Nehru: The Invention of India

Nov 13, 2003

Shashi Tharoor assesses the legacy of Nehru, the man who "through his writings, his speeches, his leadership,...invented India in an extraordinary way."


JOANNE MYERS: On behalf of the Carnegie Council I would like to welcome our members and guests and thank you for joining us as we welcome Shashi Tharoor to our Books for Breakfast program to discuss Nehru: The Invention of India.

Great men deserve to have their stories told, and if they are fortunate, their life’s tale will be told by a gifted and skilled writer whose own intellect and personal charisma will attract a great deal of interest in the subject. Our guest casts his storytelling mastery onto the life of Jawaharlal Nehru, a man of huge historical importance, political and psychological complexity, and enduring relevance.

In telling Nehru's story, Shashi Tharoor gives us a careful appraisal of Nehru’s legacy to the world and of the inheritance he left behind for every Indian. Nehru: The Invention of India is, as Shashi writes, "a reinterpretation of an extraordinary life and of a career of one of the major figures of the twentieth century." Nehru was a man who would one day help topple British rule and become India's first prime minister. He was the most visible embodiment of India's struggle for freedom and is a window for all those who want to learn more about India's road to independence.

Shashi's artistry as a writer, his knowledge of history, his vast font of information, and his energy and limitlessly eloquent prose informs whatever he does. In his writings he has explored the diversity of culture and traditions in his native India with an eye towards its dramatic past and another on its relevance to the future. His editorials, commentaries, and short stories have appeared in both India and Western publications.

His books include The Great Indian Novel, a political satire; Show Business, which was made into a motion picture entitled Bollywood; India: From Midnight to the Millennium, published on the fiftieth anniversary of India's independence and a study of India; and Riot, a novel about Hindu-Muslim violence.

In addition, he is the winner of several journalism and literary awards, including a Commonwealth Writers Prize.

On June 1, 2002, Shashi was appointed Under Secretary General for Communications and Public Information at the United Nations, a position which if it did not exist would have had to be have been invented, for it suits him exceptionally well.

Please join me in welcoming Shashi Tharoor.


SHASHI THAROOR: Thank you, Joanne, for that marvelous introduction.

I must say that I mean no disrespect to the distinguished audience here today when I say that perhaps the best reason for coming to the Carnegie Council is Joanne's introductions. They really are so wonderful that they place upon speakers the obligation to try and live up to them, which I will seek to do.

The first question that one might ask, especially in this country, is: “Why Nehru, and why now? Why this biography?”

It struck me that Nehru seemed increasingly in danger of being repudiated in India and forgotten everywhere else. Even Indians are no longer conscious of the extent to which Nehru was a giant of his age, an iconic figure of twentieth-century nationalism who for sixteen years after Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination also incarnated India as a country, as an idea, as a civilization, and as a presence on the world stage.

Nehru’s stature is so great that when he came here in 1949, Adlai Stevenson, then governor of Illinois, welcoming him to Chicago, said, "We live in an age swept by tides of history so powerful they shatter human understanding. Only a tiny handful of men have influenced the implacable forces of our time. To this small company of the truly great Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru belongs. He belongs to the even smaller company of historic figures who wore a halo in their own lifetimes."

Now, you may think he just belongs to the Joanne Myers school of introductions, but in fact Adlai Stevenson was saying things that I could have found in a dozen other quotes from that period into the decade afterwards, and indeed for a long time the notion of India seemed inconceivable without Nehru.

In 1963, the American journalist Welles Hangen, who subsequently died in Vietnam, wrote a celebrated book called After Nehru, Who?

But the unspoken question behind this was "after Nehru, what?" And today, four decades after Nehru's death, we have something of an answer. In some ways, little of Nehru's legacy remains intact in India, and indeed in the rest of the developing world for which Nehruvianism once spoke.

A transformation is still taking place in India that has altered in many ways the basic Nehruvian assumptions of post-colonial secular, socialist, democratic, non-aligned nationhood that Nehru stood for.

I have traced some threads through the life that I then wrap up in a concluding chapter in which I analyze the legacy from a twenty-first century perspective. I have reinterpreted his life as a layman for lay people.

