Book Review: Nehru, A Contemporary’s Estimate by Walter Crocker

This book, a biography of Jawaharlal Nehru written by Walter Crocker, the Australian High commission, which was first published in 1966 by OUP. It was again reprinted by Random House, India in 2009. The first edition of the book was published with a foreword by Arnold Toynbee while the one re-published in 2009 has a new foreword was written by Ramachandra Guha.

Crocker had the opportunity to see Nehru from close quarter as the Australian High Commissioner to India between 1952 and 1955 and again from 1958 to 1962. Crocker writing about Nehru says, ‘had my job in Delhi been anything else I would still have watched him, out of interest, almost helpless interest. He was interesting because of his political importance but still more interesting because of himself. Mostly I admired him; occasionally he was disappointing; but always he fascinated me’.

My main takeaway from the book is that it reinforces with concrete example, the summary of the man ie. ‘A great and a remarkable human being but a failed policy maker and leader in government’. The brute reality is that India gave him 18 years of uninterrupted rule, with more or less unbridled and unchallenged power, but when he died, he had left India with nearly all its problems unsolved; food insecurity, poverty and illiteracy, low level of per capita income, frayed communal relations and communal riots, domestic insurgency and unfriendly neighborhood.

While he has many unabashed followers in whose eyes he could/can do no wrong, but what can you say of a leader under whose 18 years of uninterrupted rule, India could not even break the begging bowl that had become the defining character for the country (and the source of great humiliation too). It was only in his death that made the leadership set its mind to it, and when it did, it took less than a decade for India to become self sufficient in food grains!

For me the lasting problem that he left behind for this country was to convince them that thinking in ‘poem’ was more important than thinking in ‘prose’. Prose demands clear and rational thinking – thinking in first principle terms, not abstractions. Since it demands understanding an issue at the level of basics, it is surely pretty difficult, for even those who are educated..in contrast, in lyrical thinking everything goes… Prose asks you to list concrete steps how to maintain communal harmony, in poetry you can talk abstract like humanism, bhai chara and get away with it. Nehru got away with his lyrical speeches and abstract ideas…! His cunning ensured that all who could challenge his humbug abstractions were either sidelined, also no leadership was groomed who could pose a challenge to him…he was clear who would succeed him…

The book has many failings, it has an ethnocentric bias to it, but I guess the assessment of Nehru is pretty correct; a great personality but a mediocre leader (at best).

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