BOOK REVIEW: SARVEPALLI GOPAL (Third Impression 2008) JAWAHARLAL NEHRU – A BIOGRAPHY
OXFORD INDIA PAPERBACKS
Jawaharlal Nehru was one of the great political figures of the century and one of the most difficult for the biographers to portray. For modern India, only Mahatma Gandhi is more elusive to the biographer grasp. When viewing the mountain, one perspective at a time is the best one can do and so with the biography of Nehru. Sarvepalli Gopal is a historian of note and so is his biography. The first sentence of chapter 1 provides the clue: The broad details of the early life of Jawaharlal Nehru are by now well known”. In fact, they are not well known except to those who have read a great deal. Even to the specialist this presentation of Jawaharlal Nehru’s life from birth to the harrow, Cambridge and inns of court years, marriage and Indira – appears not so much like a skillfully directed movie or a master novel as like a photograph album of casual if accurate insights. The person presented by S. Gopal is a historical boy and man. We must look elsewhere for details about Jawaharlal’s troubled marriage, his sister’s opinion about him, the curious situation of his having an abundance of admirers and colleges and yet a paucity of close friends, and, of course, his special affection for Indira.
Prof. Gopal’s biography does give us a tremendous amount of new information, especially from the Nehru letters to which he had access. In many cases, Prof. Gopal now lets us in on the secrets. As a good historian with excellent access in India and Great Britain, he has tracked down the minutiae of details in the archives; he has interviewed Lord Mountbatten and other former rulers in India, and he has examined the private letters and archives of Nehru’s colleagues. It is to be regretted that the thirty-year-rule of British archives prevented the author from consulting directly the papers of 1946-47 that only now are being made available.
The first volume up to 1947 covers an important segment of the Indian nationalist movement. For me, the most impressive and informative chapters are those (Ch.: 5 to 15) that narrate in such an excellent way Nehru’s political work in Uttar Pradesh, and his ascendency with Gandhi’s support to the highest level of leadership in All India National Congress. Much of this material is fresh and adds a new dimension to an understanding of Jawaharlal’s ‘greetings’ in politics. The chapters (Ch. 16 to 22) deals with World War II as it related to India – the various political crises, up to the transfer of power and independence. Here one finds the historian turning historian, and forgetting or under stressing his biographical subject.
Several strands of analysis running through this book fail to convince. One is Nehru as Marxian socialist. There is not much a proof that Nehru read Marx or understood it. He was intellectually against the oppression of the poor but he couldn’t be called a socialist in the ‘scientific sense’.
He was convinced that science was essential to modernize India, but his grip on scientific theory and its applied use in Indian setting was based more on faith than on knowledge. Nehru was in many ways a technocrat, not a scientist, in his approach to physical and economic planning. The writer has correctly displayed minor faults of Nehru such as grand displays of temper, impossible princely behavior in political discussion and fails to nail Nehru on important errors in judgments like failing to realize the demand of Muslim league for Pakistan.
To that end, the book succeeds, and uninitiated readers are provided with a background of the Indian independence movement and post-independent India along Nehru’s political. Perhaps no other Indian leader symbolized and affirmed the pluralism of post-independent India more than Jawaharlal Nehru did. It is not surprising, then, that the book gives a fascinating account of Nehru’s commitment to secularism, to the nurturing of democracy and toward the establishment of diversity and a pluralistic setup in India’s political structure and institutions.
Many interesting incidents and anecdotes fill the book, such as that of the first national elections of 1952 when, as crowds cheered Nehru during his campaigns with “Pandit Nehru Zindabad” (Long live Nehru), he would urge them to say “Naya Hindustan Zindabad Kaye” (Long live the new India). Or of how his threats to resign both from the party and from the premiership of the country could quieten the entire opposition. Another point is drawn out by the author and unknown to most readers is the unfair criticism that Nehru has faced for having propagated dynastic rule. This was never so, and the writer goes on to tell us how Nehru never groomed his daughter Indira (later to be the Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi) and often remarked “I am not trying to start a dynasty. I am not capable of ruling from the grave.” Indeed, he was succeeded by another highly admired politician, Lal Bahadur Shastri. Indira’s advent into the echelons of power was to occur later.
“My legacy to India,” Nehru had said, “is hopefully 400 million people capable of governing themselves.” Four decades after Nehru’s death, Indians have learned the habits of democracy well. As the recent election in India where the ruling party was routed out of power has shown, the people and the politicians have learned well the lessons on the power of the vote and the mandate of the people. He has written a meticulous historical biography and is to be looked upon for any information on Nehru’s work.