As a novelist, I couldn't resist beginning the book with a story:

In January 1889, or so the story goes, Motilal Nehru, a twenty-seven-year-old lawyer from the north Indian city of Allahabad, traveled to Rishakesh, a town holy to Hindus up on the foothills of the Himalayas on the banks of the sacred river Gunga, the Ganges. Motilal was weighed down by personal tragedy. Married as a teenager, in keeping with custom, he had soon been widowed, losing both his wife and his first-born son in childbirth. In due course he married again, an exquisitely beautiful woman named Swarup Rani Kaul. She soon blessed him with another son, but the boy died in infancy.

Motilal's own brother, Nandlal Nehru, then died at the age of forty-two, leaving to Motilal the care of his widow and seven children. The burden was one he was prepared to bear, but he desperately sought the compensatory joy of a son of his own. This, it seemed, was not to be.

“Motilal and his two companions, young Brahmins of his acquaintance, visited a famous yogi renowned for the austerities he practiced while living in a tree. In the bitter cold of winter, the yogi undertook various penances which, it was said, gave him great powers. One of the travellers, Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya, informed the yogi that Motilal's greatest desire in life was to have a son. The yogiasked Motilal to step forward, looked at him long and hard, and shook his head sadly: ‘You,’ he declared, ‘will not have a son. It is not in your destiny.’

“As a despairing Motilal stood crestfallen before him, the other man, the learned Pandit Din Dayal Shastri, argued respectfully with the yogi. The ancient Hindu shastras, he said, made it clear that there was nothing irreversible about such a fate; a great karmayogilike him could simply grant the unfortunate man a boon.

“Thus challenged, the yogi looked at the young men before him, and finally sighed. He reached into his brass pitcher and sprinkled water from it three times onto the would-be father. Motilal began to express his gratitude, but the yogi cut him short. ‘By doing this,’ the yogi breathed, 'I have sacrificed all the benefits of all the austerities I have conducted over many generations.' The next day, as legend has it, the yogipassed away.

“Ten months later, at 11:30 p.m. on November 14, 1889, Motilal Nehru's wife Swarup Rani gave birth to a healthy baby boy. He was named Jawaharlal (‘precious jewel’), and he would grow up to be one of the most remarkable men of the 20th Century.”

I read this story not because there is any verifiable veracity to it—there isn't. The accounts have only survived in second-hand accounts ascribed to the two people who traveled with Motilal, and Motilal himself was a fierce rationalist and secularist who, even if this had happened, would never have talked about it. So one never knows.

There is very much in Indian tradition and culture this tendency to ascribe almost magical beginnings to great men or women, and what is interesting in this apocryphal story was the kernel of something that was undoubtedly true, which is that Motilal, his father, saw in Jawaharlal from the very earliest days a child of destiny.

Jawaharlal grew up in this very prosperous lawyer’s household, spoiled absolutely silly, as he himself admits in his biography. He remained the only son. Three others died in childbirth, which is quite extraordinary, including a boy born on Jawaharlal Nehru's sixteenth birthday.

He was given a completely spoiled, Little Lord Fauntleroy upbringing. And the illusion is not too far fetched. There is a photograph of him aged five with his buttoned-up Victorian costume and the proud pater familiaslooming over him. It is quite a tableau of bourgeois male Victorian authority that the father projected very much onto the son.

The father was such a successful lawyer that he bought a house in what was the British part of town, had the first swimming pool, had the first automobile in 1904.

Nehru was initially educated at home. He learned about India from an Irish-French tutor, who insisted on exposing Nehru to Indian philosophy and traditions in English translations, so Nehru read the Upanishads and the Gita in English.

He did have in the same household the traditional influence of his mother, who was very much a conventional Indian woman—unlettered, non-Anglophone—and a widowed aunt, and so he did get a sense of Hindu culture and tradition at home as well.

His formal learning was very much schooled through the English language, English education. And even his introduction to Hinduism was conflated with theosophy, the briefly popular faith of Madame Blavatsky and others, popularized in the late-nineteenth century, which had a certain heyday for a while. The tutor was also a theosophist, and Nehru was even briefly admitted into the faith, although all concerned, including the convert, promptly forgot about it.

