The relationship that the third world societies will have with modernity, it seems, has its roots in the colonial period. It is not just about how the present and the future of third world nation states are inevitably overdetermined by their past, but about every aspect of their culture, history, society and politics. A normative commitment to modernity was necessary in the colonial period for nationalist movement, though there was no agreement about its descriptive content. Who is authorized to participate in this process of deciding the content of modernity and why? Who is more authentic and capable - the leaders or the masses? If the leaders will decide on behalf of people, to what extent leaders of the anti-colonial nationalist movements represented the "masses" they sought to represent. Are not the leaders advocating "foreign" values, beliefs and institutions that had been introduced by an alien power? What about an authentic and indigenous political framework? Authenticity or its lack, then characterizes the leaders of anti-colonial nationalist struggle.
Colonial intellectuals are enmeshed in this struggle to be "modern" and be out of tune with colonial political reality on the one hand and on the other "indigenise" themselves and fall short of their own vision. It was "evident" in colonial period and still is that the "western" progress cannot be appropriated at the cost of "indigenous" genius of India. Authenticity and invention within these circumstances are the two facets of the same colonial moderns' coin. Framed in these terms, Nehru as a colonial intellectual, par excellence symbolises, our achievements and our failures
Notwithstanding the countless biographies that have been written and one autobiography written in Ahmadnagar jail, by Nehru as a political prisoner, another biography is "timely", as he remains a figure who is capable of stepping out from the pages of history and present himself as an individual, an icon, indeed at times, as an touchstone for re-examination and reassessment of historical and contemporary events. The other picture of the failures of the vision and legacy of Nehru and its irrelevance today, is equally powerful. It seems the world he fought for and inhabited has receded from the horizon for ever. Europeans empires which Nehru challenged by advocating anti-imperialism has vanished and the cold war he fought against through his pragmatic and principled "non-alignment" is replaced by a unipolar world, where it is difficult to make sense of non-alignment. In the economic sphere, his ideas of state-led development with a mixed economy and the structures he built for implementing these ideas through state planning have been gradually and systematically dismantled by various parties in power, including the congress. The congress itself has been reduced to status of one of the national parties from being the party. Nehruvian secularism has been effectively challenged by Hindu nationalism and the task to defend Nehruvian socialism and secularism, ironically enough has been taken up by much battered left, his erstwhile critics. There is considerable disagreement about who inherits his legacy; oddly enough Nehru remains an icon, a historical figure of significant repute.
Benjamin Zachariah's biography of Nehru in this context is an endeavor to rescue the life of Nehru from the mythologies that his supporters, detractors and he himself created. Nehru remains the exceptional and towering figure who actively participated in the national movement and left his abiding imprint by "imagining India" in colonial times, as much as by leading India during the transition phase of colonial rule to a viable secular democratic nation. Nehru is credited and also held responsible for transforming India, pioneering anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism, nationalism and leaving behind an abiding imprint as a statesman of global standing.
The importance of this biography dose not lies with revealing, some hitherto, unknown aspects of his life but the issues and questions his life was inexplicably and inextricably woven. Zachariah presents us through his judicious, vigilant, at times overzealous scholarship a Nehru as a prisoner of events, caught by and dictated by the events than it being the other way round. Entrenched in the events, Nehru comes across as ever willing to grapple with them amidst plethora of currents, twists and vagaries of beliefs, opinions and doctrines, seeking an exit in the international arena, when the affairs of domestic politics turned out to be marred in intractable conflicts and disagreements. Zachariah enquires about the complex constellation of conditions and events which to start with, made Nehru and his leadership possible and sustainable, since he "attempts an understanding of Nehru and his times; it tends at times to decentre its central figure".
Nehru's position vis-a-vis Congress and his attempts to mould it is given as much importance as the nature and character of congress as a platform of virtually representing every aspect of Indian politics constraining and on the odd occasions, enabling Nehru's moves. Domestic and overseas support interacted and reinforced the sustainability of Nehru as a leader. Nehru, according to Zachariah owed his pre-eminence in Indian politics as much to his political allies as to his acceptability to political opponent. Nehru, the author argues was able to intervene more decisively on the international front and in shaping India's foreign policy than in its domestic affairs and has argued for a stronger links between international and domestic aspects of political life for Nehru.
