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Politics as Public Service

Harsh Sethi

By Shashi Tharoor
Penguin/Viking, New Delhi,, 2003, pp. 261, Rs. 295.00

By Claude Markovits
Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2003, pp. 173, Rs. 495.00


For a young country with well over half its population under twenty-five, ‘selling’ icons of a bye-gone era is a difficult task. Not many in India even have memories of the Emergency. What they have experienced is a globalizing India, a country revelling in its status as a nuclear power, forex reserves that have crossed a hundred billion dollars, shopping malls and consumer choice and an advertising space dominated by a ‘Shining India’ campaign – a people impatient with being reminded of the ‘glories’ of the freedom struggle. If both Gandhi and Nehru have survived the tendency of transience, it is because both were polysemic figures, available for multiple interpretations, such that they and their many legacies continue to enjoy resonance.      Only in part is this due to officially inspired hagiographies or the fact that the Congress has ruled us and dominated imagination for most of our history as an independent Republic. If even the BJP, for long a critic of both, is forced to acknowledge their role in making us what we are, this despite valiant attempts to rewrite history, it is evident that both Nehru and Gandhi have survived the visicitudes of time and need to be engaged with by every succeeding generation. Much as HRD Minister Murli Manohar Joshi might desire, and try, sidelining these two stalwarts is unlikely to be easy.      Nevertheless, offering fresh interpretations of individuals, subject of countless interpretations, remains a daunting task. Further, both Nehru and Gandhi were prodiguous chroniclers, not just about the world around them, events and personalities but themselves. So is there really something new to be said?      In a manner of speaking Shashi Tharoor has set an easier task for himself. He lays no claims to scholarship and readily admits that the book is based on no new research into previously undiscovered archives. Instead, ‘it is a re-interpretation – both of an extraordinary life and career and of the inheritance it left behind for every Indian’. Whether or not one agrees with his assessment of Nehru as the ‘inventor’ of India as we know and experience it, what cannot be doubted is the passion (and admiration) with which he approaches his subject.      There is also the skill of the novelist’s pen which makes this brief biographical assessment an easy read, though this reader must confess some unease with its fairy tale character – how a pampered, only son of a rich ...

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