ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

Centrality of the Political Once Again

India after Gandhi:The History of the World's Largest Democracy by Ramachandra Guha

Review article

Centrality of the Political Once Again

India after Gandhi:The History of the World’s Largest Democracy

by Ramachandra Guha; MacMillan, London, Picador India, 2007; pp 900, Rs 695.


ood political understanding is, argu- ably, highly contingent on sound historical understanding. The validity of this proposition cannot be in doubt, simply because in order to know where we are at present, we do need to know how we arrived here; which were the paths that were taken, and not taken. Were the paths that our society took, or did not take, the outcome of some decision taken in full consciousness of the implications that would necessarily follow the decision? Or did we not choose at all, and the upshot belonged to the realm of mere happenstance? However, whereas the proposition that we cannot understand our present without understanding history, or that the past, as the cliché goes, is not another country, is self-evident, the problem arises when we try to construct a story of the past which would help us to negotiate our present predicament. For one, since most scholars approach history from the vantage point of the present, a “presentist” conception of history as it were, how history is to be interpreted becomes the subject matter of intense and acrimonious debates; the site of unburied hatchets as it were. Precisely because our efforts at history writing are embedded in today’s concerns, history itself is rendered hostage to our anxieties about the present. It is not surprising that the field of history writing in India has proved especially vulnerable to bitterness and angst, marked in the process by the rise and the fall of many a school of historiography. The second question that has been fore-grounded in history writing is simply this, from whose vantage point is this history narrated? This has generated a veritable flurry of histories written from “this” vantage point and not “that”, and certainly not from the vantage point of India.

Consequently, although, professional history writing in India has witnessed a major resurgence particularly since the 1980s, with the discovery of postmodernism, post-structuralism, post-Marxism, post-colonialism, and other related “posts”, the writing of history has also become far too self-conscious, ridden with apprehension and disquiet as it were. Most works on history today tend to get bogged down in a morass of reflections on how should history be written, and from whose perspective. Issues of representation, the significance of colonial discourses, the right method, the politically correct perspective, linguistic conventions, rhetorical flourishes, and divergences over how a particular tale has to be “plotted” in the words of Hayden White, seem to occupy much of the energies of historians. More significantly, in the excessive and overriding concern with telling a tale from one particular vantage point, the context, that of India, simply disappears. We have been presented with many excellent histories of women, of tribals, of the so-called “lower castes”, of the rise of communalism, casteism, and of how we should go about understanding India. Each of these histories self-consciously and deliberately presents a partial viewpoint. But I had begun to despair whether it was ever possible to once again write or read a history of India. Is there a history of India which can provide a context for all these particular and often partial histories, and yet give us the big story? Can particular histories in India make sense without reference to this wider story?

Straight Story

Ram Guha’s big book on India is not only refreshingly free of wearisome pretensions, but eschews the excessive preoccupation with technical fine points of historiography, and which vantage point to approach the entire issue of history writing from. Guha tells us a straight story of India, and tells this story rather well. The purpose of telling of this story is deceptively simple – how has India held together as a single entity after 60 testing years of independence, despite the many forces that divide India, despite the many troublesome developments that the country has had to confront, and in the face of some dire warnings about the imminent collapse of the country. The “real success story of modern India”, Guha suggests, “lies not in the domain of economics but in that of politics” (p xxi). Guha sets out to explain this very puzzle. His narrative is freewheeling, bringing coherently together events; choices made and not made; structures, chance, biographies, agents, and comments sometimes generous on other times not so generous, on India and Indians.

Guha basically dwells on four themes that define the making of post-independence India: (a) the forging of the postindependence state; (b) the cha llenges of anti-caste and communal movements, insurgencies, linguistic movements, and the Naxalite rebellion to the state;

(c) the shifts in India’s relations with the rest of the world, particularly the US; and (d) the economic project. He also makes numerous detours to tell us who said what on India, to narrate short but fascinating biographies of persons who played a large role in the construction of the Indian state, as well as give us delicious snippets of information, on the vanity of Lord Louis Mountbatten for instance, and the penchant of the Nawab of Junagadh for canines. “What is the use of a book”, as the eponymous character in Alice in Wonder land asks, “without pictures or conversation?” Guha’s book gives us both and more.1

Of the four themes, the economic project is least discussed. In chapter eight, Guha concentrates on the centrality of the state to economic planning and deve lopment: steel, irrigation, agricultural transformation, landlessness and land reforms, as well as education and social