At age fifteen he was then sent off to Harrow, ironically enough, the school attended fifteen years earlier by that arch-imperialist Winston Churchill. Then, after an undistinguished time at Harrow, but in which he was happy and did many things you don't associate with Indian aristocrats, including a great deal of physical activity—track and field, and running, and turning out with modest success for the cricket team—he then went on to Trinity College Cambridge, a combination of school and college that he was very proud to remark later was the same enjoyed by Lord Byron.

What was interesting about this period, which was otherwise quite undistinguished, is both the political awakening of Nehru, as he read works on Irish nationalism, but also the emotional maturing, the extraordinary flowering of correspondence between the father and the son.

It is quite possible that they developed a closer relationship through these letters than might have been possible if he had been growing up under the same roof as his father, with all the normal distance this implies in a traditional Indian home, and particularly in that era.

But here is a very successful, materialist lawyer, a man given to incandescent rages, but at the same time monumental self-assurance, somebody who didn't brook fools, or indeed dissent, but who with his son is completely indulgent, gentle, loving, almost sentimental. Extraordinary correspondence and full of faith in his son's future.

There is a marvelous surviving artifact, a postcard that Motilal Nehru sent to his son Jawaharlal—who was not a particularly precocious child—a postcard of the photographs of great Indian nationalist figures of the nineteenth century. Below a picture of Romesh Chunder Dutt, R.C. Dutt, one of the first Indians in the British Indian civil service, who was a historian, an economist, a literatur, a great translator, a novelist, and a president of the Indian National Congress, Motilal Nehru writes "future Jawaharlal Nehru."

The letters also included advice on daily conduct, opinions and exchanges on Indian politics. Here is Nehru in Cambridge, and later London because he went to be called up for the bar, leading a soft life, milking his father shamelessly for money so he could live high on the hog, having a good time, and his father trying by correspondence to inculcate in him the aspirations and goals that he wanted his son to fulfill.

It is true that Nehru did spend a stint in the LSE [London School of Economics]. He has later been accused of acquiring his Fabian socialism there. There is no evidence that he took any of his classes very seriously. But as far as socialistic inclinations are concerned, it is true that he once danced with a waitress just to find out what she would talk to him about.

He was not a good enough student to sit for the Indian civil service examinations, as his father wanted him to, so he returned to India with a second- class degree but a first-class education. That was more significant because he had spent that near-decade in England acquiring and imbibing a strong sense of the rights of Englishmen, and one day he would be outraged to discover that these rights would not be his because he was not English enough to enjoy them in India.

He came back to a life of mediocre lawyering and partying in Allahabad. But, as happened to many others of his generation, he fell under the spell of Mahatma Gandhi, who returned from South Africa in 1916 and changed Indian nationalism from the politics of the drawing room to the politics of mass mobilization, moving away from the demands of the self-regarding and entirely English-educated elite to the demands of a nation awakening to find its voice.

Initially this horrified Motilal. There was Gandhi arguing that one should break the law—in the name of a higher law and the dictates of conscience. But Motilal was appalled by this. He would much rather have challenged the laws in the courts, as he was trying to do, and worked within the system that was his training.

And so there would be passionate arguments between father and son. But again, the measure of the relationship is that while Motilal Nehru was arguing with his son and telling him it was unthinkable that he should be even thinking of breaking the law, he was privately practicing sleeping on the floor to prepare himself for the rigors of imprisonment because he was determined that if his son was imprisoned he would go too.

Mahatma Gandhi also became a second father figure to Nehru. Motilal initially was responsible for this because in order to talk Jawaharlal out of giving up his legal practice and becoming a political agitator, he invited Mahatma Gandhi to stay with him at his house in Allahabad. He was a sufficiently prominent figure that Gandhi accepted that invitation. Gandhi was impressed by both of them, but he urged Jawaharlal not to join him because Gandhi felt that he needed both Nehrus and that eventually he would win them both, which he did.

Eventually Nehru got involved initially in a legalistic agitation, making speeches, then developed a taste for and became good at mobilizing the masses. Particularly his discovery of the Indian peasantry is quite a delightful thing to read about. For the rest of his life he always had this extraordinary romantic, almost mystical, sense of attachment to the Indian peasants.

