29 July 2007

"India after Gandhi" by Ramachandra Guha

Ramachandra Guha, Stanford/Yale professor turned writer, has done an outstanding job covering the history of India since 1947. The book is very engaging and informative. If you want to understand the evolution of modern India, you ought to read this book.

India’s journey in the last sixty years could be described as a journey between two books: from Katherine Mayo’s “Mother India” (dismissed by Mahatma Gandhi as a drain inspector’s report) to Thomas Friedman’s “The World is flat” (with adulations about a confident and growing economy).

The journey has several good and bad milestones:

(a) Good news: The country dealt with the messy partition – a great human tragedy that displaced 8 million people. Handling the bi-directional migration in Punjab was easier than the uni-directional immigration in Bengal.

(b) Good news: India, the political entity was created by unifying the various bits of the jigsaw puzzle left behind by the British; a country that the nation never had in several thousand years of history .

(c) Good news: A style of government based on rule of law, secular principles and a stable constitution was fashioned. A constitution based on liberty, democracy, emancipation and equality was created. Democracy has been the biggest strength of India in the last 60 years.

(d) Good news: The country was re-organized into linguistic states. Linguistic bonding created strong states under a federal structure and is one of the reasons why democracy has had a deep rooted existence in India.

(e) Good news: Nehru set in place political sensitivity that a heterogeneous population requires to hold the country together. Muslims in India went on to play a great role in India.

(f) Good news: Nehru laid the foundation for democratic traditions by conducting general elections every five years by universal adult franchise. Popular mandate dictated public policy and politics. Transfer of government from one administration to another was civilized.

(g) Good news: The Hindu personal code was reformed and standardized; a true revolt against the oppressive features of the Hindu society. Nehru/Ambedkar achieved in 17 years what could not be achieved in the preceding 1,700 years.

(h) Bad news: Nehru empathized with but desisted from reforming Muslim code; he preferred to leave it for a later day and to Muslim leadership. The Supreme Court judgment in Shah Bano case offered an opportunity. Muslim leadership was in support of this reform. However, Rajiv Gandhi, fearing electoral defeat, reversed the judgment by legislation in spite of the protest and resignation of his Muslim minister Arif Mohammed Khan.

(i) Good news: India got the ruler of Kashmir to sign on to join India when Pakistan sent “trained insurgents” to take Kashmir by force. Nehru got the popular Muslim leader Sheikh Abdullah to support accession to India. Nehru held general elections in Kashmir to ensure governments in Kashmir were backed by popular mandate.

(j) Bad news: Democratic principles and civil liberty were severely challenged by Indira Gandhi.

1 Constitutional rights and civil liberty were suspended for two years. However, these were restored by a wiser government that followed.

2 Political leadership in opposition was imprisoned but opposition leadership rose to the challenge; and the electorate rejected Indira’s actions by voting her out; her defeat was near total.

3 Political leadership in Congress party itself was weakened; inner party democracy weakened and power shifted to a coterie of advisors and members of the family. The party is yet to recover from this; however, the weakening of the Congress party has strengthened Indian democracy. Since 1989 no party has been able to form government on its own and coalition governments have come to stay widening and deepening democracy but rendering public policy slightly incoherent.

4 Political leadership at state level was weakened; and nominees of “high command” were “elected” by obedient legislatures to power as Chief Ministers. However, strong leaders like N T Rama Rao rose to protect “Teluguwala gopatnamu” and brought back pride to leadership at state level.

5 Government executives were pressured to be “committed” to political agenda (instead of being neutral in a multiparty democracy). Government executives were too glad to co-operate and several of them have turned to political careers after retirement.

6 Judiciary was pressured to be “committed” to political agenda. Though there have been a few instances of favored promotions, the Judiciary has substantially held its independence.

7 Gag rules were enforced on press for two years by Indira Gandhi. Rajiv Gandhi attempted, in response to stories of corruption, legislation to jail editors for “scurrilous publication”. Fortunately protests in Parliament prevented the legislation.

(k) Bad news: Corruption became endemic in the system. State’s control over economic assets, and State’s leverage over private enterprise were enhanced ostensibly to fight the rich on behalf of the poor; but with a more obvious consequence of decision-makers in government being able to convert their influence over the direction and timeliness of the decisions into personal or political wealth.

(l) Bad news: India saw two pogroms. Against Sikhs in Delhi in 1984. Against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002. Both arose due to willed breakdown of law. The PM in Delhi and the CM in Gujarat issued graceless statements that in effect justified the killings. Very unfortunately both reaped electoral rewards.

