One hundred and twenty seven years after his birth, the reputation of India’s first and longest-serving prime minister would seem to be at an all-time low. As he is perceived, rightly or wrongly, to be the founder of a dynasty, a share of any discredit that Sonia and Rahul Gandhi or the Congress acquire attaches itself to Jawaharlal Nehru’s name.

Nowhere is Nehru more abused and reviled than on “social media”, as it is conventionally understood: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube. In his life, Nehru may have been the most beloved of all Indian politicians: 50 years after his death, virtually every failing of the modern Indian state is in some form attributed to Nehru, often accompanied by the hashtags #BecauseOfNehru or (sarcastically) #ThankYouNehru.

The backlash comprises legitimate criticism of his economic and foreign policies or failure to address health and primary education as well as rumours and theories that range from deeply misleading (that Nehru rejected a Security Council seat for India) to fraudulent (that he died of syphilis, or wrote a letter describing Subhas Chandra Bose as a “war criminal”).

But if one looks past Facebook and Twitter, and beyond his career as prime minister, a much more expansive view of Nehru emerges: both of the man, and of how he is regarded today. While many of India’s Founding Fathers wrote, perhaps only Nehru, whose books enjoyed immediate domestic and international success, could claim to have had a second career as a writer. If, to play on the title of his most famous work, one wants to discover Nehru – to see past both official Congress hagiography and its backlash – there is no better place than his books. And as their reception on a very different social network, Goodreads, shows, they have lost none of their value or appeal.

Three classics

Nehru’s three principal books – Glimpses of World History, An Autobiography (sometimes published as Towards Freedom) and The Discovery of India – were each written during Nehru’s periodic spells in jail. While imprisonment took him away from his work for the Congress and his family, Nehru relished the time spent in learning – both from books and from compatriots such as Maulana Azad – and from reflection. According to the historian Sunil Khilnani, “Years later, feeling keenly the lack of time to read or write, Nehru would regret – only half-jokingly – the fact that he was no longer regularly dispatched to jail.”

Glimpses came first, a series of letters written to his daughter Indira from various prisons between 1930 and 1933. While not as widely-read as the Discovery, it is in many ways an equally remarkable work. No reader of Glimpses can fail to be impressed by its sweep, or the fact of its being written without access to a library, but Nehru’s greatest achievement in Glimpses is his recentring of world history away from the West.

Glimpses was written by and for an Indian reader, and Indian history consequently finds the space denied to it in Western surveys, as well as serving as a reference point throughout the narrative. But it is in his explorations of Asian history beyond India – above all of China – that we see Nehru’s faith, truly radical at the time, in the possibility of a global view of world history, written from a non-Western perspective. It is a proudly idiosyncratic work, more impressionistic than comprehensive: “It is not my aim in these letters to provide full and detailed pictures of anything.” Glimpses is a book best dipped into rather than read cover to cover.

Nehru’s Autobiography is, today, the least read of his major books (it has 309 ratings on Goodreads, to the Discovery’s 4,430 and 1,257 for Glimpses). This is because it is not a conventional or intimate autobiography – it is, surprisingly, the least personal of his books. It is dedicated to his wife “Kamala, who is no more” – but there is very little in it of his family or private life. The one exception, his relationship with his father Motilal, is covered as part of the book’s broader narrative, which is that of the Indian freedom movement in the years 1919-’34. It remains as fluent and engaging an account of that period as any written since, but its real interest, for a discovery of Nehru, is the relationship between the writer and Gandhi – intense filial love in the face of often profound intellectual disagreement.

Defying categorisation

The Discovery of India stands alongside Gandhi’s own autobiography as one of the two enduringly popular books from the Indian national movement. The common shorthand description – that it surveys India’s history just as Glimpses did the world’s – does little justice to this unique book, whose form defies categorisation. Part reflection on contemporary politics, part memoir, it reaches into political theory, aesthetics, economics and sociology in an attempt to craft a narrative of continuity amidst continual change, of intellectual freedom and the assimilation of foreign cultural influences in a rigid society. The Discovery is really Nehru’s own intellectual autobiography.

