Nehru: A Political Life
By Judith M. Brown
(Yale University Press, 407 pp., $35)
Nehru: The Invention of India
By Shashi Tharoor
(Arcade, 282 pp., $24.95)
Early in 2003, the website Samachar.com, which digests Indian newspapers for foreign Indiaphiles, conducted a poll that asked, "Which Prime Minister has contributed most to India's development?" When I checked the numbers in February, incumbent prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was holding a huge lead with 596 votes, three times the number of his nearest rival. As for Jawaharlal Nehru, the chief architect of India's political system and its transition from colony to independent democracy, and the author of the speech about India's "tryst with destiny," which is as well known in India as Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is in the United States, a speech that similarly defines a nation in terms of the capacity for sacrifice and service--Nehru came in third, with a mere seventy-five votes. To judge from the expatriate community at least, Nehru's ideas had been roundly repudiated--though it was hard to say whether voters were applauding Vajpayee's record on foreign investment or his preference for a Hindu state. Coming less than a year after the mass killings of innocent Muslims in Gujarat, virtually condoned by Vajpayee and surely not protested, the vote did not express a robust commitment to minority civil rights.
Three months later, the voters of India expressed themselves very differently. They returned Nehru's Congress Party to power and roundly defeated Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party, the party of Hindu nationalism. Sonia Gandhi, the widow of Nehru's grandson Rajiv Gandhi, declined the prime ministership in order to prevent the political process from being hijacked by the controversy over her foreign birth, but she still runs the party, and she has repeatedly stated that the electoral victory is a triumph for two central aspects of Nehru's vision of thestate: the idea of equal respect for citizens of all religions, and the idea of a basic commitment to eradicating desperate conditions for thepoor. It is clear that the votes for Nehru's legacy came in large numbers from poor rural areas, where voters, many of them illiterate (literacy rates are not much above 50 percent in the nation as a whole), vote with great commitment, overcoming many obstacles to get to the polls.Voter turnout in general elections in India is almost twice what it normally is in the United States; and this, too, is Nehru's legacy.
The biography of this extraordinary and controversial man is thus of more than historical interest. But what a difficult task it is to write his biography! Nehru lived for seventy-four years, from 1889 to 1964, and his life spanned the tumultuous period of resistance against British rule, the founding of the new nation, and the first fifteen years of its existence. In all these events he played a leading role, interacting with figures of his time who were as complex and historically significant as himself (notably Mahatma Gandhi, the Muslim leader Mohammed Ali Jinnah, and his own daughter Indira Gandhi, who succeeded him in power). The biography of Nehru must be at the same time a history ofthe nation and its leaders. And American readers know little about India's history, so a good biography of Nehru for the American public must be also a powerful narrative of largely unfamiliar historical events.
The difficulty of writing about Nehru is compounded by the fact that he himself was astoundingly prolific, which is not completely surprising, given that he spent more or less twenty years of his adult life in various British-run prisons, where reading and writing was virtually all there was to do. In particular, he is the author of a huge autobiography, first published in 1936, and thus including only the early portions of his political life, and of the monumental The Discovery of India (1945), with its sweeping coverage of Indian history, culture, and religion and its detailed commentary on British rule and the resistance to it. He also wrote thousands of letters, ranging from intimate love letters to paternal advice, political debate, and analysis of every kind. Even to read all that he wrote is a challenge to the biographer; but how to integrate it into a narrative unity?
And then there is the fact that Nehru is one of the supreme prose stylists of the English language in the twentieth century. What biographer's sentences would not look pedestrian by comparison to the serene yet deep emotion expressed in Nehru's will, as he asks that his ashes be thrown into the river Ganges:
Smiling and dancing in the morning sunlight, and dark and gloomy and full of mystery as the evening shadows fall, a narrow, slow and graceful stream in winter and a vast, roaring thing during the monsoon, broad-bosomed almost as the sea, and with something of the sea’s power to destroy, the Ganga has been to me a symbol and a memory of the past of India, running into the present, and flowing on to the great ocean of the future.