Economic and Political Weekly August 25, 2007 development and Nehru’s fascination with modern techno logy. Guha’s own position on this mode of development remains un articulated, all he admits is that the ecological critique of industrialisation by the Gandhians was politically weak; perhaps the time was not ripe for this particular critique (p 224). The leftwards turn during Indira Gandhi’s regime evinced in measures such as bank nationalisation and abolition of privy purses is interpreted as mere strategy employed by the then prime minister, or as a tactical manoeuvre to give her an edge over her opponents. Chapter 29 details the emergence of India as an economic power in its own right, but also maps the continuing poverty, illiteracy and ill-health which stalk the lives of millions of Indians. Guha accepts that it was Nehru’s policy of setting up engineering colleges and the use of English as the medium of education has provided a base for the economic take-off. But he declines again to take a position, confining himself to laying out the pros and cons of the economic take-off.

Nehru’s India

The bulk of the work is devoted to discussing the processes of state formation in relation to two aspects of the polity: challenges from within the country, and challenges from without, from other powers and predictors of doom. Central to the processes of state formation is the soaring figure of Jawaharlal Nehru. Guha is an unabashed Nehruvian, and as someone who has always considered the generation she belongs to as “Nehru’s children”, this reviewer shares his belief. Mahatma Gandhi gave to India political ethics; Nehru gave to us pragmatic political values. If many Indians remain committed to democracy, secularism, and social equity, this is because of the Nehruvian legacy and his overpowering passion for justice. A major part of Guha’s book maps out the formation of the new Indian nation under the visionary leadership of Nehru, and Nehru remains a focal point in the rest of the book, as a constant referral and as a touchstone for the evaluation of other leaders. For instance, Guha does much to rehabilitate the figure of Lal Bahadur Shastri who was destined to live in Nehru’s shadow. Shastri comes out as much more politically decisive in this work, than popularly believed. But the comparison with Nehru remains. In the aftermath of the India-Pakistan war of 1965, Shastri, writes Guha, “was happy to be photographed – dhoti and all – atop a captured Patton tank, a gesture that would not have come easily to his predecessor” (p 401). And the statesmanship, the vision, and the normative commit ments of Nehru tower over the qualities of his descendants, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi.

Guha is aware of the many shortcomings of Nehru, for instance his fatal weakness for Krishna Menon who was to embarrass the prime minister on more than one occasion. Yet Guha is often soft towards the first prime minister of India. But even our gods have feet of clay, and in the field of political history this has to be recognised. For instance, in a particularly chilling part of the book, Guha writes of the inhumane treatment meted out by various officials who behaved as tinpot dictators, as bureaucrats are often wont to behave, when it came to Muslims who chose to remain in India after the Partition. The home secretary instructed secretaries of all other departments to ensure that Muslim officials, who could be sympathetic to Pakistan, were not entrusted with any confidential work, or allowed to hold key posts. Muslim officials were asked by many of these tinpot dictators to sign bonds of loyalty. Guha holds Sardar Patel responsible for fomenting distrust of minorities, but exonerates Nehru (p 368).

It is true that Nehru was deeply committed to secularism and to the rights of minorities. The question therefore is: why did the Nehruvian vision not prevail over that of the home minister? Guha has not been able to quite explain the discrepancy between the political commitments of the prime minister, and those of other ministers and the president, or indeed of substantial sections of public opinion in India. If Nehru was the linchpin of the Congress for almost 15 years after independence, and if he personally was responsible for the victory of the Congress in elections, how is it that he could not overrule errant ministers? Or was this due to the fact that the personal vision of Nehru proved helpless before the ideology of Hindutva that had come to dominate hearts and minds since the second decade of the 20th century?

I think Guha, like many Nehruvians, greatly underestimates the power of the religious right. But it is time that we come to terms with this unpalatable fact;

Economic and Political Weekly August 25, 2007

it is time we recognise that the religious right has succeeded in infiltrating and constituting public consciousness in and through a variety of means. We may not like this, but we should begin to understand the power of the religious right, and how this power has been constructed through an entire host of strategies, notably that of investing in social capital, and thereby reaping rich dividends. But it is precisely an analysis of this power that Guha shows scant regard for. For instance when he discusses Partition, it is in terms of colonial policy and the machinations of the Muslim League (pp 26-30); he ignores the role of the religious right in stoking up fears of majoritarianism.

