Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Nehru and Indira

Jawaharlal Nehru: A Biography by Sarvepalli Gopal

This book was my introduction to the incestuous world of 20th c. Indian politics, written by the son of one of the major players, and written with the fawning reverence appropriate for grade school textbooks. So I suppose I should have abandoned it before finishing the first chapter. But it does present a lot of Nehru's own correspondence - and since the most positive possible spin is always being given, one can read between the lines for the rest of the story.

Unlike Mao, the leader of the other Asian giant emerging in the 20th C., Jawaharlal did not have to fight, scheme, and murder his way to the top.

He was a fine, decent, idealistic, handsome man, and he deserved everything that was given to him.

First by his father, a wealthy, successful attorney who was among the founders of the independence movement among the tiny, educated, English speaking elite, then by the Mahatma who took that movement to the wider population, and finally by the British who couldn't afford to run an empire after the Second World War, so they quickly dumped it on whomever was willing to take over.

During all this time, Jawaharlal served as an attractive spokesman for the cause of independence, social justice, and especially for ethnic harmony, a cause for which his background made him suitable -- being born a secular, high-caste Hindu from Kashmir, a Muslim majority state.

The creation of Pakistan was (and continues to be) the great disaster of that period - could he have done more to prevent it?

On the other hand, does he deserve credit for forestalling any further fragmentation? Or for building a modern, industrialized nation ?

The picture I get is of a small, elite group of English speaking, educated Indians (about 50,000 around 1890) who will eventually run the world's largest democracy -- whose leaders get to prove their idealism by periodically sitting in jail for the cause of independence.

Then, once independence is achieved (or given), the dynamics of competing self interest takes over, and the image of the national leader is much more important than the effects of his decisions. (an image that's been passed down through the generations of his family)

Perhaps we could call this the Brahmin era of modern India -- led by the great priest, Mahatma, and his pious followers (Nehru) -- to be eventually replaced by the next lower caste (Kshatriyas) who traditionally wield political/economic power.

And the need to see these leaders in a positive way is so great, we shouldn't even want to know the details of their personal lives and foibles. (thus the current outrage over the Australian film that was going to show Nehru in bed with Lord Mountbatten's wife)

Indira Gandhi - A Personal and Political Biography by Inder Malohotra

This was a much better read about a much less sacred person. She even married a Parsi. Does that mean that's she's no longer Brahmin?

Perhaps Malohotra has just sold me a bill of goods -- but I get the feeling that he was a concerned citizen first, and a professional journalist second (a feeling that no American journalist has ever given me)

Is he telling the truth about those private interviews he had with Indira? If so, it's as if Plutarch had chatted with Caesar as he was walking to the Forum on March 15 and cautioned him not to go. (though, they both suffered the same fate)

And Indira's story is just as exciting as Caesar's -- or, more like Gaius Marius, in the extreme ups and downs of her career.

So, I'm saying this is great work of history and predict it will be a classic in the centuries to come -- especially when it's read in conjunction with an internet search engine that can fill in all the details on the dozens of other politicians who are mentioned.

Even though, I'm not really sure what Indira accomplished other than staying in office, promoting her lineage, and keeping the Bangladesh tragedy from being as catastrophic to India as it was to Bangladesh.

Did the "emergency" prevent national disintegration ? Did it do lasting harm to democratic institutions? Are India's Hindu, Muslim, and regional ethnic populations any closer to living peacefully with each other?

And to phrase a question in an Indian context, is dharma being further cultivated, or abandoned by commercial and ethnic self interest?