I highly recommend the book India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy by Ramachandra Guha
Before jumping to the book in hand, let me say something about a different book. I liked John Keay’s India: A History. It is written mostly as a no-nonsense history. The time span it covers is huge and the the branches of history it touches are also numerous. And it is a very good book about such a diverse country.
I left it after the description of early freedom struggles. And that is why I started India After Gandhi’s (IAG) review by referring to that book. For most of us, history of India ends somewhere around 1947. Guha quotes that ‘history as formally constituted knowledge of the past does not cover [the years after 1947]’
Why do I read books on history? I really don’t know. I am not a student of history, history does not necessarily motivate or demotivate me, I don’t even have any particular interest in it. I think that I read a few books on history once in a while because it interests me generally- not specifically. So maybe sometimes if the book is good (I have heard about it) I pick it up. But I might as well pick up a novel. So history does not carry any special weightage with me.
IAG is a very good book. It covers the things we should be aware of.
The book mainly talks about political history- as the sub-title underlines that it is primarily focused on the democracy angle. It does not talk much about films, art, music, sports, etc. But once I noticed that it was possibly deliberately so, it did not bother me much.
The author is primarily a chronicler. But he adds some very good insights to the description. But these insights are just balanced in proportion. So mostly it never seems that he is injecting his personal opinions, biases unnecessarily. He is neither swayed this way or that. He observes, notes and puts things in context. For example, if I am not making a blunder, he has not mentioned Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw even once. And I had thought any book covering that period in history would have a few pages dedicated to him. But that is how the various contexts take shape in this book. A lot of things are abstracted and a picture forms at that level of abstraction.
A few things were surprising: I now appreciate Nehru, Patel more. In fact, one thing I noticed was that the early politicians were thoughtful. The description of debates and discussions during those early years- inside parliament and outside- reminded me of similar thought exchanges from stories of American independence as I had read those in Franklin’s biography. I generally stay away from politics but I really hope that we have similar thoughtful discussions now.
I think it would be easy to quote a few things from the book. That way I won’t have to write much and the recall value will be better for me when I read this post myself in future. Of course not all quotes are by the author himself. He has borrowed quite a few from newspapers of the day, books, etc.
The author chronicles the partition (unquestionably the main victims of Partition were women: Hindu, Sikh, and Muslim), he talks about the adoption of constitution, a parliamentary system (a second chamber [Rajyasabha] to act as a check on the excesses of democratic zeal). He talks a great deal about Patel (an unmatched warrior in the cause of freedom, a lover of India, a great servent of the people and a statesman of genius and mighty achievement…. Patel did not covet his boss’s job) and how he got the princes and their states integrated into India. He talks about mighty exercise of holding elections and the people (politicians and bureaucrats who made it possible.)
Because of his contribution post freedom, Nehru occupies a large number of pages: Nehru had an unusual capacity- unusual among politicians, at any rate- to view both sides of the question…
For Jawaharlal Nehru, foreign policy was a means of making India’s presence felt in the world.
Nehru was its [of Indian planning] chief missionary.
He talks about the challenges to Nehru’s congress party(‘a democracy run by a single party automatically becomes a tyranny’)
He talks about Nehru’s unwillingness to remove Menon, defeat at the hands of China and it hurts (as it should, I guess). The humiliation that resulted was felt, as military defeats invariably are, by the nation as a whole.
Then post Nehru, when it came to the conduct of war Shastri was no Nehru.
By 1972 the Congress was subject to a creeping nepotism, and to galloping corruption as well.
The Naga problem.
Among the casualties of the emergency was the freedom of press.
[After he fell seriously ill, Kriplani] was taken to hospital, where all manner of tubes and wires were put into him. When a friend came visiting he had a fresh complaint: ‘I have no Constitution – all that is left are Amendments’
[When Sanjay Gandhi forced a ban on Kishor Kumar’s records] It was an act of petty vindictiveness in keeping with the times.
When one views the prime minister’s (Mrs Gandhi) career in the round, Sanjay and the emergency should be said to mark not a radical departure from the past practice, but a deepening of it.
Nehru’s halting yet honest attempts to promote a democratic ethos in a hierarchical society were undone by his own daughter, and in decisive and dramatic ways. The grievously mistaken dismissal of the communist government in Kerala aside, Nehru took seriously the idea of an opposition. But Mrs Gandhi paid other political parties scant respect.
JP movement and Janata party government. Janata’s attempts to humiliate the former prime minister were seriously misjudged.
the end of the emergency unleashed the energies of journalists as only the struggle for national independence had done before it…The spread of education and the expansion of the middle class gave an enormous fillip to Indian-language journalism.
Viewed from the more formal, purely political side, it appeared that Indian democracy was being corroded and degraded. If one took a more ‘social’ view, however, it appeared that Indian democracy was, in fact, being deepened and enriched.
The 1980 elections, notes the editor Prabhas Joshi, marked the ‘end of ideology’ in Indian politics.
He talks about Bhindranwale and 1984 violence. I was waiting for the mention of General Vaidya.
The way the 1987 elections were conducted led to deep disenchantment among political activists in Kashmir.
The elections, held in November 1989, were a body blow to the Congress Party.
Even by the standards of Indian history, the 1980s were an especially turbulent decade.
The policeman K. F. Rustomji noted grimly that Indian politics and administration were now captive to the ‘fanatic and the demagogue’, who ‘claim the right to organise the deaths of thousands under the guise of democratic dissent’.