The second question as regards Nehru is the following: Was Nehru not in the know when the government of India decided, in a politically short-sighted and extremely unwise manner, to violate its own commitments to the regional autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir? Was Nehru not complicit in the arrest of Sheikh Abdullah in the 1950s? Guha is uncertain about this, and abandons the issue after citing Nehru’s biographer that Nehru did nothing to countermand the arrest (p 256). But these developments, after all, have contributed a great deal to the making of what is euphemistically termed the “Kashmir problem” and the prime minister of the country at that time has to be held responsible.

Guha chronicles the troubled history of the government with Kashmir, and to some extent with the Nagas and the Mizos. It is puzzling why he ignores the case of Manipur which represented a clear breach of both democratic norms and political integrity. Manipur was the first region in India to hold elections based on universal adult franchise in June 1948. By the time the process for the integration of princely states into India was underway, Manipur already had an elected and a representative assembly in place. The maharaja had signed the Instrument of Accession on August 11, 1947, but Sardar Patel aspired to the full integration of the state into the Indian union. Reports of an impending left coup under the leadership of the com munist leader Hijam Singh Irabot hastened matters, and the government of India proceeded to arbitrarily dissolve the coalition ministry and the assembly, and appoint a dewancum-chief com missioner from outside to administer the state. Political parties were banned and Irabot was forced to go underground.

Ironies of a Nation State

On September 17, 1949, the maharaja went to Shillong to meet Sri Prakasha, then governor of Assam, to discuss the differences between him and the dewan appointed by the central government. The maharaja was reportedly confined to his quarters till he signed an agreement merging his state with India, despite his request that he should be allowed to consult his duly elected, and now dismissed, council of ministers before he signed the agreement. J and K is thus, not the only case where the government of India under the leadership of Nehru wilfully set aside all norms of democracy to ensure the construction of a strong nation state. I am the last person to criticise an author for what she or he has left out, because this mode of engagement is neither fair nor warranted. But Guha has set out to write the history of how the Indian nation has endured, and nations endure because demo cracy is violated often waywardly. Conceivably the founding moment of violence in India, in Jammu and Kashmir and in Manipur, can be traced to the time when princely states came to be incorporated in the Indian union, sometimes through persuasion, sometimes through political fraud. Guha, however, gives Manipur only five sentences in a paragraph in page 276.

Yet what were deviations from political norms in Nehru’s time were to become the norm, during the reign of Indira Gandhi. Indira Gandhi, Guha tells us, was not as well read or as widely travelled as her father. She also did not hold strong commitments to a left of centre ideology as her advisors, such as P N Haksar, did. But she deployed this ideology skilfully for purely pragmatic objectives, to outwit her opponents. In due course this ideology provided her with one of the most powerful weapons in her armoury, the rhetoric of populism. Whether her populism was more effective than the one employed by her early contemporary, the leader across the border, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, is debatable, but the impact certainly lasted longer, and not only for reasons of longevity of the practitioners of populism. Analysts have tended to regard Indira Gandhi, and correctly so, as the purposeful destroyer of all the values that her father stood for. And yet there is one question that remains un accounted for; her uncanny ability to reach the hearts of millions of people. Till today she is remembered as the saviour of the poor, and as the defender of minorities, irrespective of what she actually did for these vulnerable sections of the Indian population. Guha dwells little on this irony but it is precisely ironies such as these, which define Indian politics.

How Indira Gandhi negotiated the troubled 1960s, and how she positioned herself at the centre of affairs is a fascinating story, which is competently mapped by the author. In a letter to the novelist, Mary McCarthy, the philosopher Hannar Arendt wrote thus of Indira Gandhi: “The toughness of these women once they have got what they want is really something!” (pp 462-63). The change was certainly not for the better, and Guha chronicles in painstaking detail the decay of India’s political institutions; the subversion of the judiciary and the bureaucracy, the institutionalisation of the culture of sycophancy, and above all the organisational deterioration of the Congress Party under Indira Gandhi.

