Many-splendoured legacy

Coming at a time when it is an open season on Nehru, Tharoor's book is like a breath of fresh air because of its refreshing objectivity, says INDER MALHOTRA.

AT the very start of his book on Jawaharlal Nehru, Shashi Tharoor declares candidly that his is not a scholarly work, nor is it based on painstaking research into previously undiscovered archives. It therefore contains no startlingly new insights. Even so, Nehru: The Invention of India — a "short biography" and a "reinterpretation" of material already in the public domain, as the author calls it — merits a welcome. It is indeed a valuable addition to the literature on an extraordinary and many-splendoured life and on the "inheritance it has left behind for every Indian".

For, at a time when it is open season on Nehru, Tharoor's book comes as a breath of fresh air because of the refreshing objectivity of his evaluation of a man who was a lot more than independent India's Prime Minister for the first 17 years. Nehru's mentor, indeed master, the Mahatma, was India's liberator; the younger man, Gandhi's handpicked political heir, was its moderniser. Above all it was Nehru who laid firm foundations on the strength of which India proudly continues to be the world's largest democracy.

Tharoor takes note of all this and more. Being a gifted writer, with eight books already to his credit, he does so with lucidity and in eminently readable prose. But he is not an uncritical admirer of Nehru. Far from building plaster pyramids in the great man's honour (a pastime of many in earlier years) he is unsparing in his criticism of "Panditji" where criticism is due. Tharoor's elaborate and reasoned criticism of Nehru's economic policies — often influenced by advisors such as P.C. Mahalanobis "who combined intellectual brilliance and ideological wrong-headedness in equal measure" — that led to chronic stagnation, depressing inefficiency and the hugely corrupting licence-permit quota raj is strong, perhaps a tad excessive. But it takes it place along with his unstinted praise for "one vital legacy of Nehru's economic planning — the creation of an infrastructure for excellence in science and technology."

"Nehru," says the author, "left India with the world's second-largest pool of trained scientists and engineers, integrated into the global intellectual system, to a degree without parallel outside the developed West." It is this base that has made it possible for the country to become a "software superpower" today.

A remarkable feature of the book is that it comes from the pen (or should one say PC?) of an author even younger than Midnight's children. Hopefully, it might be a corrective to those youngsters who regurgitate the prevalent uninformed criticism of Nehru because they have no idea of what a joy it was to live under his civilised and inspirational rule. At any rate, until his tragic, twilight years after the war with China in high Himalayas.

However, there is one point — Tharoor's suggestion that the author ofThe Discovery of India was, in fact, India's Inventor — on which one has a bone to pick with him. He might have meant this metaphorically than literally. Nehru, more than anyone else, may well have welded the "world's most disparate collection of fellow citizens" into a nation. But the danger is that this would be grist to the mill of those who continue to pontificate that there was no India before the arrival of the British. It was, according to them, the subsequent creation of a dialectical combination of the British Raj, the freedom movement and Nehru's superhuman efforts. None of them care to explain why the hard-nosed men who assembled in the City of London in 1601 decide to form the East India Company. More than a century earlier than that, Columbus had embarked on his famous voyage, not to discover America but to find an alternative route to India!

In his celebrated article in Modern Review, when he was already at the height of his glory, Nehru had warned the nation of the danger of his yielding to the temptation of becoming a dictator. But as the uniquely powerful ruler of India he absolutely refused to deviate from the democratic path even temporarily for any reason whatsoever, including the acceleration of the pace of development. Most Indians became aware of the infinite value of this only after his daughter, Indira Gandhi, slapped on the country the 19-month nightmare of the Emergency during which democracy was suspended. Tharoor agrees with this. But he adds, "it is a mea