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India After Gandhi

The History of the World's Largest Democracy

Review by Aditya Adhikari, Himal, July, 2007

“The churning – violent and costly though it undoubtedly was – could be more sympathetically read as a growing decentralisation of the Indian polity,” Guha writes, “away from the hegemony of a single region (the north), a single party (the Congress), a single family (the Gandhis).”

India’s humane anarchy

India After Gandhi
India After Gandhi: The history of the world’s largest democracy
by Ramachandra Guha
Picador, 2007

A unitary, democratic and progressive Indian state was by no means pre-determined by its colonial legacy. At the time of Independence in August 1947, there had been nearly a year of incessant rioting between groups of Hindus and Muslims. An Islamic state had been carved out from the western and eastern flanks of the Subcontinent, areas that many Indians regarded as an inextricable part of ‘their’ civilisational heritage. Almost a million people were killed, and many millions more fled to safety among their co-religionists. Many Hindus who fled Pakistan to seek refuge in West Bengal and the Punjab bore intense anti-Muslim feelings, which played to the advantage of radical rightwing Hindu groups that wanted India to be declared a Hindu state.

The territory that remained as part of India was by no means united. Over 500 princely states, some the size of large European countries, remained unintegrated with the nation. These were states that had never come under direct British rule, and now some of their rajas and nawabs wanted complete independence. The Subcontinent was fragmented among hundreds of communities that spoke different languages and dialects. Indian society was extremely hierarchical, with the lower orders living in abject poverty and degradation – ready across the country, some would say, for a Maoist-style revolution. The conditions for the creation of a unitary state of any kind, let alone a secular, democratic and socially progressive one, were highly unpropitious.

The basic tenets on which the Indian nation state now rests – democracy, federalism and secularism – are taken as given. But in the years immediately following Independence, India’s leaders had to struggle to establish these foundations – through argument, compromise and sometimes force.

For those already well versed in recent Indian history, Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi still offers fresh insights, peppered with the felicitous turn of phrase and the revealing anecdote. It also contains much that is new. In general, comprehensive histories of this kind rely mostly on secondary sources. However, due to a paucity of literature on certain areas of India’s history over the past fifty years, Guha spent significant time delving in various archives, and in the process unearthed original materials and unexpected discoveries.

In the earlier sections of India After Gandhi, Guha is keen to impress upon his readers the tremendous difficulties that lay before India’s post-Independence leaders. The author does not take a structural view of history, where all movement is predetermined by existing economic and social conditions, and where the individual is largely ineffectual. For Guha, history is shaped when people decide on particular actions and carry them through. The lives, thoughts and actions of individuals important to India’s recent history (not only the Nehrus and Ambedkars, but also those such as Sukumar Sen, the country’s first chief election commissioner, and Naga leader Angami Zapu Phizo) are thus given a position of primacy in this book. Indeed, encountering the host of characters in its pages is one of the volume’s principal pleasures.

Awe of the nation
Guha’s deepest respect is reserved for the first leaders of post-Independence India – Vallabhai Patel, B R Ambedkar and the like, but above all for Jawaharlal Nehru. It is the Nehruvian vision of India as a plural, secular, democratic state that Guha champions throughout this new work. Among other things, India After Gandhi is a response to Guha’s ideological rivals on the right. Although it responds to criticism of him from the left as well, it does so to a lesser extent and often only implicitly. Guha himself has sympathies with a ‘softer’ left – it is mostly with the violent and authoritarian tendencies of the militant left that he has problems.

In interviews, Guha has called himself a “liberal constitutionalist”. He is also a patriot. As such, he locates the source of India’s national identity and pride in the defining ideas of the modern Indian nation, as enshrined in its Constitution and supportive documents. Doing so is the author’s way of responding to the Hindu nationalist’s search for glory in a mythical Hindu past.

“Whenever I see these great engineering works,” Guha quotes Nehru as saying, “I feel excited and exhilarated.” Guha himself shares these feelings when he observes India’s post-Independence leaders’ struggle to achieve a desirable political, social and economic order. His sense of awe and wonder is contagious, and often present in the first third of the book: when he describes, for instance, the gigantic enterprise that was the first general election, the first attempts at industrialisation, and the Constituent Assembly debates. Guha illustrates how the general Indian populace during the 1950s also shared its leaders’ “romance and enchantment” with democracy and development. Thus, of the 1954 inauguration of the Bhakra-Nangal hydroelectricity project, he writes:

Seeing the water coming towards them, the villagers downstream set off hundreds of home-made crackers. As one eyewitness wrote: ‘For 150 miles the boisterous celebrations spread like a chain reaction along the great canal and the branches and distributaries to the edges of the Rajasthan desert, long before the water got there.’

