NORTH of New Delhi, in the foothills of the Himalayas, lies the extraordinary city of Chandigarh. Built in the 1950's, it was an almost totally new creation, planned and designed by the French modernist architect Le Corbusier, and strongly promoted by India's first prime minister after independence, Jawaharlal Nehru. Everything about this new state capital had to be a model of rationality: streets and avenues, geometrically laid out, were identified by numbers. Houses, in various standard sizes, were allocated to government workers strictly according to rank. The scale is huge, concrete the favored material. Chandigarh was to be the monument of modern India, free from ancient customs and superstitions, free from the colonial past, free to celebrate a brave new age.
The flaws of Chandigarh are now plain to see. Empty concrete plazas crack in the Indian summer heat. The main government buildings look stranded, like alien monsters plunked in the wrong terrain. The idea of Chandigarh was astounding in its ambition and high hopes, but bound to fail, like all the other modernist utopias that sought to design human life by numbers. Chandigarh, built to express Nehru's vision of India, now stands as a reminder of its limitations.
Vision is at the heart of Shashi Tharoor's short biography, ''Nehru: The Invention of India.'' For Nehru, in this account, was generally stronger on the vision thing than on practicalities. The best part of the book is the concluding chapter, a good summing up of Nehru's triumphs and failures. Nehru's idea of India was very much a product of his own background as an English-educated, upper-class, anti-imperialist, leftist, rationalist intellectual. He created a model of development that was the exact opposite of today's China. Whereas China now has an increasingly liberal economy run by an illiberal state, Nehru's staunchly liberal democratic state was in charge of a closed economy.
As Tharoor rightly says, ''Nehru's India put the political cart before the economic horse, shackling it to statist controls that emphasized distributive justice above economic growth, and discouraged free enterprise and foreign investment.'' Our contemporary partisans against globalization would no doubt approve of this, but it explains why much of India is still stuck in poverty.
Like many intellectuals, Nehru had, as Tharoor says, a ''lifelong tendency to affirm principles disconnected from practical consequences.'' Although born into a family of high-caste Hindus, Nehru was a thoroughly secular man, who wished to keep religious passions far from politics. This might seem farsighted and indeed sensible for a leader who contrived, with remarkable success, to turn a huge continent, containing many languages, faiths and cultures, into a modern democracy. But as happened in the former Soviet empire, which Nehru unwisely admired, frozen-out passions, once the thaw sets in, gather heat with a vengeance.
Democratic politics have to find a way of accommodating communal feelings, and Nehru's lofty disdain for all faiths, except ''scientific socialism,'' helped to provoke the kind of religious extremism that is now causing so much damage. A man who saw religion as nothing more than ''senseless and criminal bigotry'' was not best placed to understand the concerns of Muslims who feared the domination of Hindus in the struggle for independence. His advice to a Muslim friend that he should read more Bertrand Russell was typical of his own background and taste, but perhaps not the most useful counsel he could have given. And the aggressive secularism of Nehru's Congress Party, though intellectually appealing, was unable to contain the religious chauvinism of a rising Hindu middle class.
Tharoor, a high-ranking official at the United Nations, is sharp on Nehru's flaws. But he also stresses his great