January 17, 2020
Home  »  Magazine  »  Books  » Reviews  » Review »  The House Of Nehru

The House Of Nehru

A balanced critique that doubles as a history of independent India

The House Of Nehru
The Dynasty : A Political Biography Of The Premier Ruling Family Of Modern India
By S.S. Gill
HarperCollins Publishers India Pages: 568; Rs 395
AS he says in the last chapter of his book, S.S. Gill was upbraided by P.N. Haksar for giving his three-in-one biographies of Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi the title The Dynasty. The late G. Parthasarthi tried to dissuade him more gently. But Gill stuck to his guns. For good reason. After all, Nehru, his daughter and her son do form a dynasty. And, between them, ruled India for all but four of the 42 years after Independence.

No wonder then that though the author's focus is on the dynasty as an entity, his analysis of its strengths, weaknesses, achievements and failures, add up to a short socio-political history of India over four decades ending with the '80s.

Gill's judgments are, by and large, objective. Despite his distaste for the 'distortions' introduced into Indian democracy by 'dynastic rule', he gives the Nehru-Gandhis credit for preserving Indian unity, providing the nation with stability during a difficult era, standing by democracy (despite the Emergency which, in Gill's view, was not imposed suddenly but had been coming for some time) and, of course, secularism. At what Raj Krishna used to call the "Hindu rate of growth", the country has not done badly. Famines, endemic during the British Raj, are a thing of the past. India's population grew two-and-a-half times during 1947-89 (for which the rulers cannot be congratulated) and yet it feeds itself. The other side of the coin is that from the 10th position on the list of industrialised nations in 1947, India has slid to the 27th.

Inadequacies and 'derailment' of land reforms and preservation and expansion of the "colonial pattern of administration" are other failures Gill lists. He rightly holds that the most dismaying part of the "dynasty's legacy" is that India enters the 21st century with "the largest number of illiterates in the world". He pertinently quotes John Kenneth Galbraith: "There is no literate population on this planet that is poor, no illiterate population that is otherwise than poor".

Gill's main concern is to spotlight the dynasty's role in "inhibiting the polity from realising its democratic potential in consonance with the country's federal ethos" because "personal charisma was used to build up dynastic rule instead of a decentralised polity". Aware his remarks may be considered irreverent, Gill says he had "no personal axe to grind and carried no chip on my shoulder. Nehru was a hero to me in my youth. I received nothing but kindness from Indira Gandhi and Rajiv. I got good postings (as an IAS officer) and two Presidential awards". He need not have worried on this score. If there are a few vehement observations in his book, he has mostly had his say with moderation. In particular, his criticism of Indira Gandhi over Operation Blue Star and the tragedy of Punjab is the more effective for being voiced so calmly.

However, Gill's opus—bearing the imprint of painstaking research and deep thought and written in a clear style—suffers from a serious flaw. Oddly, in a book of more than 550 pages, devoted to the "greatest political dynasty of modern times", there is no attempt to discuss why the world's largest democracy, with a 60-year history of freedom movement, embraced dynastic rule enthusiastically. The dynasty was not built in the manner of Papa Doc. It was elected at every stage, at times overwhelmingly. The Empress was re-elected with a two-third majority 33 months after being over thrown.

Gill also notes, albeit cursorily, that while there is no dynastic rule in India these days, (elected) dynasties are flowering in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Signs of the extension of this pattern are in Myanmar and Indonesia. Nor is this all. In 1986, researching for my biography of Indira Gandhi, I asked Galbraith to reflect on the dynastic element in political succession in India. He refused. On the ground that he did not wish to "insult the memory of the Roosev-elts and the Kennedys". Surely, a phenomenon of such dimensions merits a serious study of its causes and dynamics. To talk about the "legitimisation of charisma" and "institutionalising the dynastic principle" is not enough. Especially as Gill says that initially Indira had no charisma but later developed it.

An interesting point is that while the Nehru-Gandhis may have been, in Salman Rushdie's memorable phrase, "a dynasty to beat Dynasty in a Delhi to rival Dallas", was it the only one? Haven't a myriad mini-dynasties continued to flourish, from Kashmir to Kanyakumari? Does anyone bother that in the current Kashmir elections, two sons of the Centre's sole Kashmiri minister are contesting and that Mufti Saeed has put up his wife and daughter?

The most distressing feature of Gill's book is that in his anxiety to project the dynasty in an integrated mould he has divided the blame for the dynastic rule's baneful consequences between Nehru, Indira and Rajiv almost equally. This is ahistorical and unfair. Whatever Nehru's ambitions for his daughter, he did nothing to make her his successor. As Gill notes, before Nehru's death the succession had been decided in favour of Lal Bahadur Shastri. It was Indira who paved the way for Sanjay and then for Rajiv. Institutions did get eroded because of dynastic rule. But surely not in Nehru's time.

Gill astutely says: "In certain ways Indira Gandhi's statecraft left a deeper mark on Indian polity than Nehru's". That is where the rub lies. A pity Nehru's successors didn't show Parliament the respect he did.

Overall, Gill's is a serious book on our times and merits study.

Next Story >>
Google + Linkedin Whatsapp

The Latest Issue

Outlook Videos