Such accounts of celebration diminish as memories of colonialism recede. The idealism of a new nation wanes, and it becomes embroiled in a multitude of internal and external conflicts.

Much of the remainder of India After Gandhi reads like the story of a constantly embattled state. There are the repeated conflicts with Pakistan – over Kashmir, and over the territory that in 1971 became Bangladesh; the secessionist movements in the Northeast and the Punjab; the rise of Hindu nationalism; the strife between Hindus and Muslims, between the upper and lower castes, between the Hindi-speaking national political elite and the non-Hindi-speaking states. The Indian state also came under assault from the political class, that very group that was supposed to protect it. Indira Gandhi dismantled the institutions her father had expended so much energy building. She got rid of intermediate leaders in the Congress hierarchy, and personally selected holders of top political positions. Real power was concentrated in her ‘kitchen cabinet’, which consisted of close family members and loyal retainers.

The general decline of institutions continued, even as Indira Gandhi and her son (and successor) were assassinated. Corruption infected the political class and bureaucracy. Political parties across India became increasingly prone to nepotism. Confronted with the innumerable conflicts the Indian state had to contain, and by the increasing venality of the political class and its ineffectual government, foreign observers predicted the imminent death of Indian democracy. Some foresaw a military takeover; others envisaged an India that had fractured into a plethora of smaller states.

The second upsurge
But, except for the brief period between 1975 and 1977, when Indira Gandhi imposed the Emergency, the institutions of democracy continued to function. Despite repeated assaults, the centre held. And hidden behind the chaos, fundamental changes were occurring in Indian society and politics. “The churning – violent and costly though it undoubtedly was – could be more sympathetically read as a growing decentralisation of the Indian polity,” Guha writes, “away from the hegemony of a single region (the north), a single party (the Congress), a single family (the Gandhis).”

The rise of parties organised around regional groupings and lower castes represents, to use the words of the political scientist Yogendra Yadav, a “second democratic upsurge” in India’s post-Independence history. Starting the late 1980s, the Congress party has been almost completely wiped out from the political powerhouse of Uttar Pradesh, and the fact that control over the state government has mostly alternated between a party of Other Backwards Castes and a party of Dalits cannot be seen as anything but a deepening of Indian democracy.

As an epigraph to one of his chapters, Guha quotes Ashis Nandy: “In India the choice could never be between chaos and stability, but between manageable and unmanageable chaos, between humane and inhumane anarchy, and between tolerable and intolerable disorder.” India has seen intolerable disorder. The Indian state has not been able to do enough to educate and feed its people. It has not been able to provide adequate protection to its minorities – for instance, during the anti-Muslim carnage in Gujarat in 2002. But for much of the past half-century, the system laid down by those who founded the nation has provided a framework within which anarchy has been tolerably contained, and various interests have been allowed to compete without destroying the integrity of the nation state.

Despite brief forays into the realms of Indian economy, film, music and sport, India After Gandhi is primarily a work of political history. Guha does intervene to defend Nehru’s economic policies, but he completely sidesteps the contemporary debate between those who argue that only free-market policies can achieve the high rates of growth that India needs, and those who maintain that government intervention is necessary to ensure an equitable distribution of resources. Besides being in full accordance with the dominant economic thought of the mid-20th century, he insists, Nehruvian planning was necessary for India, as government-led industrialisation gave a joint purpose to a recently forged and deeply divided nation. Guha’s defence of Nehru’s economic policies, then, is also primarily political. A deeper engagement with India’s economy, as well as with cultural history, would have brought to the reader better a sense of the material and internal lives of India’s post-independence citizens.

At a time when Nehru has come under attack from various quarters – Hindu nationalists accuse him of pandering to minorities, proponents of the free market claim that his economic policies kept India in a state of economic stagnation for decades, and leftists claim that he did not have the political will to institute wide-ranging land-reform and other measures to ensure the uplift of the poor – India After Gandhi provides a new look at the Nehruvian legacy, and offers fresh arguments as to why India’s gratitude to its founding fathers would not be misplaced.


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