Then began his career of defying the British, frequent jailings. He spent almost ten years of his life cumulatively in British jails. This wasn't altogether a bad thing, not only because the suffering he endured steeled him extraordinarily well, but because he also spent his time in jail, except for brief periods when the British wouldn't allow him books or reading and writing material, reading extensively and writing extensively, and began the whole process of formulating the basic principles and convictions of his political philosophy and articulating a vision of India's past and future that ultimately remain amongst his most enduring contributions to twentieth-century political literature, and indeed to the heritage of India.

He wrote very well and successfully. His autobiography was on The New York Timesbest-seller list for many weeks.

Gandhi saw Nehru's intellectual abilities, his capacity for arousing popular adulation and support, as well as his vision and his principle. He wanted to harness him to his cause.

He chose very early on, when Nehru was just in his twenties, to begin sponsoring Jawaharlal's rise. It was not just because this was a protégé of his choice; it was also because Gandhi felt, very shrewdly, that Nehru was quite capable of upsetting the applecart. This was a hotheaded, impatient figure, eager for change, determined too early to push for full independence before India was ready for it or the Indian masses had been mobilized adequately.

He decided early on that co-opting Nehru would be the best thing because Nehru was going to be worthy of acquiring the mantle, but the alternative would be dangerous to the nationalist movement and could well create a split.

Interestingly, there are two or three major occassions and several other minor episodes in which the two clashed and nearly came to a split. At one point, it was Gandhi who, outraged by a letter Nehru wrote him criticizing him for temporizing too much in his opposition to the British, wrote him a very sharp letter.

Nehru in Gandhi's absence pushed through a rather strong resolution at a session of the Indian National Congress in Madras in 1929. Gandhi had not been present when the resolution was carried, but he wrote in his magazine Young India that the resolution was "hastily conceived and thoughtlessly passed by a congress descending to the level of a schoolboys' debating society." And he rebuked Nehru for his zeal, pointing out that the Congress "stultified itself by passing such resolutions when it knows that it is not capable of carrying them into effect." "By passing such resolutions," he said, "we make an exhibition of our impotence."

Nehru reacted rather strongly, in harsh language. Gandhi replied, "Clearly the differences of opinion between us are too vast. We cannot continue. There is no meeting ground between us. Good-bye." It was a very tough stance.

Nehru instantly caved, writing back a letter addressed to "My dear Babuji"—a Babujiis a father figure—and asked, "Am I not your child in politics, though perhaps a truant and errant child?" Gandhi promptly forgave him and Nehru came back. This is an example of the personal dimensions to this extraordinary historical partnership.

I am skipping over this morning the details of the nationalist struggle, the important point being that Gandhi anchored Nehru to the nationalist mainstream, despite Nehru's own socialist convictions, which were considerably to the left of Gandhi.

For example, when Gandhi got Nehru elected president of the Congress at the age of 40, when nobody on the All India Congress committee that elected the president was prepared to support him and Gandhi pushed Nehru through, Nehru immediately wanted to agitate for full independence, and pulled up the flag and ended up going to jail for his pains.

Six years later, when Gandhi again gets him elected to the presidency of the party, Nehru is much more mature and wise. The British have then just passed the Government of India Act, which calls for elections, deeply unsatisfactory elections with a limited franchise restricted to barely 10 percent of the Indian population, and with the pernicious doctrine of communal electorates, separate electorates for different religious communities, which was anathema to everything Gandhi and Nehru had stood for in India.

And so Nehru opposed the idea of participating in these elections. But not only did the others decide that they had to do it, but Gandhi and the rest of the Congress Party not only decided to participate in the elections, but Nehru, as the president of the party, then had to lead the campaign, which is again an example of the ways in which Nehru constantly compromised what were seen as extreme and radical political positions in the interests of serving under Gandhi in the mainstream of the nationalist movement.

Partition was a great trauma. Nehru and Gandhi were both bitterly opposed to it—Gandhi completely so until the very end; Nehru in the end began to make compromises when he saw that partition was unavoidable, and certainly was guilty of some tactical mistakes himself in helping get to the point where the partition became unavoidable.

One of the criticisms I have of Nehru during this period, and with other anecdotes and examples, was the extent to which nationalist politics made someone like Nehru a master of the futile gesture.

What is the legacy that emerges from his seventeen years as Prime Minister after independence? I will explain four major pillars and one abiding, overarching theme, that I have called in the subtitle of the book "the invention of India."

