Under my byline

The rediscovery of Nehru

Posted in Books by Rrishi on 11 November 2008

Walter Crocker, NehruOVERLEAF 5

Living in Delhi as Australia’s high commissioner to India in the time of Jawaharlal Nehru, Walter Crocker found himself cutting out press photos of the PM from the local papers. Thus he built up a personal visual gallery of Nehru’s “many sides and many moods”. Such was the importance of Nehru in Delhi and the world, and such was the curiosity and commitment to observation of this unusual diplomat.

In fact, Crocker found Nehru so fascinating that, two years after Nehru died, he published Nehru: A Contemporary’s Estimate, a short but terrific assessment of the man and the politician. “Over two periods between 1952 and 1962 it was my job to watch Nehru day by day,” Crocker writes. “Had my job in Delhi been anything else I would still have watched him, out of interest, almost helpless interest.” His book is now in print again after a long and undeserved obscurity (just in time for Nehru’s 119th birth anniversary, which is also Crocker’s sixth death anniversary), thanks to the historian Ramachandra Guha.

Jawaharlal Nehru by S Roerich, 1943Crocker was a serving diplomat when he wrote his Nehru book, so the manuscript had to be vetted by his employers. Afterwards he complained, Guha informs us in a foreword, that “a rather anemic book is the result…” but if this is anaemic, let us have more anaemia. The book hardly pulls punches in evaluating Nehru’s actions and words on Kashmir, Goa and China, his domestic industrialisation policy and the Plans, the real impact of his tireless work in building non-alignment and countering “colonial” forces worldwide. Nor does it fall shy of investigating and taking a stand on Nehru’s nature and personality and how they shaped as well as limited his effectiveness as a ruler.

In performing this second task, Crocker, thankfully, is secure enough in his own judgement to stay away from a Freudian analysis — away from any such tiresomely imprecise thing as a concealed underbelly or subconscious motives founded in childhood trauma. He takes Nehru at his word (and that was contradictory enough), and then applies his observation and knowledge of India and Indians. Perhaps he is a little hamstrung by his limited knowledge, but that is not a flaw when the assumptions are so plainly laid out.

At the end of it all, even if one learns little that is strictly new, Crocker’s portrait is authoritative, partly because it is based on firsthand observation and partly because it comes from a relatively detached outsider. Few of Nehru’s other biographers can claim the same advantages.

Crocker’s Indian contemporaries gave the book rather mixed reviews, but the best of them appreciated the whole rather than took issue with some of the ideas it contained. As Guha points out, Nirad Chaudhuri and Khushwant Singh, both “independent-minded” Indians, were unreserved in their praise of the book.

Walter CrockerCrocker himself was nothing if not independent-minded. He lived a full 100 years, from 1902 to 2002, and till the very end was active, accessible, and indeed a bit of a gadfly. At the age of 89 he took part in a demonstration to protest the prosecution of an alleged war criminal, holding a placard that read: “Vengeance & Hatred Poison Communities As Well As Persons”. In his diplomatic career he held some unpopular positions, saying in the 1960s that Australia should recognise Mao’s China, that it should not so readily bend to America’s lead in international affairs, especially over Vietnam, nor sell up the best of its natural resources to foreign buyers. A principled and outspoken conservative, he was nevertheless a successful diplomat.

What a contrast to the generations of post-Independence Indian diplomats! Even after retirement, they preserve their mandarin demeanour, saying little and being quoted less. Partly, this is a result of the conditions of government service, of our devotion to hierarchy and distrust of those who break ranks. Few Indian diplomats — the cream of the civil services — are scholars, yet of those who do write, far more turn out policy papers for think tanks than books for the citizen reader, drawing upon their decades of experience around the world. Hoarded experience earns no interest, except among the small circle of favoured investments.

Perhaps publishers should now start chasing them for their stories, because, as Walter Crocker shows, a diplomat has a unique outsider/insider perspective on the governing elite of the capital where he is posted. It’s time to ask why so few Indian diplomats have given us a similarly thoughtful ringside view of life in Mao’s Beijing, Khrushchev’s Moscow, de Gaulle’s Paris, Reagan’s Washington. If we don’t ask now, soon it may be too late.

(Visit the publisher’s website, or read an interview with Ramachandra Guha.)

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