There are three kinds of writers coexisting within Shashi Tharoor, says David Davidar in his introduction to Pride, Prejudice and Punditry : “The writer of newspaper columns, book reviews, and magazine articles; the creator of literary fiction; and the author of heavyweight books of popular history, sociology, and current affairs.” This is an edited excerpt of a profile of Jawaharlal Nehru and his idea of India from the book, a collection of the best of Tharoor’s fiction and non-fiction:
Jawaharlal Nehru was a skilled exponent of soft power, much before the term was even coined: he developed a role for India in the world based entirely on its civilisational history and its moral standing, making India the voice of the oppressed and the marginalised against the big power hegemons of the day. This gave our country enormous standing and prestige across the world for years, and strengthened our own self-respect as we stood, proud and independent, on the global stage.
Indeed, we are still drawing from these traditions. After all, in the information age, it is not the side with the bigger army that wins, but the side which tells the better story. India must remain the ‘land of the better story’. As a society with a free press and a thriving mass media, with a people whose creative energies are daily encouraged to express themselves in a variety of appealing ways, India has an extraordinary ability to tell stories that are more persuasive and attractive than those of its rivals. This is not about propaganda; indeed, it will not work if it is directed from above, least of all by government. But its impact, though intangible, can be huge. This soft power, too, is Nehru’s legacy; he created a standing for India out of all proportion to our military strength or economic might.
Yet soft power is not just what we can deliberately and consciously exhibit or put on display; it is rather how others see what we are, whether or not we are trying to show it to the world. It is not just material accomplishments that enhance India’s soft power. Even more important are the values and principles for which India stands, and I do believe Nehru would have applauded this evolution of his own approach to world affairs.
India has in recent years undergone profound transformations in its politics (from the dominant Congress system to a proliferation of regional parties to the dominance of the now-ascendant Bharatiya Janata Party), its economics (from a controlled ‘socialist’ economy to a thriving, if mixed, free-enterprise system), its trade (from protectionism to globalisation and perhaps partially back again), and its social relations (from a rigidly hierarchical caste system to a more egalitarian policy affirming opportunities and outcomes for the ‘lowest’ castes, and from a secular political culture to one in which a party of the Hindu majority is overtly asserting its strength). Now, any of these transformations could have been enough to throw another country into a turbulent revolution. But we have had all four in India and yet we have absorbed them, and made all the changes work, because the Indian revolution is a democratic one, sustained by a larger idea of India, an India which safeguards the common space available to each identity, an India that remains safe for diversity. That was Nehru’s vision, and this is his vindication.
The truth is that Nehru’s extraordinary life and career is part of the inheritance of every Indian. The very term ‘Indian’ was imbued with such meaning by Nehru that it is impossible to use it without acknowledging a debt: our passports incarnate his ideals. Where those ideals came from, whether they were brought to fulfilment by their own progenitor, and to what degree they remain viable today, are all legitimate issues for debate. Nehru’s impact on India is too great not to be re-examined periodically. His legacy is ours, whether we agree with everything he stood for or not. What we are today, both for good and for ill, we owe in great measure to one man. That is why his story is not simply history.
Today, both Gandhi’s and Nehru’s legacies are fundamentally contested, and many Indians have strayed from the ideals bequeathed to them by Gandhi and Nehru, Ambedkar and Patel. Yet they, in their very different ways, each represented that rare kind of leader who is not diminished by the inadequacies of his followers. Today, the ruling BJP and its followers lose no opportunity to denigrate Nehru, especially on social media, accusing him of every conceivable sin of both commission and omission. It is like throwing pebbles at a mountain. They cannot even begin to dent the scale of his contributions to India.
Even the most distinguished leader of the BJP has in the past — despite many areas of disagreement — acknowledged the legacy of Nehru as a champion of the country. Speaking in Parliament on Nehru’s death, Atal Bihari Vajpayee declared emotionally — and poetically — that with the prime minister’s passing ‘a dream has remained half-fulfilled, a song has become silent, and a flame has vanished into the Unknown. The dream was of a world free of fear and hunger; the song a great epic resonant with the spirit of the Gita and as fragrant as a rose, the flame a candle which burnt all night long, showing us the way.’ The loss, Vajpayee averred, was not merely that of a family or even of a party. Mother India, he said, was in mourning because ‘her beloved Prince has gone to sleep’; even humanity was sad because its servant and worshipper had left it forever. Vajpayee went on to describe the departed prime minister as a ‘benefactor of the downtrodden’ and the ‘chief actor of the world stage’ whom he compared to none less than Lord Ram, for like Valmiki’s (and the Hindutvavadis’) hero, Nehru was ‘the orchestrator of the impossible and inconceivable’. He too (I’m still quoting Vajpayee) ‘was not afraid of compromise but would never compromise under duress’.
One might say that these words were only to be expected from a gracious adversary in tribute to a deceased prime minister. But Vajpayee’s statements went far beyond the claims of ritual. He called on the nation to rededicate itself to Nehru’s ideals. ‘With unity, discipline and self confidence,’ Vajpayee said, in words that could never have been Narendra Modi’s, ‘we must make this Republic of ours flourish. The leader has gone, but the followers remain. The sun has set, yet by the shadow of stars we must find our way. These are testing times, but we must dedicate ourselves to his great aim, so that India can become strong, capable and prosperous….’
This remains the cherished goal of all Indians. As we make our political choices, we would do well to recall the first leader of independent India and the values and principles on which he built our democratic polity.
Excerpted with permission from Aleph Book Company. Shashi Tharoor is a Congress MP