The four pillars would be:

1) Democracy and democratic institution building. Nehru could very easily have arrogated power to himself. Especially with the death of Gandhi, shortly after the death of the only serious rival he had in the party, Vallabhbhai Patel, who was Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister, who had died two years after Gandhi, three years after independence, in 1950, there were no challengers. He could have been, if he had wanted, another Third World autocrat, like so many others who followed him in other parts of the world, with unquestioned massive adulation from the public, no serious challengers within the party or the Indian political firmament.

And yet that simply wasn't Nehru's temperament. At the crest of his rise in the late 1930s, he wrote an anonymous attack upon himself, which he published in a magazine called The Modern Review, in which he said: "Beware of his man. He likes the masses' adulation too much. We should beware of giving him the temptations of dictatorship. We want no Caesars."

In 1955, at a session of the Congress Party, he decided to relinquish the presidency to a lesser figure, so he would be Prime Minister but somebody else would be president of the Party. In an unscripted but rather telling moment, because he was being called by many already "the uncrowned king of India," a middle-aged woman stepped forth from the audience and plunked a golden crown on his balding pate, and turned to the audience and then hailed him as "Krishna," which confused the symbols of mythology with those of monarchy.

But Nehru's prompt reaction was to take the crown off and pass it off to the Party functionary next to him and said, "Auction it off for the party coffers."

But it’s important to remember that Bertrand Russell wrote in the 1950s of the many temptations. He said, "Every conceivable argument is available to tempt Mr. Nehru to forgo democratic institutions in India." Nehru was simply impervious to those arguments. He went out of his way to demonstrate respect for the institutions of a democratic state.

He had extraordinary respect for parliament and spent long hours there to ensure that it was not just a forum for announcing policies but for real debate and accountability. He suffered through question time day after day, and wrote letters to the chief ministers of state explaining his policies. On the one occasion when in a press conference he made an unkind remark about a judge, he immediately not only apologized to the judge himself but wrote an abject letter of apology to the Chief Justice of India, to show that these institutions are above his power.

And his firm repudiation of any notion of a dynasty: he said, “I’m not capable of ruling from the grave.” He did nothing whatsoever, despite some revisionist historians suggesting otherwise, to promote his daughter Indira, whom he did not give office to—except for allowing her to be elected for one year as President of the Congress, but then he did not encourage her reelection.

When asked by Norman Cousins, "What do you want to be your legacy?," he said, "Four hundred million people capable of governing themselves."

The vindication of that ultimately was that when he died there were no succession problems. There was a democratic process in the Congress Party, and a person unconnected to what became later the dynasty, Lal Bahadur Shastri, emerged as the Prime Minister of India elected by Parliament.

2) Socialism. Again, understandable given his own background, that he grew up in a nationalist environment. Whereas in America capitalism is associated with liberty, in many developing countries it was associated with slavery, because in the case of India the East India Company came to trade and stayed on to rule. So many nationalists essentially identified political independence with economic independence.

One of the lessons learned from history is that you can learn the wrong lessons from history, and certainly Nehru did too. But the result was creating a statist socialist system, which meant that India spent the decades after his rule as well regulating stagnation and distributing poverty, with bureaucrats rather than businessmen in the commanding heights of the economy.

But again, one good thing as a result of these statist policies was the construction of a strong infrastructure of scientific excellence and technological excellence, which is now, ironically, reflected in the dominance of Indian computer engineers in Silicon Valley, one of the more surprising byproducts of Nehruvian socialism.

3) Foreign policy of nonalignment. He was unchallenged as the Congress Party’s foreign policy voice in the days of nationalism. As early as 1927, he predicted the emergence of an Anglo-American combine later in the century, which is a striking insight.

A man of extraordinary principle. He never took the position some other Indian nationalists did that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” He was consistently anti-fascist and anti-Nazi. When his wife had to go to Hitler's Germany for treatment for her tuberculosis, he would insist rather openly in shopping only at Jewish-run and Jewish-owned shops. This was in 1936.

When he was traveling back to India and had to transit via Rome, Mussolini sent a senior envoy asking him to call on Il Duce for an audience. Nehru refused on principle to have even a handshake with the fascist dictator.