Or flat by comparison to the wit of the man who wrote of prison life, "This close association in a barrack has most of the disadvantages of married life with none of its advantages." Or humdrum by comparison to the political rhetoric of the end of the "tryst with destiny" speech:
And so we have to labour and to work, and to work hard, to give reality to our dreams. Those dreams are for India, but they are also for the world, for all the nations and peoples are too closely knit together today for any one of them to imagine that it can live apart. Peace is said to be indivisible, so is freedom, so is prosperity now, and also is disaster in this one world that can no longer be split into isolated fragments.
Even the apparent awkwardness of "and also is disaster" works: the sentence, which begins like a trumpet call, modulates to a darker, more mysterious sound.
Nor was Nehru a simple man psychologically, as you can begin to see from these scattered fragments. He was painfully self-scrutinizing, yet with an ungovernable temper; a famously urbane and delightful guest, yet rightly described by Gandhi as one of the loneliest men in India; unreservedly given to the service of others, yet aware of a powerful egotism in himself; hungry for love and connection, but aware that "I had been, and was, a most unsatisfactory person to marry." The writer who would convey this personality to the public must be possessed both of human insight and a powerful narrative gift. And he or she would have to be able to add something to the already extensive self-analysis of Nehru himself, who criticized his own hunger for power in an anonymous article published in the Modern Review in 1937 that called Nehru a modern Caesar who has "all the makings of a dictator in him," and who wrote so pointedly of his own strange mixture of emotion and detachment: "I have loved life and it attracts me still and, in my own way, I seek to experience it, though many invisible barriers have grown up which surround me; but that very desire leads me to play with life, to peep over its edges, not to be a slave to it, so that we may value each other all the more." (And did he, noticing so much, see the egotism in that conclusion, which sets him on a par with life itself?)
Not surprisingly, even the most gifted writers of his own era hardly knew what to say of, or to, him. Consider this peculiar public tribute fromthe poet Sarojini Naidu, the first female president of the Congress, on the occasion of Nehru's fiftieth birthday: "I do not think that personal happiness, comfort, leisure, wealth ... can have much place in your life.... Sorrow, suffering, anguish, strife, yes, these are thepredestined gifts of life for you.... You are a man of destiny born to be alone in the midst of crowds--deeply loved, but little understood." Well, thank you very much. Naidu's statements are undoubtedly true in a way, but the biographer had better be able to do at least somewhat better than that.
It is clearly not impossible to write a biography of a complicated member of the Nehru family that meets all these challenges. Katherine Frank's biography of Indira Gandhi, which appeared in 2001, is an impressive success, weaving together acute psychological insight with a clear and compelling narrative of political events. Frank's emphasis is perhaps more on the personal and psychological than on the political, but there is a firm grasp of issues and policies, and political choices are illuminated from within, as Frank paints a telling portrait of a sickly child who took decades to realize her own strength, a woman who was treated as her father's son and called herself his "Indu-boy," and yet at the same time was treated by most of the dominant males around her as a weak woman and an outsider. Frank insightfully explains Indira's rigidity, her distrust of democratic deliberation and consultation, and her baneful tendency to rely on less than reliable members of her own family (especially her repellent younger son Sanjay) as growing out of her isolation in the male-dominated world of political conversation, and also out of her odd relationship to a father who wrote to her with enormous intimacy from jail but could rarely establishthe same connection in person. Frank's book is hard to put down; it is highly accessible to people with little prior knowledge of India. And yet the more knowledgeable reader also comes away from it with a sense that new perspectives have been opened up. Indira is in one way an easier subject than Jawaharlal, because she did not write so much, or so well; but her father, too, emerges as a complex and compelling character in Frank's pages.
