India After Gandhi by Ramachandra
Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia
Throughout its 60 years of independence, speculation has
been rife about how long India would remain a single entity
and a democracy. Native and Western doomsayers have been
predicting its imminent dissolution, a descent into anarchy
or authoritarian rule without much reward. Historian
Ramachandra Guha's critical yet affectionate epic on
contemporary India assesses why the oracles fail and how
this most "unnatural nation" survives despite being a
"laboratory of social conflict (p 9)".
Guha begins by asking why the unity of India could not be
saved from partition in 1947. The onset of modern electoral
politics was the main culprit because it encouraged appeals
to fear and sectional worries about being worsted or swamped
by one's historic enemies. The Muslim League cashed in on
the "rhetoric of fear" in the Provincial Assembly elections
of 1946 so successfully that Mahatma Gandhi's dream of a
united India stood no chance.
Among the princely states that contrived to further
balkanise India by declaring themselves as independent
countries, Travancore's bid was stoked by the British, who
coveted its Thorium deposits, "a material crucial to the
coming Cold War (p 61)". The monarchs of Jodhpur, Junagadh
and Hyderabad flirted with defection to Pakistan through the
Muslim League's enticements, but the
of Indian nationalism and the sagacity of Vallabhbhai Patel
and V P Menon staved off these threats. Kashmir proved much
harder to integrate due to its proximity to Pakistan and the
opportunism of its Muslim politicians.
The framing of the constitution of India involved hundreds
of claims and submissions from the public at large, a
testimony to "the precocious existence of a 'rights culture'
among Indians" even before democracy could be installed (p
117). The constitution assigned the individual, rather than
the village, as the basic unity of politics and governance.
The most acrimonious debates in the Constituent Assembly
were over language. Politicians from the south spiritedly
opposed Hindi as the official national tongue. Compromises
had to be worked out by leaving English as a fall-back
Although the Constituent Assembly initially considered
affirmative action only for the lowest Hindu castes, the
exertions of Jaipal Singh ensured that the repressed tribals
were also promised reserved seats in the legislature and
jobs in the government. Singh tried in vain to convince the
rebellious Naga tribes that their hill areas "have always
been part of India" and that "there is no question of
secession (p 271)". The gory conflict between Naga
"hostiles" and the central government in Delhi had serious
implications for the unity of the country and the legitimacy
of its rulers.
Until 1950, the ruling Congress party suffered from
infighting not only at the district and provincial levels,
but also at the summit between prime minister Jawaharlal
Nehru and deputy prime minister Patel. The two frequently
disagreed on state control of the economy, Hindu extremism
and Cold War alignments. After Patel's death, Nehru had
milder tussles with conservatives like Purushottamdas Tandon
and the president, Rajendra Prasad.
Nehru's extraordinary popular appeal was vindicated in the
country's first general elections of 1952, a monumental
event supervised by the able bureaucrat, Sukumar Sen.
Internationally too, Nehru's prestige was at its peak in the
1950s, with his rival C Rajagopalachari remarking that he
was "becoming the biggest man in the world (p 187)".
From 1949, vigorous movements championing language autonomy
collided with the national leadership's belief that
linguistic provinces fueled fissiparous tendencies.
Petitions, representations, street marches, fasts and
violence eventually forced Delhi to concede. Against its
will, the government of India had to allow formation of
states on the language principle in 1956 and later.
Identity-based claims to ever newer reconfiguration of
political geography continue to this day. Guha comments
that, in hindsight, "linguistic reorganization consolidated
the unity of India" instead of endangering it (p 208).
Nehru hoped that the massive industrialization and socialist
planning projects of his time would heal the schisms of
caste, religion, community and region. His programs of
agrarian uplift meant to "bring about a rural revolution by
peaceful means, not by the breaking of heads (p 224)".
However, the government was unable or unwilling to
redistribute land in favor of low-caste laborers and
sharecroppers, muting prospects of a "socialistic pattern of
society". Economist B V Krishnamurti's critique of the
neglect of primary education went unheeded. Gandhians
decried the ecological damage of high modernist development,
but they were politically too weak to matter.
Reform of personal laws was an acid test of India's
commitment to modernization. B R Ambedkar's Hindu Code Bill
attempted to introduce gender equity but ran into determined
orthodox objections that stalled its passage for nearly 10
years. Among Muslims, who adamantly resisted reform of
unequal personal laws, there was not even a small liberal or
progressive contingent. The stigma that Nehru "dare not
touch the Muslim minority" weakened his secular credentials.
The central government's decision in 1959 to dismiss the
first-ever democratically elected communist government in
Kerala tarnished Nehru's reputation for ethical behavior.
Corruption scandals involving finance minister T T
Krishnamachari made the first serious dent in the halo
enjoyed by Nehru's cabinet. The 1962 Chinese invasion
"represented a massive defeat in the Indian imagination" and
undermined Nehru's colossal status in the country and within
his own party. Parleys for a pact over Kashmir just before
Nehru died could not pass muster with his own party members.
Nonetheless, Guha tributes his promotion of social equality
and secularism. "More progress had been made in the first
seventeen years of independence than in the previous 1700
put together" (p 386).
As Nehru's successor, Lal Bahadur Shastri had to grapple
with disturbing anti-Hindi riots in Tamil-speaking areas.
Despite his personal preference for Hindi as the sole
official language, Shastri was compelled to guarantee a
polyglot policy to preserve national and party wholeness. He
was decisive in war with Pakistan in 1965, belying
expectations of being a pushover. His brief tenure at the
helm gave India "a new steeliness and sense of national
unity (p 404)".