A man who then coming to power translated all of these principles into a foreign policy; he essentially made policy whole from his own head and heart.

One difficulty with that was that, in keeping with his own style on policy pronouncement, the assertion of independent nationhood became much more the be-all and end-all of Indian foreign policy, rather than any conscious effort to use foreign policy as a tool to derive economic and social benefits for the population.

Nonalignment became the most visible embodiment of all of this. It certainly gave India the rhetorical leadership of the newly independent nations, which indeed in the 1950s meant that the country enjoyed a stature in the world internationally out of proportion to its military strength or its material means. And India didn’t speak in terms of nation-state rivalry or patriotic chauvinism; it was altogether a loftier plane of principle and rhetoric at which Indian foreign policy functioned, somewhat divorced, unfortunately, from the immediate needs of statecraft and national security.

At one level it was very gratifying. There is a marvelous, probably apocryphal, story of John Foster Dulles saying to Nehru, “Are you with us or against us?” and Nehru said, “Yes.” The freedom to be for or against was extremely important for him—important too for India's credibility, because it is often forgotten that in the first years after India’s independence the Soviets, for example, openly scoffed at the very idea that India was genuinely independent, and it was Nehru’s statements and actions that dispelled their skepticism and that of the Eastern Bloc.

But the flip side of this was that this was a policy that may have preserved self-respect and enhanced international standing but brought very few, if any, concrete benefits to the Indian polity, because foreign policy was an end in itself and was seen in many other parts of the world, particularly in the West, as excessively characterized by a moralistic running commentary on world affairs, which did not necessarily help.

And again, the issue of the limitations of India’s foreign policy was brought into sharp relief in the disastrous failure over China which led to the humiliating defeat in a war for which India was completely unprepared in 1962.

4) Secularism. Nehru was consistently secular throughout his career. His personal inclinations, his friendships, were across the communal divide. His closest friend for most of his life was a Muslim. As a young boy, his biggest inspiration was his father's retainer, and this was very much Nehru's Kashmiri heritage, the syncretic, composite culture of Kashmir which the Kashmiri diaspora brought with them to other parts of India.

His personal courage during the partition violence, the riots that accompanied the partition of India, was truly extraordinary. He would physically leap into mobs that were assaulting Muslims and get them to stop, and successfully. He would rage, he would storm, he would personally go into places where he saw attacks. It was an odd thing for a Prime Minister to be doing when he should have been making national policy, but he was personally engulfed in the desire to combat anti-Muslim violence.

The one strand of political belief he absolutely abhorred was right-wing Hindu communalism, and he refused to let India fall into the trap of saying, "Now that Pakistan has been created for India's Muslims, what remains is a state for India's Hindus." He absolutely rejected that and throughout his life continued the all-inclusive view of Indian nationalism that he had articulated before partition as well.

5) That brings me to the final overarching lesson of his life, as I said, "the invention of India."Through his writings, his speeches, his leadership, he invented India in an extraordinary way. I have peppered the book with quotations from his own speaking and writing because he was such a marvelous prose stylist. His will is one of the most moving, and at the same time effectively written, documents, in twentieth-century political history. What distinguished Nehru was not just his pride in the past but his faith in the future.

I would summarize the value of his life as somewhat mixed, because democratic institutions have survived, and without democracy India wouldn't be what it is today, but the institutions themselves have in many ways been corroded by corruption, by criminalization, by the unprincipled politicians who have used the democratic system to come to power and authority. And yet, they have still provided empowerment to people who for millennia were the lowest of India’s low, the former untouchables, the so-called backward castes, who have all acquired and wield real political power in India today.

Socialism—disastrous. Foreign policy—I have explained the negatives. Today, in a world of one superpower, nonalignment is no longer a sufficient explanation for India’s foreign policy interests in the world stage. Finally, secularism, which is under threat in today’s India.

But what is most important to me is Nehru’s idea of India, India as a pluralist society and polity, an idea which is central to India’s survival, which has held now in the four decades after his death and which is all the more in need of defending.

Thank you very much.

JOANNE MYERS: I would like to open the floor to questions.