Unhappily, neither of these new biographies of Nehru offers nearly as much insight, psychological or political. Both have their virtues, and both are profoundly defective in different ways. Shashi Tharoor's book is a superficial popular life with no new research, not much analysis, and little psychological understanding. Tharoor addresses his book to the general reader who wants a rapid introduction. And so his biography is written with a glibness that belies the soul of its subject. Read it and you will get a vivid account of the main historical events and a general introduction to the life. You will also get an extremely superficial attack on Nehru's economic policies (Tharoor even gets facts wrong, attributing the start of economic reform to Narasimha Rao rather than Rajiv Gandhi), and a more substantial defense of Nehruvian religious pluralism, but simplistic still, in that it makes Jinnah the sole villain in the partitioning of India and Pakistan, not mentioning therise of the Hindu right, and slighting the role of the British in fostering Muslim separatism. (Nehru never made that mistake: whenever he criticized Jinnah's religious communalism, he always mentioned the Hindu Mahasabha in the same sentence.) This is not a bad book for theAmerican who knows little about India, but soon, if you are drawn in, you will need to turn to the man himself.
Judith Brown's scholarly tome is unsatisfactory for very different reasons. Unlike Tharoor's book, it contains lots of new material, including letters in the possession of Sonia Gandhi that were not available to other biographers. It also contains at least some political and economic analysis. The later, thematically organized chapters are reasonably good, though nothing useful is said about links to contemporary events.Brown's treatment of Nehru's economic policies is nuanced and reasonable. She is good on Nehru's commitment to women's equality, and onthe obstacles that he faced. (Tharoor is superficial here, getting crucial facts and even names wrong.) Her treatment of religious issues is far more complex than Tharoor's, though marred by an equal failure to discuss the rise of the Hindu right.
Brown's treatment of the Nehru-Gandhi relationship is particularly good, although she does not learn from this relationship that the question of what is "Western" and what is "Indian" in both men is a highly complex matter. Brown consistently treats reason and science as "Western" imports, and religion as a peculiarly "Eastern" preoccupation. Never mind that Gandhi tells us in his autobiography that two of the primary influences on his own religious thought were Ruskin and Tolstoy. Never mind that Nehru rightly emphasizes the richness and theprominence of the rationalist traditions in Indian religion and philosophy. Never mind that Nehru argues cogently that the British deliberately fostered the irrationalist strands in Hindu culture and religion and inhibited the rationalist, in order more securely to dominate a people who could not industrialize on their own without scientific development.
So Brown is not an entirely reliable guide on many matters, and one sometimes wonders what her relation to India actually is. Her simple concept of the "Western" would hardly survive an encounter with the Indian women's movement, for example, where women who cannot read and write, who have no televisions and no contact with "the West," are fighting hard for the very rights that the Nehru family is called "Western" for defending. Even on geography, Brown is hazy. She says, for example, that big cities in India look just like cities in "other modern countries": "Only in rural areas does it become apparent that the new and cosmopolitan is juxtaposed with far older economic and cultural patterns...." This sentence makes me suspect that Brown has not ventured far outside the more prosperous parts of Delhi and Mumbai; she could not have written it had she spent much time in Patna or Ahmedabad or Trivandrum.
But the cardinal flaw in Brown's book is her complete lack of any narrative gift. The early sections of the book are virtually unreadable, a mass of details thrown in with little organization but the chronological. One feels that Brown is simply overwhelmed by the material.Sometimes she puts a piece of information in a wrong and misleading place--as when she mentions Rammohun Roy's reforms of Hinduism in Bengal in the middle of a paragraph discussing early twentieth-century reforms, even though Roy lived from 1772 to 1833. (This is important, because getting the chronology straight would establish that crucial reforms--higher education for women, for example--were introduced earlier in India than in Britain, and would thus put paid to the simplistic equation of modern reform with "Westernization.") Sometimes we get a mass of details on minor issues; and then, when a really large issue arises, we may hear virtually nothing about it. Thebrutal massacre of Indian civilians in 1919 at Amritsar, in which the British army under General Dyer opened fire without warning on a peaceful unarmed crowd, is well and accurately described in Tharoor's book. Brown gives a blurry compressed account, with crucial facts totally omitted, including Nehru's role in the investigation and the fact that the crowd was peaceful and unarmed, and that the British fired without warning. A similar contrast can be observed in the two accounts of Mahatma Gandhi's assassination: Tharoor gives us all theinformation we need and tells the story in a simple, moving manner, whereas Brown does not even tell us that the assassin was a Hindu right-wing fanatic who objected to Gandhi's sympathy for Muslims. (She calls him "a young Hindu man.")
