Gopal and Uma Iyengar, 2 Vols., Oxford University Press, 2003   This May it will be forty-one years since Jawaharlal Nehru died. Sunil Khilnani engages in a sober relook at Nehru in a closely argued review article focusing on recent biographies by Judhith Brown, Shashi Tharoor and Benjamin Zacharia and the Essential Writings of Jawaharlal Nehru which highlights the contribution and legacy of this charismatic leader.   No Indian in recent times has held as much state power as Nehru did, nor left so deep a genetic imprint on India’s public life. The entire drama of independent India’s politics has been enacted through the career of Nehru and his progeny. But it is not just the narrative of Indian history since 1947 that makes Nehru central: no single person more boldly expressed the founding idea of India, or worked harder to give it practical, institutional shape. Inevitably, his life has become invested—perhaps over-invested—with virtually every political hope and fear that Indians have held over the past six decades.   Modern politicians rarely have been interested in scrutinizing the uses of power from moral and intellectual perspectives, while intellectuals have withdrawn into abstract and often microscopically focused moral argumentation. Nehru did not choose either of these alternatives, but lived permanently in a field of tension between them. With Gandhi, he was a powerful moral critic of power unjustly wielded. But unlike Gandhi, Nehru himself acquired power, and was forced to confront the dilemmas of its exercise. There was a mobile quality to his ideological positions, if not his political principles. He was intellectually impressionable, invariably tried to make incompatible ideas cohere, and argued on the fly. Though he lived in an age of implacable ideological certainties, he desired to eke out a space between these.   The problem with which Nehru struggled across his entire career remains as real in our times as it was in his: how to re-arrange the massive asymmetry of power between, to use shorthand, the West and the non-western world—the more and the less powerful? Nehru’s chosen mode of response, extraordinary in his own times, is still more striking in ours. His challenge to the West, whether British imperialism or ...

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