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    South Asia
     Dec 15, 2007
The great survivor
India After Gandhi
by Ramachandra Guha
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 power 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 option.

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 Janata.

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 opportunistic coalition.

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 self-interest.

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 680).

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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