Both books have curious omissions. Neither has any discussion of Nehru's law minister, B.R. Ambedkar, an extraordinary man from the group formerly called "untouchables" and now known as "dalits." Thus a chance is missed to confront issues of caste in the founding, on which neither book is of much use. And most unfortunately of all, neither says anything about the third giant of Indian thought and culture, alongside Gandhi and Nehru, namely Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1905, is best known in theWest as a mystical poet, but he was also many other things: novelist, story-writer, composer, choreographer, and, most important, educational reformer with a developed vision of how India could come to grips with issues of religious division through an education emphasizing critical and independent thinking, world understanding, and the arts. To contrast Tagore's vision with Nehru's is crucial if we want to see what went right and what went wrong.
Jawaharlal Nehru was born in 1889, the only son of a prosperous liberal Kashmiri Brahmin family. His father Motilal, a lawyer, was a modernist and a reformer, comfortable with Muslims and mistrustful of all appeals to traditional religion. In Motilal's case it is not inaccurate to speak of Westernizing, since he required his children to study even Sanskrit texts in English translation, and dressed little Jawaharlal in a sailor suit, and encouraged the use of English nicknames for his two younger sisters. (Both became women of substantial achievement; one was the first woman president of the United Nations General Assembly.) At one point in the 1890s he decreed that no language other than English would be spoken in the home, despite the fact that his wife--a sickly woman, and traditionally religious--knew no English.
Jawaharlal was sent off to Harrow, where he was very happy. From Harrow he went on, in 1907, to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied chemistry, geology, and physics, graduating with a mediocre second-class degree. As important as any formal education that he received was his close relationship with his father, who in person and by letter deliberately cultivated Jawaharlal's capacity for argument, particularly on political topics. Resistance to British rule was growing, and Jawaharlal became increasingly radical in his views, ultimately influencing his moderate father to take a strong anti-British position. The Amritsar massacre radicalized many people who had previously been pro-British. (Tagore returned his knighthood.) Returning to India and taking up a career in law, Jawaharlal soon became close to Mahatma Gandhi and a staunch supporter of his non-cooperation movement. His influence within the Congress--the political movement that organizedthe struggle for independence--rapidly increased.
He also married, in 1916, seventeen-year-old Kamala Kaul, betrothed to him by family arrangement when she was only thirteen. Jawaharlal at first objected to an arranged marriage; when he yielded, he insisted that he and his betrothed should be allowed to get to know each other before marrying. Whether as a result or not, the marriage, though sorrowful on account of Kamala's ill health and premature death from tuberculosis in 1936, had great emotional depth. Kamala came to share her husband's passion for the cause of independence, and did valuable work for the cause when her health permitted. The sexual bond between them appears to have been deep, and perhaps increased over time. "Though we had sometimes quarreled and grown angry with each other," he later wrote, "we kept that vital spark alight, and for each one of us life was always unfolding new adventure and giving fresh insight into each other." Her death, in a sanatorium in Switzerland, brought him tremendous grief--all the more since his many years of imprisonment had deprived him so often of her company. Although he had affairs after her death--certainly with Sarojini Naidu's daughter Padmaja, perhaps later with his close friend Edwina, wife of Lord Mountbatten, the last viceroy of India--he never remarried. He once wrote to Kamala from prison, "I am a traveler, limping along in the dark night. Why should I drag others into this darkness, however near or beloved they may be; why should they suffer the travails of thejourney?"