In 1967, the political scientist Myron Weiner exploring the reasons for the success of the Congress suggested that the reason why the party could maintain its hegemony was that it could find place for all, for the spirit of self-sacrifice and self-abnegation as well as for those who wanted status and power, for people who had specific grievances and demands, for those people who were looking for conviviality, and for those who were committed to national integration, economic development, secularism, and representative government.2The role of the Congress as a representative, and as a mediator of public interest, ebbed after 1967 in state politics, and after the early 1970s in national politics as well. And it never completely recovered its monopoly in the period thereafter. The reasons for the decline of the Congress system are many, and need detailed treatment. But for one, as Richard Sisson and Ramashroy Roy have suggested, the period from 1966 to 1991 was marked by the “organisational atrophy” of the Congress. During this time “the party came to approximate a shifting reservoir of political aspirants, defined and selected by a strong and purposeful leader with unparalleled name recognition, and with demonstrated support within the electorate”.3 Consequently, the same Congress that had specialised

Economic and Political Weekly August 25, 2007 in addressing, negotiating, and resolving demands of different groups within the framework of its own organisation became a captive of the leader. This expectedly proved disastrous for the capacity of the party to represent interests and meet demands adequately. “The once impressive decentralised organisation of the Congress Party”, wrote Bardhan in 1984, “has largely disintegrated; the principle of popular representation at different organisational levels of the party has been abandoned; (and) nominated to co-opted political operators and gangsters control much of the political machinery”.4 It is not surprising that in all this, individual members of the party came to be preoccupied with accessing the supreme leader more, and representing their constituents less.

Secondly, the decline of the Congress took place at precisely the time when popular expectations from political parties and the government had risen dramatically. By the end of the 1960s people expected different things of the government than they did in the 1950s. Driven by populist imagery and radical demagoguery, the people came to expect that the state would do everything on demand. But the Congress not only failed to emancipate the country from poverty, illiteracy, and unemployment, it had under the leadership of Indira Gandhi become authoritarian. And this led to restlessness in major parts of the country.

The 1970s

By the turn of the 1970s, simmering discontent came to pervade large parts of the country as groups mobilised to target an unresponsive state, characterised, according to Atul Kohli, by the “disintegration of India’s major political institutions, especially the decline of its premier political entity, the Congress Party”.5 Given the inability of the party to meet aspirations and resolve problems, new groups entering the political arena resorted to agitation and violence to press their claims upon the state. This was more than evident when in 1973 and 1974, political discontent spilled outside the channels provided by the party system and people, particularly students in Gujarat and Bihar, took to the streets.6 Even as disgruntlement coalesced rapidly under the leadership of Jayprakash Narayan to mount a challenge to the political system, Indira Gandhi, as prime minister and leader of the same Congress Party that had led the people into independence, imposed an internal Emergency from 1975-77. The Emergency not only suspended representative democracy, it pulverised civil liberties and froze political activism.

Though the Emergency suspended constitutional democracy, it also animated an entire range of social struggles. By the 1980s, Rajni Kothari was to speak of the “vacuum in the traditional superstructure of the liberal polity…In their place is emerging a new arena of counteraction, of countervailing tendencies, of countercultural movements and more generally of a counter-challenge to existing paradigms of thought and action”.7 This development simply does not seem to have registered with the then prime minister. Guha cites a conversation Indira Gandhi had with two art historians: “Too much devolution”, she reportedly said, “was fatal to India…I have to keep India together… That is an absolute must” (p 500). But it was precisely an entity called India that threatened to implode. One of the casualties of Gandhi’s regime was the federal system. After 1967 when the Congress lost power in half the state legislatures, and in the aftermath of the 1969 split in the Congress Party, Indira Gandhi, aiming to control the states, proceeded to dissolve the boundaries between the domain of state politics and central politics. The central government wilfully selected and dismissed Congress and non-Congress governments in state after state, imposed president’s rule arbitrarily, and in general treated states as feudal fiefs. The Punjab agitation was one consequence of this development. Even as centralisation of power turned people against the central government, state leaders were also delegitimised. And discontent spilt into the streets. This was the particular case with Punjab.

