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How Not to Be a Nehruvian

Benjamin Zachariah

Edited by Nayantara Sahgal
Speaking Tiger Publications, New Delhi, 2015, pp. 192, Rs. 399.00

VOLUME XL NUMBER 2 February 2016

Since the emergence to power of the Sangh Parivar and the dominance in Indian politics of a narrow-minded majoritarianism, there has been an understandable tendency towards nostalgia for the so-called ‘Nehruvian’ period. This is a tendency in which this reviewer has also participated: in publication projects that have more or less been based on backward glances to what seems in retrospect a ‘golden age’ of the Indian state. But the nostalgia for a more tolerant and less exclusionary (in terms of income, class, caste, gender) India can go too far in invoking the ‘Nehruvian’ as such a golden age. For one thing, the social transformation projects of the ‘Nehruvian’ period were more or less unsuccessful. For another, ‘Nehruvian’ attributes too much agency to a single individual, and is therefore too personalized a description; the adjective ‘Nehruvian’ referring to a period of time in the history of the Independent Indian state, has far less to do with Jawaharlal Nehru personally than its derivation implies. The volume under review, edited by Jawaharlal Nehru’s niece, Nayantara Sahgal, brings together a number of essays on Nehru’s India: The Making of a Nation. The habitual confusion of state (‘the legitimate monopoly of violence’ according to Max Weber, and an organ of class rule according to Marxists) with nation (the abstraction of popular sovereignty that legitimates the state) is peculiar to Indian academia, so it seems unfair to quibble that this collection, which is many miles from being academic, should make the distinction. It is difficult to find a rationale or a structure for this book: after an introduction which claims to place Nehru’s India ‘in context’ (Sahgal), there are chapters on interpreting Nehru in the 21st century (Mani Shankar Iyer), mostly a set of platitudes such as ‘The Four Pillars of Nehruvian thought’ (Democracy, Secularism, Socialism and Non-Alignment, should you have failed to guess, leaving you wondering why we hadn’t already guessed this in the 20th century); on ‘The Platonic Republican’ which hinges on the question ‘What if Nehru had been assassinated?’ (Kumar Ketkar); and a strange twopage article entitled ‘If Nehru Did Not Exist’ by Inder Malhotra. Would that this book did not exist: for this is followed by Aditya and Mridula Mukherjee’s ‘The Indian Economy in the Nehru Era’, a rather embarrassing article, and the possibly more awkward and embarrassing ‘A Tryst with Nehru’ by Shiv Visvanathan, and ...

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