Nehru: A Political Life; Organizing Empire: Individualism, Collective Agency, and India

In This Review

Nehru: A Political Life

By Judith M. Brown
Yale University Press, 2003
432 pp. $35.00
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Organizing Empire: Individualism, Collective Agency, and India

By Purnima Bose
Duke University Press, 2003
280 pp. $79.95
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Enough time has passed since the end of colonial rule in India so we should expect reasonably objective accounts of one of the most complex human situations in history. Brown, a professor at Oxford, seeks to capture the spirit of the last days of British rule and the first years of Indian independence in a biography of Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister. Brown benefits from both historical perspective and access to Nehru's own papers, and she skillfully depicts the upper-class world in which Nehru grew up, his early experience in politics under Gandhi's guidance, and his role in shaping Indian nationalism. She also details the many failures of his rule, such as the collapse of his foreign policy after India's humiliating defeat in the 1962 border war with China. By ending at Nehru's death, however, she avoids addressing the more lasting costs of his mistakes: the high price India paid for its Cold War association with the Soviet Union and the socialist dreams that left its economy shackled to state policies and closed to the benefits of the world economy. Now, Nehru's secular vision is under threat from virulent Hindu nationalism.

Bose, a professor of English, has written a dense, thoughtful book about individualism and group identity in the colonial era and in the formation of Indian nationalism. Under the British Raj, heroic individualism dominated -- producing role models for colonial subjects and also allowing blame for problems to fall on individuals, not the colonial system itself. In the formation of Indian nationalism, Bose uncovers numerous ways in which individualistic values play into collective action. She examines how Indian women integrated their personal identities into a broader sense of nationalism. Conversely, she shows how British colonial officials and their wives stressed heroic individualistic values in order to overlook their racism and arrogance. The result of Bose's study is a new and profound understanding of nationalism.