During the anti-colonial nationalist movement, Nehru was more visible than effective both on the national and international platforms much more akin to a figure head rather than like a man in command. Many shades of opinion from Gandhi to the left and certainly at times, also the British government used Nehru for their own purposes and agendas not merely as a sounding board but as instruments for their purposes. In comparison Nehru was not as effective to pursue his ideas and visions as those who used him. Nehru, Zachariah demonstrates has uncanny ability to identify the problem but exasperatingly was unable to bring solutions to them through actions due to lack of resolve or purpose, in spite of the clarity he had about what is to be done and why.
Zachariah takes up the dilemmas and predicaments of colonial intellectuals in colonial times and foregrounds their responses and experiences caught as they are between the events which they neither can avoid nor deal effectively. Zachariah is more interested to enquire about how and why Nehru was important but pays little attention to how Nehru's ideas and visions cohere with their attendant tensions and contradiction due in an individual and relate with the wider scheme of things. The author is keener to talk about the socialists and communists and their relationship with Nehru than to Gandhi and Patel and their relationship with Nehru. The choice of the subject matter has more to do with the authors' interest than their relative importance for Nehru in his scheme of things.
The idea of a nation required a formula to reconcile the two incongruous strands, nation as ubiquitous and nation as unique. Nehru's way of dealing, Zachariah argues was not to attempt to resolve it. Most of the central ideas of Nehru, secular democracy, state-led development, containment of religious nationalism and obscurantism with the rhetoric of "socialism" without social justice, assumed a "nation", instead of defining it. In its open-endedness, Zachariah contends, lies its strength. This open-endedness has been overridden in our times. The book takes up these questions in the light of current debates about the significance and meaning of the Indian history and politics and its future. Zachariah with his dedicated and well researched narrative presents an adequate account of congress as a platform and not as a party and events which led to the partition of India. He also takes up the turbulent and tumultuous days of founding the independent India and how Nehru was able to "author" his vision at those moments.
Nehru separated the modern from the western and then modern can be universal, as well as avoid, being disqualified as not properly "indigenous". This separation and its execution is the legacy which has been contested and also appropriated by every shade of political opinion, in the history of independent India and beyond. Even today echoes of a particular, specific Indian modernity can be heard in the midst of unending debates and disagreements. Nehru is important, precisely because, more than anyone he strove to deal with these questions and arrived at answers and unlike, theorists and philosophers attempted to implement them as a statesmen.
The final and the last phase of Nehru are reminiscent of his early days as a political leader where disappointments and failures marked his life more than success and accomplishment. At the earlier phase they are attributed to his failures to confront and take his principled positions to logical conclusions, whereas in the later phase they are largely linked with the failures of his visions and expectations to bear fruit. Nehru's attempts to have strong links with communist China ended with a border dispute in 1959. Nehru's arguably, the most enduring legacy of "non-alignment" was of remarkable courage, innovation, political wisdom and indeed danger, has received a sensitive and insightful treatment by Zachariah. The book presents a fresh analysis of his failures on this count. It was a tragic finale for Nehru, who stood for "high principles and moral standards" for the conduct of international relations and whose vision of a socialist, secular, democratic, republic in India has remained largely unfulfilled and also discredited.
Nehru is irreverent, provocative and lucidly written. Zachariah's interest in Nehru and his understanding and sympathy with the pressures and constrains within which ideologies can be enacted and implemented shines forth in this book. Overall, however, there is an emphasis to account for and explain away the failures and disappointments of Nehru than offer a comprehensive judgment of Nehru and his life. Zachariah dissolves Nehru to social forces, zeitgeist and once in a while to realpolitik; so much so that one wonders is Nehru more than the residues of the working of such overwhelming structures and processes? It appears, in order to dispel myths about Nehru; the author obliterates the subject Nehru was. A refusal to resolve the pressing issues finds favour with Zachariah than the solutions Nehru offered, irrespective of whether it turned out to be a success or failure. In the end, Zachariah indicts Nehru for being unable to bring tenacity of purpose and mind and praises him for his "refusal to resolve" the pressing questions of political life!