While still a young husband, in the 1920s, Jawaharlal became increasingly known as one of the leading pro-independence radicals of theCongress movement. He was frequently packed off to British jails, where he made a point of occupying himself with exercise, gardening, spinning (Gandhi's influence), and above all reading and writing. "I became obsessed with the thought of India," he records. Meanwhile, Gandhi was effectively mobilizing resistance through civil disobedience, most famously in the "salt march," in which he led a large group of followers on a long march to the sea, where he illegally made salt from seawater by allowing the water to evaporate in his hand, thus defying the British tax on salt. (This episode is described beautifully by Tharoor, badly by Brown.)
Nehru and Gandhi had a complex and troubled relationship. Nehru, ever the pragmatist, saw non-violence as only a tactic, and objected to a politics of unbending moral idealism. He also objected to Gandhi's romantic glorification of pre-industrial society, holding that India's future well-being required scientific, industrial, and technological development. During World War II, he and Gandhi had a very serious quarrel over India's stance toward the Axis powers. Nehru hated fascism from the first. He saw it up close on visits to Europe in the 1930s, where he made a point of purchasing Jewish products. "Amazed and disgusted" by Chamberlain's policy of appeasement, he called it "the difficult and intricate game of how to betray your friend and the cause you are supposed to stand for on the highest moral grounds ... the utter collapse, in the moment of crisis, of all the so-called advanced people and groups." Summoned to a meeting with Mussolini in 1936, while in Italy, he refused, unwilling to let himself be used for fascist propaganda. Gandhi's much more equivocal stance included a willingness to support Japan if doing so would hurt the British; and Nehru found this horrifying. But the two remained deep friends and uneasy allies until Gandhi's assassination in 1948. Gandhi understood that Nehru was a practical politician of moral courage and superb practical perception; Nehru understood that Gandhi had an unparalleled capacity to inspire people for good ends, and he was deeply moved by the man always.
The piggish racism of the British during this period must be confronted to be believed, and Tharoor is ready to assist. He produces such gems as Churchill's remark "I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion," and his comment that Gandhi's visit to London involved the "nauseating" sight of "a seditious Middle Temple Lawyer ... striding half-naked up the steps of the Viceregal palace ... to parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor." Tharoor also reminds us that Gandhi, told that Lord Irwin (then viceroy) always prayed to God before making any major decision, remarked, "What a pity God gives him such bad advice." If the British couldn't have a dependent India, they were determined to have a fragmented one, and both these books tell with sadness the story of how the British fostered the cause of Muslim separatism, initially against the wishes of the vast majority of Muslims, until sentiment became polarized and the two-nation "solution," with its vast bloodshed, was the result.
After Independence on August 15, 1947, the story continues for seventeen more years, as Nehru worked tirelessly to build democratic institutions and to forge a policy whose key features were secularism (meaning not separation of church and state, since four major religions were given substantial roles in lawmaking, but equal respect accorded to the religions), a foreign policy of nonalignment and internationalism, and a socialist economic policy. Nehru was no admirer of communism, which he criticized for its failure to protect essential freedoms of association, speech, conscience, and religious practice; but in economic policy he did believe that socialism, meaning state ownership of the means of production and considerable top-down planning, was the best route to prosperity. These policies all had their difficulties, but they succeeded remarkably well, in part thanks to Nehru's endless capacity for hard work, his high moral tone, and his absolute freedom from corruption. His own personal qualities played no small part in holding India together in the early days, and also in winning respect from the other nations of the world.