If Guha shows little patience with the style and the strategy of Indira Gandhi, he is even less patient with Rajiv Gandhi who became prime minister of India in 1984, after Indira Gandhi was assassinated. “Even by the standards of Indian history”, writes Guha, “the 1980s were an especially turbulent decade. The republic had always been faced with dissenting movements; but never so many, at the same time, in so many parts of India, and expressed with such intensity” (p 599). Adding to the violence was the growing political and administrative corruption. Outside the country’s borders, national prestige was greatly damaged by the bloody nose given the Indian army by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka. Once again ominous predictions that the country would break up and that democracy was once again in peril began to do the rounds. Guha perceptively remarks that “every decade since Independence had been designated the ‘most dangerous’”. The novelty about predictions in the 1980s

ForthcomingL. M. Bhole, Professor (Econ.), Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay - Mumbai Collected Papers on Money, Interest, and Monetary Policy, Collected Papers, Vol. 1 356 Pages, 17 x 24 cm, Tables & Figures ISBN: 978-3-938054-17-8 (Softcover) ISBN: 978-3-938054-26-0 (Hardcover) Collected Papers on Credit and Finance, Collected Papers, Vol. 2 459 Pages, 17 x 24 cm, Tables & Figures ISBN 978-3-938054-14-7 (Softcover) ISBN 978-3-938054-24-6 (Hardcover) Collected Papers on Gandhian Thought, Collected Papers , Vol. 3 336 Pages, 17 x 24 cm, Tables & Figures ISBN 978-3-938054-11-6 (Softcover) ISBN 978-3-938054-23-9 (Hardcover) Unemployment, Inequality, Entrepreneurship, and other Collected Papers Collected Papers , Vol. 4 238 Pages, 17 x 24 cm, Tables & Figures ISBN 978-3-938054-20-8 (Softcover) ISBN 978-3-938054-25-3 (Hardcover) Published by Sanjay K. Singh, Assistant Professor (Econ.), Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur Productivity, Cost Structure, and Pricing in Urban Bus Transport - A Case Study of Urban Bus Companies in India 217 + xx Pages, 14,8 x 21 cm, 61 Tables, 40 Figures, 15 Boxes ISBN: 978-3-938054-08-6 (Softcover), EURO 39,80 *OGPSNBUJPO0SEFS$POUBDUtXXXBNBOJQVCMJTIFSTDPNAmani International Publishers, Peter Dudy MA, Managing Director 'BYt1IPOFtF.BJMQFUFSEVEZ!BNBOJQVCMJTIFSTDPNForthcoming

Economic and Political Weekly August 25, 2007

was that “they came from Indians rather than foreigners” (p 601).

Changing Politics of the 1980s

And yet the decade of the 1980s or more precisely the time when Rajiv Gandhi presided over the destiny of the country was momentous, simply because it heralded several major changes in the way the country had practised an activity called politics. Guha narrates all these transformations, but let me deal with the political consequences of these alterations. First, the neutralisation of the decision of the Supreme Court in the Shah Bano case, through a law passed by Parliament on the rights of Muslim women, put the entire issue of gender justice onto the backburner, subordinated the rights of women to community identities, and gave to the religious right a convenient weapon to fight secularism. Secondly, the palpably imprudent decision to open the locks of the temple in Ayodhya, catapulted the religious right into the public domain, an event that was to culminate in the destruction of the Babri mosque. Thirdly, if both these developments boded ill for secularism that had been so lovingly cherished and nurtured by Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, an equally cherished value, that of socialism was to take a hard knock as liberal isation was instituted in various guises. Fourthly, the period saw the rise of a completely unscrupulous capitalist class, notably the Ambanis. That Mani Ratnam has glamourised precisely this breed in his recent film Guru, is a sorry comment on the kind of practices we have come to tolerate in India. And finally, Rajiv Gandhi’s regime, as Guha points out, gave rise to a “page three” class of politicians – savvy, speaking yuppy English, distinctively upper class, and sporting designer glares and clothes, particularly the designer khadi kurta which at one point of time had been associated with a sense of belonging to the people, without the least compunction that the majority of their own constituents are poorly fed, and that their lives stalked by ill-health. Rajiv Gandhi’s legacy is uneven: on the one hand, he gave to the country modernisation via technology, and on the other, his policies enabled an infinite regression towards the values of primeval India, i e, communalism. On balance, his period represents the not so nice face of India.

Why India Survives

“Begin at the beginning”, the king says gravely in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop”.8 Guha who begins his story at the beginning of the post-independence period, stops at the turn of the 1990s, or more precisely on page 602. He pleads that the period following the 1980s is far too recent to account for. The historian’s craft, Guha seems to suggest, can only be practised and finely honed, when the dust has settled on matters that seem to be stamped with immediacy in a shorter span of time. From page 605 to page 743, Guha’s narrative style changes, from straight story telling, he transits to a more analytical investigation of concepts: rights, riots, rulers, riches, and people’s entertainment. Much of this section brings together issues discussed earlier, as well as brings these issues up to date. The historical journalist perchance has the kind of leeway which the academic historian does not possess, for he or she can speak with certain authority on what, in newspeak, are called issues of current interest.

