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The Prophet and the Statesman

Venu Madhav Govindu

Edited by Uma Iyengar and Lalitha Zackariah
Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2011, pp.558, 1250.00


The Indian freedom movement is remarkable for its broad coalition of a variety of political opinion. Emble-matic of this nexus is the extraordinary equation forged between Mahatma Gandhi and a man twenty years younger, Jawaharlal Nehru. Often epigrammatically invoked, the complexity of their relationship is best cap-tured in a recollection penned by Gandhi's secretary, Mahadev Desai. In 1936, when Desai set out to translate Nehru's Autobio-graphy into Gujarati he was assailed on two counts. If some were alarmed at the prospect of Gandhi's confidant helping spread anti-Gandhian propaganda, there were others who were equally worried that Desai would dilute Nehru's socialist challenge to Gandhi. Desai rightly ignored his critics and thereby pointed to a deeper truth. Vexed as it was, the Gandhi-Nehru relationship was also a deep and abiding human bond that transcended their differences. The volume under review consists of the available correspondence between Gandhi and Nehru, from 1921 to 1948. The chrono-logically arranged correspondence covers many fundamental issues and historical events that are well known. But the letters also provide an intimate glimpse into the minds of two men at the heart of a most tumultuous period and the personal quests that impelled them into the pages of history. Although they agreed on the need for India's freedom, Gandhi and Nehru differed on its content and character. These disputes were largely centered on political means and economic choices. Of their two major con-frontations, the first occurred in 1928 when Gandhi characterized Congress resolutions on Independence as irresponsible. Nehru's reply bristling with hurt and anger and his counter-charges were equally painful to Gandhi. Observing that their differences were 'so vast and radical that there seems to be no meeting-ground between us', Gandhi proposed to publish Nehru's critical views in Young India. Driven by personal loyalty and recognizing the Mahatma's political supremacy, Nehru baulked at the prospect of a public confrontation but the hurt remained. This episode serves to illustrate a fundamental difference in political method that would often reappear in later years. While Nehru felt justified in pushing the Congress to take radical positions, Gandhi was opposed to lofty declarations without the capacity for real action. Torn between a sense of duty as a loyal Congressman and his per-sonal political ideals, for Nehru this was a period of deep unease. A square peg in a round hole, as he saw himself, Nehru's letters paint a mood of despondency and disillusion-ment. Gandhi's masterstroke of ...

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