(m) Bad news: Rising Religious fundamentalism, by Hindus and Muslims, affected peaceful co-existence. A sixteenth century mosque around a Hindu sacred site has been a trigger for religious divide in India for long. Destruction of the mosque by Hindu fundamentalists stepped up the divide. Mahatma Gandhi’s advice to a pluralistic society to not seek benefits for the maximum; but maximize benefits for all was sadly forgotten.

(n) Good news: Backward castes who benefited economically from land reforms have started asserting themselves politically (Karunanidhi, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Laloo Prasad Yadav). Dalits found new leadership in Kanshi Ram and Mayawati. Increasing political assertiveness would influence the differences to vanish in the long run.

(o) Bad news: Territorial integrity of India saw a few challenges that stemmed from:

1 Departing British rulers encouraging princely states and hill tribes to remain independent and have a dominion status with Britain so that the empire survives the Raj. Churchill’s support to Hyderabad and Nagaland are examples.

2 Political insensitivity of federal government to the pride, claim to common resources, border or leadership as in the case of Punjab

3 Pakistan’s agenda to avenge the loss of Bangladesh by supporting religious divide and sponsoring terrorism.

4 Kashmir.

(p) Bad news: The economy was mismanaged for first 35 years and is dogged by a “blow hot blow cold” view for next 25 years.

1 Indian economy, second largest in the world from time immemorial to 18th century stagnated with zero growth from 1857 to 1947 thanks to inept British rule.

2 The young nation pursued socialism (centralized planning, state ownership of big ticket industry, state control over private enterprise etc) for two reasons: Nehru truly believed in it; Indira Gandhi saw an opportunity in it to get defined as pro-poor and win elections. End result: Economy grew at a stately pace of 3.5% pa for the first 35 years.

3 The mid sixties famine was a shock to India. However, the “green revolution” helped India achieve self sufficiency in food production. Wheat production doubled. Rice production grew 50%.

4 Rajiv Gandhi started with right ideas by liberalizing trade, reducing duties, incenting exporters, simplifying license regime, lifting curbs on businesses and reducing tax rates; but reverted to populism closer to election time. (He did not win, however).

5 The 1987 drought affected 200 million people and entailed a few starvation deaths.

(q) Good news: A severe economic crisis forced politics to take back seat and introduce economic reforms in India that pushed India into a growth path.

1 The coalition governments inherited a crisis and had to take “significant” steps in opening up the economy, inviting foreign investment, and liberalizing trade.

2 However, there is a continuing debate between “reformers” and “populists”.

3 Economy is growing at a faster 6-8% in the last ten years.

4 There were success stories. The software service exports, aided by Nehru’s education system and linguistic policy, Rajiv’s emphasis on telecommunication and George Fernandes expulsion of IBM giving rise to indigenous players, grew from $ 0.1 billion in 1990 to $ 13.0 billion in 2004.

We have today a confident and rapidly growing India; well integrated with global markets for goods/services and capital. Democracy has taken a deeper root and some tradition in the country. Several malaises prevail and pose challenges.

Will India survive?

So long as the democractic traditions remain, secularism prevails, citizens remain free, market is respected and civil service/army remain; and Hindi film songs are sung, India will survive” says Guha.

Let me add my contribution to India with a Hindi film song: "so jo kabi aisa ho to kya ho?"

Just dont miss the book. If possible recommend the book to a young Indian.


nafs said...

A good review....
"the weakening of the Congress party has strengthened Indian democracy" words for all seasons ;)

its really interesting to see a question like "Will India Survive" while some one dreaming "Will India became super-power"...

Definitely i will read the book.. Thanks for the recommendation

Ram said...

i personally feel that the Nehru dynasty is the single worst thing that happened to India post independence. Indira made things worse by nationalising banks and closing the economy to any foreign investment. Import taxes were skyrocketing and red tape was the order of the day. And till date, the congress is playing its trump card - communal pacification. Until the Nehru dynasty decides to quit politics taking into consideration the well being of the nation, India is doomed

T R Santhanakrishnan said...

Hi Ram:

Two reasons why your comments deserve publication:
(1) I believe in free speech. You are entitled to your opinion.
(2) The Nehru family are in public life. Their politics is of public interest and deserve a review by anyone.

Do you seriously believe India's history would have been any different if a few people were not in politics?

Popular democracy in a society with a high level of poverty and a skewed distribution of wealth and education is a challenging but essential experiment.

When what is right for the society and what is appealing to the maximum number of people in the society differ, I would rather politics listens to majority than expertise.

History has too many experts who thought they had the right solution and ended up causing more harm than help.