November 2006

Arts & Letters

An uncommon diplomacy

By Ramachandra Guha

Walter Crocker’s ‘Nehru: A Contemporary’s Estimate’

The relationship between Australia and India has usually been viewed through the lens of cricket. Don Bradman and Keith Miller were heroes to a generation of Indians reared on nationalist prejudice, which predisposed them to admire those who got the better - wherever, and in whichever way - of the British. More recently, Australians have warmed to the batsmanship Down Under of those two Little Masters, Gundappa Viswanath and Sachin Tendulkar.

Where the cricketing relations between the two countries are intense and increasingly rivalrous, the political relations between them are insubstantial. Still, there are at least two Australians whose political connections and contributions to India deserve to be better known. One is RG Casey, the first - and last - Aussie to hold high office under the British Raj. Casey served as governor of the Bengal Presidency between 1944 and 1946, a time of famine and civil war, and acquitted himself honourably. Although a loyal servant of the Raj, he was broadminded enough to befriend Mahatma Gandhi.

As Casey went on to serve as Australia's foreign minister, his name has not entirely disappeared from the history books. However, that of his compatriot Walter Crocker has. This is a pity, for Crocker was a man of uncommon intelligence, a civil servant and diplomat who found time to write several very good books. The best of these was on India's first, greatest, longest serving and most controversial prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru: A Contemporary's Estimate was first published in 1966 and is now, lamentably, out of print.

Of Nehru it can truly be said that he was a hero of his age who has become an outcast of ours. Venerated while he lived - by his countrymen especially, but also by progressive-minded people everywhere - he has been savagely dumped upon since his death. Once acclaimed as the founder of India's democracy and secular state, he is now reviled for having (allegedly) shackled the Indian economy and for having (again, allegedly) founded a political dynasty.

There are many books on Nehru, but in this crowded field it is Walter Crocker's which stands out. Born and educated in Australia, Crocker worked for the League of Nations and as a colonial administrator in Nigeria before joining the diplomatic service. He served in a dozen countries - a chapter of his memoir is titled ‘Three Thousand Cocktail Parties' - and, in between assignments, he was the first professor of international relations at the Australian National University.

Crocker first lived in India as an army officer during World War II. He returned in the 1950s, serving two long terms as Australia's High Commissioner in New Delhi. India, he wrote later, "throws up some remarkable men [who] are a credit to the human race". On the other hand, "I was cheated repeatedly, I contributed to more bogus charities [than anywhere else]". Most of his time was spent studying the Indian prime minister, who, wrote Crocker, "was so fascinating by himself as to make my India assignment fascinating".

Nehru died in May 1964; that August, Crocker began drafting his book. It drew upon years of keen observation, of watching Nehru in his office and in parliament, and on the road. Crocker had also talked to Nehru's colleagues and political rivals, and, of course, to many ordinary Indians.

Crocker's portrait is principally political, although there are some deft personal touches. He speaks of Nehru's love of nature, his love of scholars and scholarship, his "exceptional" intelligence and capacity for hard work, his wit and sense of fun - and also of his short temper, his tendency to lecture and his fondness for vague generalisations. A detail of especial interest to Australians is that the last gift Nehru made was to the students of the University of Adelaide, to whom he donated a trophy for a debating competition.

Crocker does not shirk from pointing out Nehru's political errors. There was his sentimental attachment to Kashmir, which precluded the possibility of an early and just settlement with Pakistan; his grievous underestimation of the Chinese, which resulted in a humiliating military defeat in the high Himalaya; and his clinging on to the post of prime minister, when Indian democracy might have been better served by a successor having been in place within his lifetime. That said, Crocker has a proper sense of Nehru's greatness, of his extraordinary achievement in keeping together, and keeping democratic, such a large, diverse and desperately divided country.

To the craft of diplomacy Crocker brought the discipline of the scholar. He was able to place his subject in context, to view him against the longue durée of Indian history, the better to understand how modern democracy departed from the traditions and accretions imposed by that history. These statements, plucked from various points in the book, sum up Nehru the man, and Nehru the politician, better than any other work I have seen:

His first concern was to see that India did not fall apart. To this end he encouraged a nationalism that would make Indians feel that they were Indians instead of feeling that they were Tamils or Punjabis or Dogras or Assamese or Brahmans or Kshatriyas or this or that caste, as they are apt. He gave special consideration to the Muslims as to induce them to feel Indian. For the same reason Christians and other minorities could always be sure of Nehru's unflinching protection. The "Secular State", that is to say a non-Hindu and all-Indian State, was fundamental to this concern.

The great bulk of the people of India sensed, and they never lost the sense, that Nehru only wanted to help them and wanted nothing for himself; and that he was a ruler who had pity and kindness.

Nehru had conflicts with other [Indian] leaders, such as Rajagopalachari, Rajendra Prasad and Patel, over Socialism; with Subas Chandra Bose over the Fascist approach; and with Jinnah over the status of the Muslims. Nehru's contests were always over ideas, never over any personal interests of his own, although he waged them without quarter and provoked a good deal of personal enmity.

Nehru might have been ignorant or misguided about some matters, and about some persons, but he was always disinterested, always concerned with what he thought would help Indians or mankind. We can be certain that there will be no revelations to make about him of the kind which are often made about celebrities; not even revelations like those of Churchill's disagreeableness. Nehru's private face differed scarcely at all from his public face.

In this and his other books, Crocker's style is ironic, detached and understated, as befits a scholar-diplomat. This makes his praise of Nehru all the more remarkable - but not, however, unmerited. For Nehru's task was altogether more difficult than that of any other modern politician. Amid the wreckage of a decaying empire a nation had been built anew, constructed from a hundred diverse and frequently warring parts. To be sure, Nehru had great helpers: colleagues within the Congress Party, such as Vallabhbhai Patel and C Rajagopalachari, and critics outside to keep him honest, such as JB Kripalani and BR Ambedkar. But it was Nehru who was in the lead, and Nehru who alone had what we would now call the "vision thing" - to wit, the capacity to imagine a modern constitutional democracy into being, in a society riven by orthodoxy and hierarchy and beset by the complications of colonialism. Reading Walter Crocker, one gets the sense that while Nehru made mistakes, others in his place would have made more serious ones.

In his assessment of the Indian prime minister, Crocker was probably helped by his citizenship of a small nation with no stake in the Cold War. Contemporary American assessments of Nehru were biased - not to say blinded - by the fact that their country had allied so strongly with Pakistan. (Nor did it help that Nehru was prone to sententiously lecturing them on the avarice of capitalism and the futility of the nuclear-arms race.) With their own special relationship to India, the British were hardly capable of objectivity, either. Where the Tories dismissed Nehru as a hypocritical humbug, British leftists were overcome by imperialist guilt, so much so that they always gave not just Nehru but also his daughter, Indira Gandhi, the benefit of the doubt (unforgivably, in the case of the draconian state of emergency she imposed upon India between 1975 and '77, an act antithetical to her father's democratic practice, yet widely applauded by the British Labour Party).

As it happens, two Canadians, the scholar Michael Brecher and the diplomat Escott Reid, also wrote decent books on Nehru. It didn't hurt that they likewise came from an English-speaking Commonwealth country with no "agenda" in India. But while these other books are worthy, Crocker's is in a class of its own. It must surely, and swiftly, be brought back into print. Nehru: A Contemporary's Estimate brings credit to both author and subject, as well as to the countries of which they were citizens.

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