'India After Gandhi': profile of a titan on the rise

An Indian historian examines his country's remarkable transformation into a global power.

There is a particular peril in compiling a history of contemporary events, and Ramachandra Guha defines it neatly when he says that, "Those who write contemporary history know that they are not addressing a passive reader of the text placed in front of him. The reader is also a citizen, a critical citizen, with his own political and ideological preferences."

And yet, in spite of his own warning, Guha has chosen to write India After Gandhi: The History of the World's Largest Democracy, an opinionated account of what has transpired in his country since World War II.

Contemporary India is not an easy nut to crack. From 1950 up through at least 1980, the country was bogged down by what was disparagingly referred to as "the Hindu rate of growth" (a sluggish 3.5 percent annual increase that some economists blamed on Hindu ideas about fatalism and contentment with one's lot in life.)

But since the late 1980s, the country has undergone a remarkable transformation. In 1991, the Narsimha Rao government launched wide-scale economic reforms that ended the license-quota-permit raj (a complex patronage system set in place in the early years of India's civil service) that had shackled the economy for four decades. Today, India is looked upon as a major global economic player with rising clout in world affairs.

But what brought about this transformation? And how inclusive has it been?

Guha, a noted Indian historian who has covered issues as diverse as environment and cricket in the past, takes a cautious approach in examining this meteoric rise, preferring to focus mostly on the good and the bad in policy that preceded it.

The beginnings of Indian democracy

He is an unmitigated admirer of Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister and a global statesman. Committed to secularism and equality, Nehru was instrumental in ensuring that every Indian adult, regardless of educational qualification or gender, had the right to vote in India's first parliamentary election in 1952.

Whether such a goal was desirable is almost beside the point. It boggles the mind to think of the scale on which this project was carried out. Even today, India's electoral experiment, conducted entirely on electronic voting machines, can provide lessons in operations and logistics to many other countries (including the US, as evidenced by its 2001 ballot blunder).

Guha writes admiringly of the 1952 exercise, including profiles of various pan-Indian leaders and how they cast their votes.

He also devotes close attention to the framing of the Indian Constitution. Guha delves into the long hours of confabulation that members of the Constituent Assembly indulged in to arrive at a charter that has come to be regarded as among the best and most equitable in the world.

Enamored as Guha is of Nehru, he gives space to the latter's political failures as well, most notably, his blind faith in China's ostensible friendship with India. Nehru was brutally shaken by the Chinese invasion of 1962 and he never truly came to grips with it. He died a broken man in 1964.

Nehru's death left a gaping hole in Indian politics, and it took some years before this could be filled by none other than his daughter, the fiery Indira Gandhi. While Nehru was a sagacious leader, his daughter proved to be one of India's most ruthless and shrewd politicians.

Gandhi was responsible for imposing the dreaded "Emergency" – a state of emergency during which she suspended elections and civil rights for 21 months between 1975 and 1977.

The Emergency was a transparent effort to consolidate Gandhi's position amid perceived threats to her leadership. Thousands of her political rivals were jailed during this time and several democratic conventions were suspended.

Gandhi ruled the Congress with an iron fist and pushed forward the political career of her son Sanjay, who is today remembered for egregious abuses of state power, including forced sterilizations. (Sanjay's political career ended with his death in a plane crash in 1980.)

The legacy of the Nehru-Gandhis

The history of modern India, in many ways, is the history of the Nehru-Gandhi family. It was Indira Gandhi's bloody death in 1984 that caused the political rise of her naive older son, Rajiv. He, in turn, was killed by a Tamil suicide bomber in 1991, and after a self-imposed political exile, his widow, Sonia Gandhi, an Italian-born woman, took control of the Congress party in 1998.

One of the many incidents that marked Rajiv Gandhi's prime ministership was the Shah Bano case, which Guha explains in depth. Shah Bano was a Muslim divorcée who approached the Indian courts hoping to secure alimony from her husband. The case went all the way to India's Supreme Court, which, in 1986, took the side of Shah Bano.

This angered several sections of the Muslim community who urged Rajiv Gandhi to overrule the court order through legislation. Gandhi complied. That launched a divisive phase in Indian politics and led to the rise of Hindu fundamentalist groups, all of which angrily decried Congress's policy of appeasement toward Muslims.

So vituperative have the charges and countercharges been that Indian politics today remain virtually split down the middle over the cause of Hindutva (Hindu nationalism).

This, Guha maintains, is the paradox of India. On the one hand, shiny malls sporting the latest brands jostle for attention. On the other, dehumanizing poverty and social ills are still shockingly evident. While the rise of an enlightened middle class has helped much to raise India's profile, much remains to be done to lift the country from the throes of religious intolerance and casteism.

Overall, Guha is optimistic about India's future. Backed by the rising popularity of native cultural products – including Indian movies and literature – Guha sees India as well on its way to finding its rightful place in the sun.

Vikram Johri is a freelance writer in New Delhi.

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