In the 1960s, age began to sap his famous vitality. To Indira, increasingly his consort and companion, he wrote, "The sense of the work to do, so little done, and ever less and less time to do it, oppresses." In 1964 he had two strokes, but he quickly resumed his usual routine. On May 17, he died in his sleep of a massive aortic rupture. On his bedside table were found, copied in his own hand, these lines of Robert Frost:
The words are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
How should we assess Nehru's "invention of India"? Let us begin where he began: "My legacy to India? Hopefully, it is 400 million people capable of governing themselves." India's population now tops one billion, but that legacy remains firm. The institutional structure that Nehru helped to design, with its separation of powers, its conception of the Supreme Court as defender of fundamental rights, and its role for federalism and local governance, has withstood the test of time, including the very strenuous test supplied by Indira Gandhi's suspension of civil liberties (approved by a cowardly Parliament) during the Emergency. An active electorate shortly turned her out, and the Supreme Court built up more robust safeguards for judicial review of parliamentary action.
Together with the institutional structure, we should credit the vigor of democracy in India to a strong and independent press, whose critical independence and commitment to free investigation was another part of Nehru's ideal. As Brown stresses, democracy and federalism madethe realization of other cherished goals slow and uncertain: changes in the status of women in particular, central in Nehru's vision of India's future, have moved at a snail's pace because of the dominance of entrenched traditional ideas. Still, Nehru's patience with democracy was right and Indira's impatience was wrong. His one great weakness in this area, indeed, was a weakness of impatience, connected to his desire to get a lot done: namely, his reluctance to mold Congress into a genuine political party, one among others. Since Congress was always, under Nehru, both a movement and a party, multi-party democracy has not altogether flourished. The only other nationally influential parties organized along simply political lines have been the (two) communist parties and a short-lived market-libertarian party that never caught on.Apart from these (and communist influence is large in two states only), political opposition to Congress has typically come from parties organized along lines of religion, region, and caste. The resulting balkanization of politics has entrenched divisions that Nehru rightly wished to undermine.
As for the economy, both Tharoor and Brown easily make the hindsight judgment that Nehru relied too much on centralized planning--though Brown at least gives him credit for the progress that India made in heavy industry and for impressive economic growth in the early years. The failure of planning, more than any other single factor, explains the low esteem in which many businesspeople hold Nehru and Congress today. But it should be remembered that Nehru was always an empiricist, committed to following the evidence where it led. It is hard for me to imagine that he would not ultimately have supported the economic reforms of Manmohan Singh.
Yet one should not confuse a commitment to reform with indifference to the plight of the poor, and many voters in the Samachar poll may have made that confusion. The BJP's recent electoral campaign, which used as its central slogan "India Shining," offended and angered rural voters, for whom India is not at all shining. Reaction against a cynical politics of globalization without protections for the vulnerable played a large part in ensuring the party's defeat, in favor of a Congress committed to both economic reform and a decent social safety net.
In foreign policy, both Brown and Tharoor seem uneasy with Nehru's policy of non-alignment during the Cold War, and they are correct, tothe extent that Nehru's sympathy with socialism blinded him to some of the evils of Soviet rule, with particularly bad effect in 1956, when he refused to protest the Soviet invasion of Hungary. He also took a rosier picture of India-China relations than was plausible. Yet one should admire his courage in standing up to demands from both sides that India become a pawn in their power games. And his internationalism, in a world that had not yet come to terms with the ideal of global cooperation, offers a moving model for an era in which that ideal is once again being increasingly called into question.
Where religion is concerned, both Tharoor and Brown are rightly impressed with Nehru's vision of India as a tolerant pluralist nation, showing all citizens and all religions equal respect before the laws. They are also rightly convinced that Nehru made mistakes in this area because he took religion too lightly. Nehru thought that science was the way of thinking for the future; he found religion embarrassing and primitive, a "terrible burden" that India had to get rid of if it was to "breathe freely or do anything useful." Brown puts this down to his Western education, but this underestimates the depth of religion in the West and the depth of rationalism in Indian religious traditions. Nehru knew a lot about all this, so his hostility to religion and his often facile contrast of religion with science is not easy to explain.
