A people empowered

February 21, 1997

As India celebrates 50 years of independence, Sunil Khilnani tells David Walker that the West can learn from its democratic methods

India is 50 years old this year. Birkbeck College's Sunil Khilnani invites us to pause and consider that statement. Whose India? The end of the Raj, the departure of the last viceroy, Paul Scott and all that is a potent anniversary for the British, perfervid imaginers of India in both fact and fiction?

But it is also a moment to celebrate the expulsion of a foreign oppressor. The largest party in the Indian parliament, the Hindu nationalist BJP, will attempt to seize the hour and affirm the idea of India as a homogeneous country united and defined by one religion, exclusive and proud.

Khilnani imagines this anniversary differently: 1947 was a revolutionary year. A distinct and glorious idea of India was delivered on August 15 when the flags were lowered and Earl Mountbatten took his last salute. A secular and popular government for India was, he notes, a western idea, deeply influenced by political theory developed in France, the United States and Britain, but also, essentially, India's idea of itself as a dense and multifarious society unified for the first time under a secular and democratic state.

The idea was Gandhi's and Tagore's. It suffused the small elite who guided the independence movement. But it was realised in practice by Jawaharlal Nehru, the now deeply unfashionable figure who will dominate Khilnani's forthcoming essay The Idea of India. That will flag his magnum opus, a biography of Nehru that Khilnani hopes to complete before the century's end.

The Birkbeck political scientist has an aphorism. "It used to be said that the West's present was India's future. Perhaps Indian politics today are the West's future.'' He does not mean the exclusionist politics of the BJP but the very processes which, briefly, brought the coalition between the BJP and the regional and low-caste parties to power last year.

India offers its practice of democracy as the very fact there is representative government in that huge subcontinent. He means the way groups divided by ethnicity, religion, and caste can assert their identities within pluralist politics. India teaches about making democracy work without economic prosperity and making a union of disparate peoples. Are we so advanced here in Western Europe that we have nothing to learn? The question is no sooner posed than answered. Our "continental'' future, let alone that of the United Kingdom, hangs on learning more about diversity in union.

Khilnani was born in Delhi 36 years ago, the son of a diplomat and educated after his teenage years in Britain. He moved to Birkbeck after a research fellowship at Christ's College, Cambridge. He is an Indian citizen and proud of it, despite having to stand in line to get a visa to visit France. He has done a lot of queuing: his principal work to date has been on French political ideas leading to the book, Arguing Revolution: the Intellectual Left in Postwar France.

That stimulated his interest in how political ideas are applied and developed outside their western homelands. "Western political thinking has been remade in the world outside the West and at the centre of that process is the figure of the intellectual - Nehru was a classic intellectual politician. "The idea of democracy travelled and settled in unlikely places'' - such as India where it has proved "remarkably inventive'', he says.

He has little time for an older, reductionist approach labelling the theoretical heritage of former colonies like India as "imperialism''. He eschews, too, the rather gloomy style of certain India exiles and expatriates - V. S. Naipaul, perhaps - sniping from a distance. Instead, toing and froing between London and Delhi, Khilnani communicates an almost exuberant optimism about his country's future.

For too long, the West has viewed Indian domestic politics as a "black hole'' where nothing interesting or instructive happened. The reality is that great ideas have been at play. "India has entered into the wider consciousness in literary terms but not in the realm of politics."

Part of the problem has been academic specialisation and the way attention gets focused on the parts rather than the whole. "Here is an extraordinarily challenging passage of history which needs interpreting and cannot just be left to specialists.

"It's the scale of the democratic achievement. India embodies the third great modern democratic revolution after the United States and France.

"You go out to those poor villages and women come up and talk about political prospects. Nobody in India is willing to give that up. In 1947 the elite gifted democracy to a bewildered people but since India has become the site of enthusiastic mass democratic participation.'' Again he comes back to the protean figure of Nehru and his articulation of an idea. He talks of the "Nehruvian moment'', the creation of India as a secular, democratic, unified state. The BJP paradoxically is seeking to remake India on the model of a western nation state, internally homogeneous, uniform: this was not Nehru's way nor, Khilnani believes, that of India's future.

Nehru, he argues, was not a strikingly original political thinker but a tremendous practical innovator. He took the anti-statist sentiment of Mahatma Gandhi and the conviction that political authority should not, as the Raj had not, interfere in social practice and "found a state architecture'' for the idea of popular participation. His biography will be revisionist, rehabilitating Nehru against the charge of being a socialist committed to state planning. His model was closer to the European social democracy typified by the Labour party of Clement Attlee, the prime minister who conceded independence.

It may be an uphill struggle. The party political manifestations of Nehru's secularism are out of favour. Many still read him through his daughter, Indira Gandhi. Among academics, too, recovering Nehru may involve rehabilitating an "elite" view of politics when what he calls the subaltern view of events, reading history from the bottom up, is still strong.

Nehru strides across the 20th century with Lenin and Mao, says Khilnani. But his vision is fit for the century to come which is why "I am seeking to find a way of recovering his voice''. Nehru's idea of India is his country's future.

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