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Revisiting Jawaharlal Nehru

Harsh Sethi

By Judith M. Brown
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2003, pp. 407, Rs. 695.00


As the fifth generation of the Nehru-Gandhis prepares to test his (and the family’s) popularity in the marketplace of the great Indian elections, attention will turn, once again, to the legacy of the dynasty and, more specifically, its most famous representative, Jawaharlal Nehru. It would be unfortunate, however, if that becomes the primary reason for revisiting Nehru, and not his undoubtedly rich and interesting life and the multitude of ways in which he shaped, and continues to shape, the imagination of the Indian Republic.       It is unusual in a large and ancient country such as ours to so foreground a few personalities. Yet, no matter how discomfiting the notion, in particular for substantial sections of our current ruling elite, it is difficult to escape the legacy of Nehru. Not only was he our first Prime Minister, winning three successive general elections, he set the terms in which we, the midnight generation, began to recognize ourselves as Indians.      There is no shortage of biographies on Nehru—from the authoritative three volume opus by S. Gopal to the more recent popular tract by Shashi Tharoor. Most, unsurprisingly, have not only been positive but stress the centrality of his role both as a Congress and national leader in the anti-colonial struggle for freedom and as a builder of a modern, secular Republic. And even though more recent assessments have been critical of his economic policies – the vastly enhanced role for the public sector, a distrust of the market and entrepreneurial classes, an over-reliance on import substitution and so on – or some of his political assessments (Kashmir, China) – even his trenchant critics admit to his leadership and visionary role as an intellectual and pedagogue, in particular his insistence on forging a plural and inclusionary society and in setting up institutions of higher learning, science and technology. Today, as both these legacies seem under strain, the need to revisit and assess afresh the impetus behind the choices exercised cannot be more urgent.      Judith Brown, who had earlier given us an excellent interpretation of Gandhi, is more than well-equipped to write on Nehru, the officially annointed successor of the Mahatma. Fortunately Nehru left behind a huge collection of papers, both pre-and post 1947, the latter made available to the author by the family. If, however, the reader is looking for nuggets of salacious gossip—Nehru’s relationships with the many women who played a crucial role ...

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