What is clear, however, is that his feeling that religion was an embarrassment led him to devote much too little attention to the public molding of religion, so that it could become a grassroots force for pluralism and respect rather than for fear and hatred. The result has been that the Hindu right went to work basically unopposed, creating a masterful popular program of indoctrination that has spread the gospel of anti-Muslim fear to every region. Given his emphatic recognition that Hinduism historically is the most pluralistic and tolerant of religions--its "essential spirit," he said, is "live and let live"--why didn't Nehru follow Gandhi's lead, putting forward a public version of religion that showed a way forward toward the removal of barriers of caste and faith? Or, better yet, since Gandhi himself stressed that the Hindu nature of India is more than compatible with a truly respectful pluralism, why did he not follow the example of Tagore, who forged in Bengal a public poetry of syncretism and inclusion, creating dance dramas, stories, poems, and songs (one of which is sung now as India's national anthem) that celebrate the strength that derives from diversity, the vigor that grows out of a willingness to criticize entrenched habits and to respect differences?
The major factor behind Nehru's failure to follow these examples, and create a public culture of equal respect that could hold people's emotions and hopes and fears, was, I believe, the influence of Marxism. Nehru greatly loved the people of India, but he writes about them oddly, using crude words such as "the mass" and "the masses." One minute he is writing about his own personal emotions with the greatest acuity; the next he treats "the mass" as a proletarian class that has no such personal emotions, but will somehow behave like a class, rising and flourishing as such. This was not elitism so much as a theoretical view of class that screened him from the reality of what people feel in their hearts. The Marxian idea that religion is an "opiate" impeding the proletariat from realizing its destiny is an idea that Nehru expresses repeatedly in his own words.
He failed to see, in short, what Tagore saw very clearly: that each human being of every caste, creed, and class is a separate person, with fear and longing and hope. If he had understood this, he would perhaps have understood, too, that the people of India, each and every one, need what he needed: poetry and music and mourning and love, in a religious or non-religious form--and also a group of like-minded Indians with whom to share poetry and music and mourning and love. The Hindu right understands this very well.
And these limitations in Nehru's imagination of humanity explain also his other great failure: namely, the failure to create a system of public education that would provide robust underpinnings for a democratic political culture. India does splendidly in scientific and technological education, because that is what Nehru cared about and fostered. If the teaching of basic science and computer technology were as primitive as is the teaching of history and literature and critical thinking, it would be a public scandal. But, with all the arguments that rage about what account of history should figure in textbooks for seventeen-year-olds, one more rarely hears the complaint that seventeen-year-olds are learning history by rote from textbooks--that, indeed, virtually all their schooling takes the form of rote learning. Over the years basic literacy has spread, but access to really high-quality education is virtually restricted to elites who can attend private schools.
The dismal quality of rote learning in public schools (when the teachers even show up, which is not always) surely augurs badly for thefuture of Indian democracy. In fact, one reason why the rural poor are such thoughtful and active citizens is possibly that they often don't go to public schools. I have observed education in India for the rural poor, as conducted by NGOs that work with working children and adults, and that education is almost always imaginative, vigorous, animated by a sense of education as a humane mission connected with empowerment and citizenship. In the average public school classroom, there is not much idealism or imagination on offer. In some crucial respects, then, the middle class gets a worse education for citizenship than the rural poor. (Here again it was Tagore who showed the way, creating an educational vision, in his Santiniketan school and the related university, that focused on the activation of critical and imaginative capacities.)
For all his blind spots and his failings, however, Nehru's achievement was staggering: the creation of the largest democracy in the world. So far, this democracy has grappled with enormous tensions and unparalleled diversity without losing its basic commitments to pluralism andthe rule of law. Where Nehru's vision has gaps and defects, he himself was the first to acknowledge that his task was both shared and ongoing. At the head of the epilogue to his autobiography he placed an epigraph from the Talmud: "We are enjoined to labor; but it is not granted to us to complete our labors." If blind greed, technocratic elitism, and religious bigotry do not derail the "labor," it may possibly be--not completed, for it never can be, but continued, by all of us, in this "one world that can no longer be split into isolated fragments."
This article originally ran in the February 14, 2005, issue of the magazine.