India: A Family Business? ; Nehru: A Political Life by Judith M Brown YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS Pounds 25 (424Pp) Pounds 22 (Free P&p per Order) from 08700 798 897 Nehru: The Invention of India by Shashi Tharoor ARCADE (NEW YORK) $24.95 (282Pp) Pounds 13.99 (Free P&p per Order) from 08700 798 897
Tripathi, Salil, The Independent (London, England)
Once again, as India goes to the polls, the constituency of Amethi in Uttar Pradesh has attracted unusual attention. Another descendant of India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, is standing for that seat. This time it is Rahul Gandhi, the son of the Congress leader Sonia Gandhi and of the former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, both of whom earlier represented the constituency. Before Rajiv entered politics, his younger brother Sanjay represented Amethi - although he died in an air accident after a year. Amethi neighbours Rae Bareli, the constituency that Rajiv and Sanjay's mother, the former PM Indira Gandhi, represented. And Rahul's mother, Sonia, is herself standing from Rae Bareli this time.
Many Indians have asked: what are Rahul's qualifications to run for office, other than his pedigree? They also question Sonia's leadership of Congress and, over the years, questioned the entry of Rajiv, Sanjay and Indira into politics. Perhaps the more interesting issue is why, for 45 of independent India's first 50 years, voters decided to cast their lot with this remarkable family. This year's election is the first after the completion of a full term by a non- Congress government, and the time that Nehru's party has stayed out of power - now nearly eight years - is the longest since independence.
These eight years have coincided with not only greater challenges to the continuation of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, but also with the reassessment of Nehru's legacy. Many of Nehru's policies are being questioned, if not discarded. The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party leads India's ruling coalition. As the BJP rewrites textbooks and challenges conventional history, some leaders are denigrating pillars of secularism such as Nehru and his mentor, Mahatma Gandhi. Nehru built what he called the temples of modern India: its dams and centres of excellence in academia. Many BJP supporters want to rebuild a more literal kind of temple from the ancient Hindu past - by razing mosques.
Nehru was a scholar and a visionary who was practical enough to understand the limits of idealism. He learnt non-violence from Gandhi, but jettisoned it as PM, using force in Kashmir, Hyderabad and Goa.
Yet his own idealism was boundless,although shattered by reality - as when China invaded India in 1962. Intolerant of superstition and keen to promote the scientific temper, he disregarded traditional sensitivities. He could be autocratic, trusting only a select few.
These two new biographies do Nehru justice, revealing his strengths and weaknesses. Judith Brown's is a dispassionate political account, written with detachment but admiration. Shashi Tharoor's livelier, shorter essay has a more personal perspective, with apocryphal stories. Brown downplays the titillating aspects of Nehru's life. To her, the question of whether Nehru had a physical relationship with Edwina Mountbatten, wife of the last Viceroy, is not relevant. The warmth with which she filled his lonely life is. Tharoor dismisses the idea of an affair more emphatically.
One area Brown leaves unexplored is what Nehru did not do, despite his belief in women's emancipation. To his great credit, he reformed Hindu laws. He did not add- ress inequities in Muslim or Christian personal law, which allowed later Hindu nationalists to ridicule his "pseudo-secular" appeasement. While Tharoor does not directly blame Nehru, he demonstrates that his policies did lead to inequities.
Nehru had no time for religious rituals. His belief in India's inclusive identity was so firm that the Mahatma's use of religious symbols exasperated him. …