In the last chapter on why India survives, Guha zeroes onto the plus points of Indian democracy: the magic of elections, the institutionalisation of civil liberties, the pluralisation of language, the role of the bureaucracy, the army, the dominance of English as a link language, and the integrating role played by Bollywood cinema. Above all secularism, despite all challenges, continues to survive as a special ideal. I must confess that I was disappointed with the manner in which Guha establishes the relevance of the secular principle – by recourse to the by now clichéd observation that India is secular because the richest industrialist is a Muslim, leading male actors are Muslim, three presidents and two chief justices have been Muslim, the last president was a Muslim, the prime minister is a Sikh, and the leader of the Congress is a catholic. But the elites among the minority groups have hardly been at risk in India’s democracy. The government of India has often established its secular credentials by giving to precisely this class, positions of prominence. It is the ordinary Indian citizen who also happens to be Muslim, who is discriminated against, in and through the practices of everyday life; and who is at risk. I am also surprised by his comment on p 752: “[m]y own view – speaking as a historian rather than a citizen – is that as long as Pakistan exists there will be Hindu fundamentalists in India”. Does Guha really believe that at some point of time the country of Pakistan will cease to exist? I sincerely hope not. The religious right has to be tamed irrespective of Pakistan, for it represents a sickness of our body politic.

Finally, Guha has reiterated an important question and thereby generated an entire research agenda – how on earth is a nation created, sustained, and reproduced in the face of great odds – poverty, illiteracy, malnutrition, divisive tendencies, corrupt and venal political elites, insti tutionalised mediocrity, and inherited prejudices? Nations are created through vision, imagination, strategies, clear objectives, and commitment to values as in the case of Jawaharlal Nehru. But even if none of the successors of Nehru exhibited these fine qualities, the nation has somewhat muddled through. Guha has written a great history of how the Indian state was created and consolidated in the aftermath of independence. The consolidation of the Indian nation, he seems to suggest, followed the constitution of this state. Yet arguably, visionary and not so visionary leaderships, contingencies, opportunities taken and not taken, wars, hostile neighbours, external powers, and cultural practices inextricably mingle to create a nation. In other words, it is just not possible to establish a causal relation between any one of these factors, or any one set of factors and the making of nations. Perhaps nations cannot be created; they come into existence in and through a series of overlapping circumstances, some belonging to the intended and some to happenstance. I suspect that the latter has a greater role to play in the forging of a nation.

What should we make of the history of India told to us by Guha? This is an engaging book, neat, coherent, elegant, and comprehensive. It is also a defence and a vindication of India against the prophets of doom. Yet it is precisely because Guha wishes to detail most, if not all, the events, the responses, and the reactions to these events as well as the handling of these events; that somehow, somewhere authorial judgment gets lost. Guha is an acute and a critical analyst of contemporary developments, this we know through his other writings. We miss precisely this critical edge in the book. And in the absence of this critical edge the

Economic and Political Weekly August 25, 2007 work comes across as a very sophisticated rendering of everything that happened in India between 1947 and the late 1980s. For instance, we would have been very interested in knowing what the author makes of India’s democracy. Guha merely mentions that constitutional democracy has been supplanted by populist democracy. But what is populist democracy? Democracy led by populist leaders? This insight holds tremendous implications for the way we conceptualise democracy in India. The fact that we have managed to hold regular elections is glamourised so much that we forget that democracy is much more than a percentage of people turning out to cast their vote. We need a theory of democracy that tells us how people make their own history despite all odds, even if the histories they make are not the histories they chose to make in the first instance. This is what demo cracy is about, about procedures and processes that enable people to speak back to a history that is not of their own making, despite populist leaderships that deal in so much political fluff. But Guha does not develop his incipient theory of democracy. And this is disappointing

