Jawaharlal Nehru reportedly once described himself as the last Englishman to rule India. Raised in an affluent, westernised family, educated at Harrow, Cambridge and the Inns of Court, and an Anglophile all his life, Nehru was a prime minister with whom British and other western leaders felt at ease. Even as an Indian nationalist committed to driving out the British, Nehru never rejected the western culture that had shaped him. The great virtue of Judith Brown's new study is its careful account of how Nehru tried to graft the best of British institutions and values on to a country largely resistant to them.
This attempted fusion of east and west created considerable conflict between Nehru and his mentor, Mahatma Gandhi. It also meant that, despite the frenetic activity and lack of privacy entailed by his position, Nehru was often an isolated, lonely and ultimately rather tragic figure. As Brown's assessment of Nehru's 17 years as prime minister makes clear, his project for India failed. India today - led by a Hindu nationalist government, crippled by corruption and riven by communal conflict - is a nightmarish inversion of everything he tried to achieve.
But do we need yet another life of Nehru? Michael Brecher's political biography, written while Nehru was still alive, and Sarvepalli Gopal's three-volume work, completed in 1984, remain indispensable. Stanley Wolpert published a sensationalist biography in 1996, and both Nigel Hamilton and Sunil Khilnani have Nehru biographies forthcoming. Brown makes much of Sonia Gandhi allowing her to see previously classified, post-1947 papers "almost in their entirety". But the qualifying "almost" suggests that, like many before her, Brown was probably denied access to unpublished letters to family and close friends, including the crucial correspondence between Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten.
Brown believes that following the declassification of these papers, we need to look at Nehru's life "afresh", but there is little in her book that is new. The first three parts rehearse the well-known narrative of Nehru's years in the lead-up to independence in 1947. But most interesting and original are the last two sections, which provide a convincing assessment of Nehru's often neglected premiership from 1947-64. While Brown's sobering conclusion that Nehru's "new India" miscarried is not news, her careful and detailed exploration of the reasons why it did so are valuable.
Nehru's inability to delegate, his deteriorating health and his reliance on dubious characters such as Krishna Menon, his confidant and cabinet minister, all contributed to this failure. There were also external factors - for example, the opposition to him among state governments frustrated federal initiatives, and rapid population growth (which Nehru long refused to recognise as a major problem) hampered economic development. But perhaps Nehru's greatest enemy was his misguided, Soviet-style model of industrialisation and economic transformation. A series of five-year plans simply did not yield the results he had envisioned, and India became increasingly dependent on foreign aid. Nor did the country's brand of socialist democracy work effectively. Government-run industries proved inefficient: tight control constrained rather than encouraged economic development.
Among the many aspects of Nehru's "new India" project that backfired were the federal policies designed to reduce social inequities; ceilings on landholding, intended to benefit the rural poor; and legislation that aimed at improving the plight of Indian women and other oppressed groups. Abolishing "untouchability" in the new Indian constitution did not change entrenched prejudices, beliefs and traditions.
And then there was the debacle of China's invasion of India in 1962. A lack of adequate intelligence and foresight caught India totally off guard. It was saved only by China's unilateral ceasefire and withdrawal - a development that was as inexpli-cable to Nehru as the invasion itself. Menon, then defence minister, took the blame and resigned, but Nehru's reputation was gravely damaged.
Although the day of the Carlylean view of history as "the biography of great men" is long past, Brown concedes that "at particular historical junctures individuals can be of considerable importance", and this is her justification for a new biography of Nehru. She subtitles her book "a political life", and we are warned that most of "the personal dimension" will be excluded. On these terms, there is little to fault in her book.
But can an individual life be so easily bisected into the political and the personal? The policies of both Nehru and Indira Gandhi on Kashmir, for example, were rooted in their own deep feelings about their land of origin. There is no indication that Brown conducted any interviews, even though many of Nehru's colleagues, followers and family are still alive. We look in vain for love affairs (Edwina Mountbatten is despatched in a paragraph), childhood conflict, rivalries between the Nehru women, or the story of Nehru's strange but ultimately successful marriage and the lingering grief he felt after his wife died.
Brown defends her approach by claiming that Nehru's was "essentially a political life . . . utterly dedicated to politics . . . at the expense of normal family experience, of all but a few close friendships and ultimately of his own health". This is undoubtedly true, but his personal relationships were vital to him, especially those with women: his wife Kamala, his daughter Indira (their published correspondence reveals a complex relationship) and, to a lesser extent, with the two women to whom he was closest as prime minister, Padmaja Naidu and Edwina Mountbatten. All were privy to Nehru as both private and public man.
Brown's "political life" is an absorbing, scrupulously resear-ched and convincing assessment of one of the most important political figures of the 20th century. But for the whole man, we must wait for a future Nehru biographer.
Katherine Frank is the author of Indira: the life of Indira Nehru Gandhi (HarperCollins)