Shashi Tharoor delivers an incisive biography of the great secularist who—alongside his spiritual father, Mahatma Gandhi—led the movement for India’s independence from British rule and ushered his newly independent country into the modern world. The man who would one day help topple British rule and become India’s first prime minister started out as a surprisingly unremarkable student. Born into a wealthy, politically influential Indian family in the waning years of the Raj, Jawaharlal Nehru was raised on Western secularism and the humanist ideas of the Enlightenment.
Once he met Gandhi in 1916, Nehru threw himself into the nonviolent struggle for India’s independence, a struggle that wasn’t won until 1947. India had found a perfect political complement to her more spiritual advocate, but neither Nehru nor Gandhi could prevent the horrific price for independence: partition. This fascinating biography casts an unflinching eye on Nehru’s heroic efforts for, and stewardship of, independent India and gives us a careful appraisal of his legacy to the world.
The Indian consensus that Jawaharlal Nehru (1889 1964) constructed as the nation's first prime minister, Tharoor writes with unsparing objectivity, "has frayed: democracy endures, secularism is besieged, nonalignment is all but forgotten, and socialism barely clings on." Nehru seems "curiously dated, a relic of another era." His goal of creating "a just state by just means" has been undermined by the centrifugal forces of Indian religious and cultural divisiveness. Tharoor's short and highly readable life never lacks for pithy phrases and strong opinions. A senior U.N. official, Tharoor (India: From Midnight to the Millennium) writes with shrewd wit and cautious ambivalence about Nehru, whom he admires as the Thomas Jefferson of India a foe of colonialism, a statesman of grace and style and a master of uplifting words but whose leadership failed in forcefulness and whose political heirs were without his charm. Nehru's privileged Kashmiri background and Harrow-Cambridge education left him replete with paradoxes a reserved aristocrat yet a near Marxist, a demigod (to the masses) and a democrat (to himself), a political prisoner of the British for nine years who was even more a prisoner to his own "vainglory," an idealist with "a moralism that stood somewhere to the left of morality." Tharoor's distant villain is the curmudgeonly Winston Churchill, whose staunch "racist imperialism," particularly toward India, made his "subsequent beatification as an apostle of freedom... all the more preposterous." This engaging short biography is a scrutiny of a major 20th-century leader from his "Little Lord Fauntleroy" beginnings to his transformation into a historic figure wearing a halo in his own lifetime.