The problem with reading history books written by historians is that the content is invariably colored by the author’s own beliefs and positions. When you are reading a certain historical event, you can rest assured you are reading the author’s interpretation of the event.

So when I saw the book titled The Great Speeches of Modern India, I had no second thought in picking it. And was I glad I did!

In the first part of the review, I capture some of my thoughts on the book overall. The second part is my personal views on Gandhi Vs Nehru.

The speeches delivered by several leaders, Indian and foreign, in modern India (~1860 and later) all had few things in common. Firstly, the speeches are extremely succinct, down-to-earth, honest and straight — to a point where even disagreements do not mean mudslinging. There is dignity in offering a point of view, diametrically different from their opponent, without stooping down to personally offending them. Or, in a popular way of saying, there’s agreement in disagreements. Secondly, the quality of English used by several of these leaders puts the English you observe in today’s (Indian) metropolitans, TV and newspapers, and students to shame. The vocabulary, the phrases and the presentation almost seems scholarly.

I also found it interesting that it was not until Indira Gandhi came to power that our premiers started using the services of speechwriters. Until then, leaders wrote their own speeches. The author in his preface claims that JFK first started using speechwriters, but per Wikipedia, the process of outsourcing speechwriting may have started much earlier (by Harding in 1921, and even by George Washington much earlier).

Some speeches gain significance because of the power of articulation, the language and the conviction; others do because of the timing of it. I couldn’t stop getting goose bumps reading some of the speeches. I couldn’t also help thinking there are more true leaders than what we see in popular history. Bottom-line is this is a great read and a great keeper — if at all you are interested in modern Indian history, as it transpired.

There are surprise breaks in the book — which is to say it is not all politics. There are speeches on science & technology, academia, films, music and so much more. There are some speeches that I thought were too trivial (ex. Mani Shankar Aiyar). There are also some people who are not quoted in this book, which I find mildly weird (ex. APJ Abdul Kalam, MG Ramachandran, Jyoti Basu)

Nehru or Gandhi?

A word on Nehru and Gandhi: I have read little more than a handful of books on Indian history, almost all of them focusing on our struggle for independence, the partition and the nation-building years of India. Here’s what I observe about the 2 most written-about people:

Gandhi — He stood for absolute non-violence, visionary for non-co-operation as a means to independence and stood by it as long as he was breathing. There are many who disagreed with his ideals, then and now — but it is hard to take away credit from him for the free nation we are today, and in any case, it is nearly impossible to name another person who had such big a role in independence. In summary, his execution was impeccable, but ideals debated and questionable.

Nehru — Without Nehru, India wouldn’t be what it is today. He made sure we have separation of temple and state (which I personally laud more than anything) and ensured many other good things that got into the constitution. I also gather, from reading this book that he was a true scholar and student of current events in the world theater and was able to connect the dots on many things, which only Nehru could have possibly done in his era. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that he did not endorse Gandhi entirely — he had disagreements with Gandhi on many things, but never let those differences divide the nation or impede her in her struggle to become free. He was also a self-confessed socialist (the ideology which I personally condemn more than anything), but I suspect it may have been the right answer at the time. He also used imperialism and capitalism interchangeably, I do not know as to his intentions — whether deliberate or ignorant. In short, his ideals were (mostly) visionary and perfect, but he fell short on execution.

Given these facts, are you a Gandhian or a Nehruvian?

Originally published at