JUDITH M. BROWN (2003), Nehru: A Political Life; SHASHI THAROOR (2003), Nehru: The Invention of India
Early in 2003, the website Samachar.com, which digests Indian newspapers for foreign Indiaphiles, conducted a poll that asked, “Which Prime Minister has contributed most to India’s development?” When I checked the numbers in February, incumbent prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was holding a huge lead with 596 votes, three times the number of his nearest rival. As for Jawaharlal Nehru, the chief architect of India’s political system and its transition from colony to independent democracy, and the author of the speech about India’s “tryst with destiny,” which is as well known in India as Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is in the United States, a speech that similarly defines a nation in terms of the capacity for sacrifice and service— Nehru came in third, with a mere seventy-five votes. To judge from the expatriate community at least, Nehru’s ideas had been roundly repudiated— though it was hard to say whether voters were applauding Vajpayee’s record on foreign investment or his preference for a Hindu state. Coming less than a year after the mass killings of innocent Muslims in Gujarat, virtually condoned by Vajpayee and surely not protested, the vote did not express a robust commitment to minority civil rights.
Three months later, the voters of India expressed themselves very differently. They returned Nehru’s Congress Party to power and roundly defeated Vajpayee’s Bharatiya Janata Party, the party of Hindu nationalism. Sonia Gandhi, the widow of Nehru’s grandson Rajiv Gandhi, declined the prime ministership in order to prevent the political process from being hijacked by the controversy over her foreign birth, but she still runs the party, and she has repeatedly stated that the electoral victory is a triumph for two central aspects of Nehru’s vision of the state: the idea of equal respect for citizens of all religions, and the idea of a basic commitment to eradicating desperate