Indira Gandhi's reign started with a precipitous decline in
the Congress' performance in the 1967 elections. New
populist regional parties shot up by focussing on policies
that could bag
immediate votes or by whipping up "nativistic" agendas
against outsiders. When the communists came to power in
Bengal, Maoist guerrillas prepared to use arms against the
Indian state on behalf of the oppressed rural peasantry.
Beheading of landlords and random attacks on policemen
inaugurated unsettling class warfare. Weak state governments
also failed to contain an upsurge of communal violence that
badly scarred the country's secular image.
On the advice of P N Haksar, Indira Gandhi presented herself
as an arch leftist, marshalling socialism and a large public
sector as "weapons for forging a united and integrated India
(p 436)". The strategy paid handsome dividends in the 1971
elections. The clinical dismemberment of Pakistan in the war
for Bangladesh took Mrs. Gandhi to the pinnacle of Indian
politics. From this height, she drifted towards
centralization of power, toleration of corruption, and
grooming of the authoritarian heir apparent, Sanjay Gandhi.
Gandhian Jayaprakash Narayan mobilized nationwide discontent
against the regime that he likened to the British colonial
state. Guha views Mrs. Gandhi's reaction of imposing a
dictatorial emergency suspending all civil liberties as a
response "far exceeding the original provocation (p 489)".
Her justification for annulling democracy, that "too much
devolution was fatal and I have to keep India together", did
find proponents in the middle and upper classes but not
among the bulk of the poor.
Guha explains Indira Gandhi's decision to restore democracy
in 1977 as partially a repayment of debt to foreign critics
who invoked her father's memory. A motley alliance of right
and left dislodged the Congress in the historic election
that ensued. Dramatic rural assertion in the new Janata
party government was an outcome of the commercialization of
agriculture ("green revolution") and milk production ("white
revolution") that benefited middle class and rich farmers.
Janata's rule witnessed a corollary sharpening of violent
caste conflict between the upwardly ascendant "backwards"
and the lowest-ranked Dalits.
Indira Gandhi's political renaissance was aided by the
accusation that Janata was against the wretched of the
Earth. Her party's resounding win the 1980 elections owed
not to ideological appeal but to her "ability to rule and
hold together a government" in contrast to the fractious
The early 1980s saw volatile agitations for greater autonomy
in Assam and Punjab. Party rivalries bore the lion's share
in escalation of caste and communal violence, as in the
initial nurturing of Sikh fundamentalists by the Congress.
Indira Gandhi's posture as the "saviour of the nation's
unity against divisive forces" belied such ugly realities.
The brutal counter-terrorist operation she ordered in Punjab
in 1984 was a case of "the army being used to finish a
problem created by the government (p 563)". The anti-Sikh
riots abetted by Congress politicians after Indira Gandhi's
assassination unleashed a secessionist war in Punjab that
threatened another partition of the country.
Rajiv Gandhi's record-breaking election victory in 1984 was
achieved by portraying the Congress as the only bulwark
against forces of secession. Sadly, he committed fatal
blunders like pandering to Muslim fundamentalists and Hindu
chauvinists, and sanctioning an ill-fated military
intervention in Sri Lanka. Ridden with corruption scandals,
the Congress lost the 1989 elections to a 1977-style
Sensing the rising influence of intermediate castes, the new
government implemented a controversial reservation scheme
that polarized society in an unprecedented manner. New
caste-based regional parties arrived on the scene not only
to "de-center" politics but also to divide the country.
Through the 1990s, violent caste wars dotted the countryside
from Haryana to Tamil Nadu, with Bihar emerging as the
touchstone. Jihadi terrorism and intolerance claimed fresh
victims among Kashmiri Hindus and went on to endanger public
security across the country. India was also rocked by a
succession of religious riots and pogroms, courtesy
electoral dividends accruing to the Bharatiya Janata Party.
This was unlike politicians of Nehru's day who worked to
close social cleavages rather than deepening them for
Since 1989, coalition governments have been the norm in
national politics. Guha associates it with the fragmentation
of the party system on the basis of identity. The change is
a sign of "widening of democracy", since it gives different
regions and groups a stake in the system. The downside of
coalition politics is that cabinet ministers now "think more
of the interests of their party of their state, rather than
of India as a whole (p 656)". The writ of the center does
not run as authoritatively in the states as before and
caste-based parties lead the dossier on criminalization.
"The lawmakers of India are its most regular lawbreakers" (p
Free market-driven economic growth, the 1998 nuclear tests
and victory in war over Pakistan in 1999 released a surge of
patriotic pride as the millennium approached, forwarding
avowals that India had finally "arrived" as a world power.
In a way, this new assertiveness countered the dissipation
of "Indianness" in domestic politics. Beneath the
self-congratulatory gloss, though, 26% of the population
lives below the poverty line. Between 1995 and 2005, at
least 10,000 destitute farmers committed suicide. As income
inequalities intensify, the economist Amartya Sen worries
that "half of India will look like California, the other
half like sub-Saharan Africa (p 700)".
Why is India a great survivor mocking at skeptics of the
past and present? Guha credits it to the existence of
liberal freedoms and institutions like the professional
civil service, the apolitical military, the English
language, a common market, Hindi films, and the cricket
team. All of them generate spunk for India's oneness. A
unique patriotism, not necessarily tied to primordial
identities, bolsters the overall structure. Although Guha
attempts scholarly detachment from his subject, he himself
unconsciously manifests this nationalist creed. A concerned
intelligentsia must hence be added to the list of cementing
factors that keep India alive.
India After Gandhi: The History of the World's Largest
Democracy by Ramachandra Guha. New York, Harper Collins,
2007. ISBN: 978-0-06-019881-7. Price: US$34.95, 893 pages.
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