By 1990, there were as many as 80,000 Indians in uniform in the [Kashmir] Valley. Thus, ‘the attempt to find a political solution was put aside in favour of a policy of repression’.
In the winter of 1989–90, as the Hizb-ul supplanted the JKLF, the Pandits became a target of attack. Because they were Hindus, and for no other reason, they were seen as agents of a state that had for so long oppressed the Kashmiris.
In the summer of 1991 the debt had reached $70 billion, of which 30 per cent was owed to private creditors. At one stage, foreign exchange reserves were down to two weeks of imports.
The changes introduced by Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh in 1991 constituted a major departure from past policies. Even a year or two before they were undertaken, such reforms were considered unlikely or even impossible.
However, by the time the Supreme Court passed its judgement in November 1992, these parties were all prepared to endorse it. For they very quickly realized the political implications of the Mandal Commission Report, and the political costs of opposing it.
To be sure, some BJP leaders were taken aback by the turn of events. Despite his threatening talk the week before, when he saw volunteers rushing the monument[Babri Masjid], L. K. Advani asked them to return.
Despite his political weakness, and his apparently diffident personality, Narasimha Rao initiated radical reforms in economic policy. He also made bold moves in foreign policy. For instance, he took an active interest in forging better relations with the countries of South-east Asia. This was prompted by an awareness of the rising economic strength of the region, yet tactically justified as being a return to the ‘pan-Asian’ policies of Jawaharlal Nehru. It was also under Rao that India first established diplomatic relations with Israel and, reversing decades of frosty relations between India and the United States, brought these two estranged democracies closer together.
The rise of coalition or minority governments was a manifestation of the widening and deepening of democracy in India. Different regions and different groups had acquired a greater stake in the system; with parties that sought to represent them winning an increasing number of seats – usually at the expense of the Congress, which for the first two decades of Independence had claimed, rather successfully, to be a party that represented no section of India in particular but all in general. This deepening of democracy had however come at a cost – that of a steady loss of coherence in public policy.
when it came to India’s dealings with the rest of the world there was a noticeable convergence of views. Whether led by the BJP or the Congress, or indeed the various Third Fronts, the Union government was committed to enhancing the country’s military capabilities, and to a more assertive foreign policy in general.
The Indian bomb was wholly indigenous.
As prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee took forward the economic reforms initiated by Narasimha Rao. Besides further encouraging entrepreneurship, Vajpayee’s government gave a push to infrastructure development,…
Meanwhile, the surge in economic growth had led to an expansion in the size and influence of the Indian middle class.
With the opening of the economy in the 1990s, the guilt formerly associated with consumerism rapidly disappeared.
The rash of farmers’ suicides was perhaps related to the rapidity of social change in contemporary India. The new consumer society, its images carried into the villages by television, placed a very high premium on success and failure. Thus, when crops failed, or a new crop did not give the yield it promised, the personal humiliation felt was greatly in excess of what it might have been in an earlier, more stable, and less acquisitive time.
One reason for the continuing poverty was the government’s poor record in providing basic services such as education and health care.
From his home in New Delhi, Atal Behari Vajpayee spoke by satellite to tribals in Kashipur, whose kinsmen had died eating mango kernel because their crops had failed. ‘It is extremely unfortunate that in today’s world people die by eating poisonous material’, said the head of a government that could speak to its citizens by videophone, yet not supply them with wholesome food.
The anthropologist Bela Bhatia writes that ‘this sense of dignity is one of the principal achievements of the Naxalite movement’. Other achievements included an end to forced labour and a significant enhancement of the wage rate.
The prime minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, was in matters of state policy not always his own man.
While Sonia Gandhi would have liked to keep the alliance with the Left intact, Manmohan Singh was prepared to break it on the question of the nuclear deal, which he saw as vital to a wider India-US rapprochement.
Hazare was no Gandhi, but this second fast rivalled the Dandi March in attracting the nation’s attention.
Perhaps even more so than in other parts of India, politicians in Maharashtra were remarkably quick to skim off government contracts.
Some women were vastly influential in Indian politics. But on the whole the status of women in India was not something to boast about…from the 1980s onwards there was a patriarchal backlash.
India needs experts rather than generalists to head government departments and regulatory institutions.
The first generation of Indian leaders lived mostly for politics. They were attracted by the authority they wielded, but were also often motivated by a spirit of service and sacrifice. The current generation of Indian politicians, however, are more likely to enter politics to live off it.
In India’s High Courts, once a case is filed, it takes, on the average, three years and one month to be disposed of.
The judicial system in India is painfully slow. And it is also shockingly corrupt…The evidence for judicial corruption is even more anecdotal than that for political corruption.
Democracy is about, among other things, the enhancement of individual freedoms.
One area where Indians have become less free in recent decades relates to artistic and literary expression.
Is India a democracy, then? The answer is, well, phipty-phipty. It mostly is when it comes to holding elections and permitting freedom of movement and expression. It mostly is not when it comes to the functioning of institutions crucial to the everyday life of a democracy. Most political parties have become family firms. Most politicians are corrupt, and many come from a criminal background. India’s law-makers are too often lawbreakers as well. Meanwhile, civil servants have lost their autonomy of functioning, doing what their political bosses ask rather than what justice or reason demands. The courts are slow and over-burdened, and not always fair either. The police are corrupt in good days and venal in bad.
Notes and quotes taken from:
Guha, Ramachandra. India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy. Pan Macmillan. Kindle Edition.
Lastly, R. K. Narayan as quoted by Naipaul: India will go on.