Question & Answer

QUESTION: Would you speculate about what Nehru would make of today’s world? He would presumably have railed against the hegemony of a unilateral superpower, but at the same time not even he could fail to notice the complete bankruptcy of the nonalignment that he created, or presumably he would have sought to make something of the new status that India enjoys in the world and would perhaps have defined Indian foreign policy more in terms of Indian national interest.

Secondly, can what would have been different had he been a better cricketer at Harrow?

SHASHI THAROOR: There is a fundamental flaw involved in taking people out of their time and applying their judgments to other periods, which would be the big flaw in answering your question, because Nehru was very much a product of that anti-imperial nationalism which shaped his own convictions and his policies.

There is a story about the Prince of Wales, the man who for eight months became Edward VIII, traveling in India in the 1920s, and being taken to one sort of success story project after another. He turned to a senior Indian official accompanying him and said, “Look at all this progress and prosperity. What more could Indians possibly want?” This Indian, very deferentially, replies, “Self-respect, sir.”

This ultimately is what the nationalist movement's articulation of identity was all about. Indian foreign policy under Nehru was principally about Indian self-respect, and Indian self-respect required a distancing from both of the blocs into which the world was divided at that time.

Had Nehru been born fifty years later, it would matter much less. It matters much less to me today, as the child of the post-independence generation, because I take my self-respect for granted and I don’t derive it from my sense of what other people think of me. Nationalists of that generation did not have that luxury.

On the second point, Nehru was, sadly, too young to have played test cricket for India because India only got its first test match in 1932, by which time he would have been over the hill.

But he was strikingly conscious of physical fitness. He was an astonishing figure in comparison to most of our corpulent Indian elite.

When he was jailed he took up yoga in prison, and in each prison stint he improved his skills. Well into his fifties he was mastering headstands. He worked eighteen-hour days religiously. He woke up at 3:00 or 4:00 o’clock in the morning, practiced yoga, and then began his work.

QUESTION: You referred to Nehru as “an iconic figure of twentieth-century nationalism.” Icons are normally used to remind the faithful of eternal virtues which they should never forget. This suggests to me that you see nationalism as an eternal virtue. You know your European history as well as you know your Indian history. Could you be a bit nuanced as to your own views of the circumstances under which nationalism is good and is bad, and what should it be in the twenty-first century?

SHASHI THAROOR: On the iconic part, in going through this rather excessively long set of points I failed to acknowledge the presence here of Ambassador Phil Talbert, who is my principal living source, because he is somebody who knew Nehru for twenty-five years.

When Phil was an Assistant Secretary of State in the State Department, he traveled to Egypt during the Suez crisis and was astonished to see how many homes in Egypt carried framed photographs of Nehru. So he was seen in many parts of the developing world as somebody who stood up for an idea of assertive nationalism against the West, which did make him an icon.

He consistently had very good press in Pakistan. A Pakistani poet wrote a famous shairi about how Nehru was the kind of infidel that Muslims would love to embrace.

On your point about nationalism, indeed this was a process the world had to go through, because it was nationalism which was about self-respect. What has become pernicious in the last couple of decades has been the transmutation of nationalism into identity politics and the extent to which we have seen the kind of pluralist nation-state that Nehru believed in subject to the pressures in so many parts of the world of a more reductive, sectarian, narrow interpretation of national identities.

There even Nehru would have been impatient. Just as he railed against the notion that people should have another citizenship because of their religion, he would surely have objected to any other reductive sort of petty nationalism that we see today.

My own view is that we live in a world in which we have to see what unites us, rather than focus obsessively on what divides us.

And so yes, as a UN official and as an Indian, I do tend very much to believe in a world in which people who don’t look like each other, don’t worship the same god, don’t wear the same kinds of clothes, speak with the same kinds of accents, or eat the same kinds of food find things in common that can unite them and dream the same dreams together.

QUESTION: The subtitle of your book is "The Invention of India." One can't avoid the comparison with Jawaharlal Nehru’s own work, The Discovery of India. So evidently you are talking of his inventions – democracy, secularism, foreign policy, and socialism. Would he would have tried to undergird them in a rediscovery and tried to find essentials, backing in the traditions of India?

SHASHI THAROOR: I think so. In fact, Nehru's The Discovery of India was a book he wrote in jail in 1945. Literary reviews didn’t give it great praise because of its sprawling, slightly shapeless moves between autobiography and history. But what was striking about the book was the way in which he reinvented the past to explicate his vision of a plural India in the present and the future.

