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- William 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.

An Indian who saw Australia as an essentially sporting nation was our first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Among the high commissioners he sent to Canberra, two were polo-playing generals, Cariappa and Shrinagesh. A third was a cricketer, Kumar Shri Duleepsinhji. All were good men; none, however, were unduly endowed with acumen, whether political or otherwise.

Australia was a large country, but with a small population, and scant influence on world affairs. So must have Nehru’s thinking run, when making those appointments as India’s foreign minister (an office he also held, with the other and bigger one, between 1947 and 1964). Fortunately, the Australians did not reciprocate in kind. In that first, key decade of Indian independence, their representative in New Delhi was a man of uncommon intelligence, named Walter Crocker.

Born and educated in his homeland, Walter 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 memoirs is entitled “Three Thousand Cocktail Parties…”. Between assignments, he was the first-ever 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 Fifties, to serve two long terms as 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, he remarked, “was so fascinating as by himself to make my India assignment fascinating”. (Nehru, in turn, had a high opinion of the Australian diplomat; as he wrote in a letter to a cabinet colleague: “Crocker is a good man with clever ideas, unlike the Government he serves.”)

Nehru died in May 1964; that August, Crocker began drafting a book about him. This drew upon years of keen observation, of watching Nehru at work in his office, in Parliament, and on the road. Crocker had also talked to Nehru’s colleagues and to his political rivals, and of course to many ordinary Indians. Crocker’s portrait is principally political, although there are some deft personal touches. He speaks thus of Nehru’s love of nature, his love of scholars and scholarship, his own “exceptional” intelligence and capacity for hard work, his wit and sense of fun — and, on the other side, of his short temper, his proneness to lecture, and his fondness for vague generalizations.

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 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, this large, diverse, and desperately divided country.

To the craft of diplomacy Cro- cker brought the discipline of the scholar. He was able to place his subject in context, to view him agai- nst the longue durée of Indian hist- ory, 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 of scholarship 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.”

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. Amidst the wreckage of a decaying empire, a nation had been to built anew, constructed from a hundred diverse and frequently warring parts. To be sure, Nehru had great helpers — colleagues within the Congress, such as Vallabhbhai Patel and C. Rajagopalachari, and critics outside to keep him honest, such as J.B. Kripalani and B.R. 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 with the complicated baggage of colonialism.

Reading Walter Crocker, one gets the sense that while Nehru made mistakes, others in his place might 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 stakes 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 lecture 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 gave not just Nehru but also his daughter, Indira Gandhi, the benefit of doubt always.

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. However, while these other books are worthy, Crocker’s book is in a class of its own. It must surely, and soon, be brought back into print. Nehru: A Contemporary’s Estimate is a book that brings credit to both author and subject, as well as to the countries of which they were citizens.

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