Reading Nehru’s books upends a number of the popular stereotypes that surround him, most notably that he was the “last Englishman to rule India”, culturally and intellectually Western. Nehru believed that Asia in general and India in particular needed to develop the intellectual self-confidence not to see themselves from a Western perspective, decades before the rise of post-colonial theory – many readers will be surprised to see that he believed that Hindustani, not English, ought to be the principal link language of India. Also evident throughout is his understanding of India’s diversity and his belief in the positive value of that diversity.

The closest the three books have to an intellectual common thread is Nehru’s vision of history as a narrative of the expansion of freedom and social and economic justice. “Nehruvian socialism” is a pejorative phrase that isolates his policies as prime minister from the moral commitment to progress and equality that underpinned them. As he writes in Glimpses, “No sound and stable society can be built up on the basis of inequality and injustice, or on the exploitation of one class or group by another.” Nehru was far from an uncritical or dogmatic Marxist, but we see in his books how Marx and socialism appealed to his worldview and his understanding of the particular problems of Indian society.

As Khilnani writes, Nehru, unlike Gandhi, was no saint, but, rather, “like any one of us – teeming with human appetites, often bewildered by life’s choices, self-doubting, indecisive, short-tempered, needy, sometimes downcast.” More than anything, what we get from Nehru’s books is a sense of his humanity – of his contradictory impulses, his immense ego and self-assurance and yet his acute consciousness of his own failings. He writes of his marriage to Kamala in the Discovery: “I had been and was a most unsatisfactory person to marry…we did not complement each other.” It is in Nehru’s “human appetites” and his frank portrayal of them that the contrast to today’s politicians is most stark.

On Goodreads, owned by Amazon and the world’s most popular literary social network, each of Nehru’s books enjoys broad acclaim. Five- and four-star reviews dominate, ranging from over 80% of the ratings for Glimpses to 65% for the Autobiography. Only 2% of ratings for the Discovery and 1% for Glimpses are one-star. Reviewers, most of them Indian, are frequently dazzled by the range of Nehru’s erudition, and by his prose style.

This says something about Nehru’s books, but also about the nature of different social networks. Contrast Goodreads to its parent, Amazon. On, recent books by Barkha Dutt and Rana Ayyub have been subject to organised trolling by Hindu nationalists: a majority of the reviews for Ayyub’s Gujarat Files, and over 90% for Dutt’s This Unquiet Land, are one star. On Goodreads fewer than 20% are one star for either book, and four star reviews are the most common.

Honest assessment

Some might put this down to politics – that Goodreads, unlike Facebook, Twitter and Amazon, is a “left-liberal” haven. But the real reason for the divergence is that the vast majority of Goodreads users, unlike many on other social networks, act in good faith. They review only books that they have truly read, and offer an honest assessment of the book.

Intellectual good faith requires a willingness to change one’s mind, rather than blind adherence to an inflexible set of conclusions. And the reviews of Nehru’s books reveal just how often this takes place. As one Goodreads user says of Glimpses: “Anyone who has not read this book has not seen this side of Pt. Nehru. Most people I know do not have respect for him for the things he did as politician. However, the letters that he wrote to his daughter are amazing to say the least.”

Another writes: “My negative impression about Mr Nehru has vanished after reading this book.” Discovering Nehru through his books, some readers no longer feel inclined to blame him for all the ills of contemporary India. A reviewer of the Discovery says: “Reading this book made me blame Indira Gandhi more for the problems of India prior to 1991.”

That’s not to say that a course of Nehru’s books will win over every hater. For some, it may only harden their antipathy: even so, they may find they enjoy the experience. The last word belongs to one Makarand Hazarika: “Jawaharlal Nehru was a power hungry person with dastardly acts and meretricious character, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t write good books.”