He saw everything—the good, the bad, the Hindu rule, Muslim rule, British rule—as part of a continuum.

I would like to think that he was capable of change. Maybe not, for the reasons I mentioned, because he was too immersed in a certain ethos from which his convictions emerged. But he would have grounded it very much in this sense of continuity.

A couple of important changes have occurred. One is that you no longer have at the highest echelons of government, political as well as civil service, unconstructed Nehruvians. As recently as when I wrote Reasons of State, in the mid-1970s, I met senior officials who would say proudly, “We are all Nehruvians,” and this was thirteen years after Nehru's death. Now, a quarter-century later, no one says it anymore.

There is one section of society that is still Nehruvian, but amongst the voters in general you find indeed a great deal of fragmentation. Casteist parties—he abhorred the notion of caste. Religious-oriented parties—he abhorred the notion of religion. And the extent to which a certain Hindu identity politics catering to the less-enlightened of the majority community have begun to take on a dominant aspect in the national political discourse— that is something he would been appalled by and would have actively fought against.

So in all of those ways you have seen changes in the political climate in India which his absence has helped fuel.

QUESTION: You didn't mention Kashmir, and given his secular and nationalist attitudes, would you comment on where that stands in his heritage.

SHASHI THAROOR: His position on Kashmir has to be seen in historical context. He, himself, was very proud of being Kashmiri. He thought of Kashmir as his own home, the homeland of his ancestors, went there regularly for holidays.

During the nationalist period, Kashmir was ruled by a maharaja and Nehru was strongly anti-monarchical. His strongest ally in Kashmir was a man called Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah, who led a movement called the National Conference, a party known for being anti-monarchical, but also non-religious—it had Hindu as well as Muslim members, in a state that was not quite 90 percent Muslim.

So Nehru and Abdullah made common cause. Nehru set up nationwide the All India States People’s Conference, which was a gathering of anti-monarchical movements in each of the 500 princely states that the British preserved as a fiction to disguise their control of these parts of India. Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah, with Nehru’s support, was elected president of that conference.

So he saw this in the spirit of ridding India of these hereditary rulers. One of his most famous episodes that I describe is a time when he left the Simla conference with the British where they were negotiating what eventually became partition in order to go to Kashmir to protest Sheikh Abdullah’s arrest by the maharaja. For his own pains he was detained at the border and interned. It was inconceivable to him that Kashmir would not be part of India.

When independence came, the maharaja of Kashmir dithered because he had contiguous borders with both India and Pakistan and thought he might get away with independence.

The maharaja, then—under pressure from Mountbatten, ironically, not Nehru—accedes to India to get the Indian Army to stop the incursions. The Indian Army comes in. Nehru takes the issue to the UN as a case of an invasion of sovereign India territory, and is roundly criticized by Indian nationalists thereafter for having snatched diplomatic stalemate out of the jaws of imminent military victory.

But at that point it is incontestable that Kashmiri political opinion, as represented by the overwhelmingly dominant political movement there, that of the Sheikh Abdullah and the National Conference, was pro-Indian. Subsequent events changed that considerably, and by the early 1950s, with Abdullah himself then flirting with notions of independence and allegedly flirting with the CIA about a notion of a pro-American independent Kashmiri state, and so Nehru parks him in jail and his Kashmir policy becomes a shambles.

Ironically, Nehru remained convinced and defended his policy as one of upholding secularism in India, that precisely because religion was not a valid determinant of nationhood, it was an article of faith that a majority Muslim state could find an honorable place in India. That remains very much an article of faith thereafter.

QUESTION: A quick anecdote. I met the Prime Minister once, on a Sunday morning, flying from Rome to Paris. He was in seat 1A, with his red rose. I was in seat 1B. Shirley MacLaine came aboard and sat in 1C. After we took off, the Prime Minister turned to me and asked, "Could you do me a favor?" I said, "Of course." He said, "Change seats with me. I'd like to sit next to Shirley MacLaine."

SHASHI THAROOR: That's entirely plausible. He had an eye for the ladies.

JOANNE MYERS: Thank you very much.

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