Resilient elephant stumbles through

India after Gandhi
July 27, 2007

Prosperous Indians tend to meet reminders of the desperate penury of most of their people with anger and scorn. It comes from the sting of the implied reproach that their class, India’s rulers, has done very badly by the Indian masses; perhaps too, from their fear for the future. Their kind hated books such as V. S. Naipaul’s An Area of Darkness (1964). This shows an India crowded with hundreds of millions of ragged people, facing nothing but semi-starvation. It is only an unusually graphic, forceful example of many Western books seeing India as synonymous with squalor.

In his large, readable history of India since independence, Ramachandra Guha likes to quote many of these Western pessimists, in order to show how later his tory proved them wrong. For today many rich or middle-class Indians feel vindicated. Sud denly, gratifyingly, the world takes India for granted as the world’s number three (or is it number two?) economy by 2050, or 2040, depending on which extrapolator of economic growth statistics catches your fancy.

It’s hard to miss the daily showers of India optimism gushing out of Western rulers, European Union commissioners, business barons, Fortune, Time, Newsweek, the Foreign Affairs Committee and countless journalistic foot soldiers. India’s middle class is the prime beneficiary of the past decade and a half’s tearaway economic growth. They are the ones who enjoy the new Western-style shopping malls proliferating in Indian cities, who work in the seemingly endlessly burgeoning IT sector or emigrate to the US. They fill the Indian media with a clamorous national selfcongratulation.

Guha gently mocks such no-holds-barred triumphalism. He describes the Indian state’s terrible failure to end mass illiteracy, to provide healthcare or clean water to the vast majority, as well as the shocking corruption and criminality of much of India’s political class. Yet he too is optimistic about the prospects of India’s thriving as a democracy. His India is an ungainly, resilient elephant, stumbling along mostly in the right direction through a series of appalling swamps: lack of social reform, wars with China and Pakistan, bloody Hindu-Muslim clashes, fierce insurgencies by Muslim and other minorities and a short period of dictatorship under Indira Gandhi.

Despite it all, contrary to the predictions of so many, India holds together, its democracy survives, and now economic growth is swift. Guha rightly points out the surprising dearth of detailed general histories of the post-independence era, as distinct from works on the wars with China or Pakistan or major rulers such as Jawaharlal Nehru or Indira Gandhi. He has not simply read the other books on his period but dug anew into the archives and found many new details. Using this material, he writes lively, fresh descriptions of key developments, such as the writing of the liberal Indian Constitution or universal suffrage elections with uncontested results, now involving no less than one sixth of humanity. It puts Florida to shame.

Guha is a self-professed lib eral. He has liberalism’s main virtue, sensitivity about political repression. But he also has its frequent analytical flaw: the tendency to assume politics are a contest of opinions, amenable to peaceful settlement by majority opinion, whereas they are actually about interests that will tend to determine what happens, peacefully or not.

For instance, he points out that while India has often been successful in wiping out large-scale absentee landlordism, this has not helped the huge class of landless peasants. Again, he notes the ridiculously little attention paid to ending illiteracy. Guha offers no reasons for these failures, other than oversight or lack of governmental will.

Yet it is obvious that governments dominated by those with large interests in the existing property order are not likely to exert themselves for radical land reform or mass education. Guha observes that the first Indian Prime Minister, Nehru, left behind a political system and political class mostly quite honest and principled, whereas under his daughter Indira Gandhi Indian politics became utterly corrupt and unprincipled. One gets the impression that this was a personal failure of Mrs Gandhi’s.

But in a country of limitless social misery without effective social reform, the degradation of politics is inevitable. Guha’s rather complacent liberalism means he has little interest in exploring deeply the powerful role socialist ideas had in India until recently. Getting into the minds of past generations is the hardest thing for historians and can only be approximately successful at best. Still, they must try. Guha, too cosily curled up in liberal hindsight, hardly has. This robs his book of the possibility of stirringly conveying the hopes, illusions and anger of those decades. For that one must still go to books such as Geoffrey Moorehouse’s Calcutta (1971) or David Selbourne’s An Eye to India (1977).

Guha is also a pronounced “secularist”, a very loaded term in India, meaning people determined to treat the vast majority’s Hindu ism as only one religion among many. That attitude, what ever its virtues, leads to a big omission in his book. Whereas any history of the UK or the US would give considerable space to analysing how Protestanism moulded the minds and culture of people right across the political spectrum, we get no such analysis of the role of the religion in India. Guha assesses Hinduism mostly by looking at reforms to the Hindu legal code and the fortunes of Hindu-nationalist political parties. Yet, clearly, Hindu ism must have deeply influenced countless Hindus who rejected Hindu nationalism.

What did that mean for the nature of India’s politics? Could Hinduism’s easy acceptance of doubt and debate have made it easier for Indians to work with a liberal Constitution? The question is at least worth asking, particularly today when the failure of nearly all Muslim societies to be liberal is a cause of deep concern; but Guha does not ask. For all his wry fun with Western predictions of Indian collapse, Guha has trouble explaining their failure, so far. In a long chapter on why India holds together, he states that, unlike other countries, neither language nor religion could have unified it. He ascribes Indian unity to a wise Constitution that allowed for diversity.

Can he be so sure that Hinduism had no role? His own narrative shows that independent India began when the Muslim majority areas broke away to form Pakistan, and that India’s most dangerous separatist insurgencies have been in non-Hindu areas. Common sense should have told him that vast numbers of people do not come together to write a constitution; rather, constitutions are made to regulate the affairs of people who are already to gether. Secularist qualms should not stop one looking at how Hindu ism might have helped bring most Indians together.

Radhakrishnan Nayar is a writer on international affairs.

India after Gandhi: The History of the World's Largest Democracy

Author - Ramachandra Guha
Publisher - Pan Macmillan
Pages - 688
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 9780230016545

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