Finally, let me suggest at least three factors that continue to cast a dark cloud on the prospect that Indians will experience a feeling of strong belonging to each other, in and through the practices of civic nationhood. Firstly, as long as the Kashmir problem remains, communalism will continue to bedevil intercommunity existence. The impact of Mani Ratnam’s film Roja on communal sentiments in regions distant from the Kashmir valley is enough proof of this. We cannot share sentiments of pride that we are citizens of India, and that India is the world’s largest democracy, as long as our own people are subjected to immense and senseless violence in the valley, and as long as the Indian state continues to violate basic rights of the inhabitants in that part of the country. India is turning 60, and 60 is a good age to reflect on where we want to go, and where we do not want to go. Perhaps the maturity that the age of 60 is expected to bring will encourage a reasoned solution to the Kashmir problem. Enough blood has been spilt in the valley; it is time for reconciliation and for compensating for historical wrongs. Walter Lawrence who as an able administrator of the British empire was sent to J and K to iron out the wrongs of the then ruler, was to write of the Kashmiri people thus, “they were really a very fine people, a people who never had a chance”.9 Should these historical wrongs not be rectified today when independent India turns 60? Should not the Kashmiri people be given a chance to come into their own? Guha’s politically sensitive handling of the Kashmir issue should be cause enough to prompt a resolution of the problem.

Secondly, though according to Guha India’s civil society is by all accounts vibrant, and marked by solidarity and awareness of historical wrongs, a sense of belonging to a country called India, can be ensured only when groups eschew independent or partial agendas, and come together to fight for justice for all victims of history. The civil liberties movement can arguably provide an umbrella for bringing these groups together – feminist, anticaste, anti-communal, anti-globali sation, and anti-all other evils. We have a lively civil society even if it is occasionally messy, but it is also prone to fragmentation and easy manipulation by the state. All democratic movements need to forge a common cause; that of solidarity, to battle the politics of rank symbolism: an Ambedkar statue “here”, and some more reservations “there”, a handout here, and a favour there, which pit community against community, and religion against religion.

Thirdly, is it not also time that we complete the task of institutionalising protections for the vulnerable sections of society, and begin to look at victims of history in other parts of the world, through the lens of a common humanity and solidarity? Philosophers in the west are speaking of obligations to a globalised humanity, of reaching out to people who have been disadvantaged by our collective histories of exploitation and subordination, and of global justice and cosmopolitanism. And we are looking increasingly inwards to community and caste, and sub-community and sub-caste, and agonising over who should we should eat with, and who our children should marry or not marry. Is it not time that we in India settle, even, provisionally the “narcissism of minor differences”, and begin to communicate and connect with others, if not in the world, in our region at least? We have turned inwards for too long; we have been preoccupied with “me” and “mine” for too long. Civilised societies are not hemmed in by ethnic or national borders; they are marked by the language of generosity and obligation, and the ability to feel pain for human beings even if these human beings live in societies far away. We should try and recover some of the cosmopolitanism of Nehru that Guha has dwelt on so lovingly, and some of Nehru’s commitment to shimmering solidarity with other countries of the south.

These are issues which the book under review does not touch, but these are issues that are catapulted onto research agendas by a close reading of Guha’s book. And here lies precisely the strength of this work. For arguably the purpose of social science enquiry is not to provide the right answers, which are for this reason considered settled, but to provoke and encourage the asking of new and perhaps the right questions. Guha’s book is noteworthy for this very reason. He is to be congratulated. Email:



1 Lewis Carroll, 1966 (1865), Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Harmondsworth, Penguin, p 23.

2 Myron Weiner, 1967, Party Building in a New Nation, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp 472-74.

3 Richard Sisson and Ramashray Roy, 1990, ‘Introduction: The Congress and the Indian Party System’ in Richard Sisson and Ramashray Roy, edited, The Changing Basis of Congress Support, Sage, Delhi, Vol 1, pp 1-33, 21.

4 Pranab Bardhan, 1984, The Political Economy of Development in India, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, p 79.

5 Atul Kohli, 1991, Democracy and Discontent: India’s Growing Crisis of Governability, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, p 5.

6 As Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph put it, the new generation judged the party less in the light of its historic role and more on the basis of its retrospective and prospective political performance. It is not surprising that the political capital that the Congress Party had reaped “badly dwindled”. See their ‘Organisational Adaptation of the Congress under Rajiv Gandhi’s Leadership’ in Richard Sisson and Ramashray Roy, edited, The Changing Basis of Congress Support, Vol 1, pp 85-102 and 88.

7 Rajni Kothari, 1986, ‘Masses, Classes and the State’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol 21, No 5, February 1, p 214; also Rajni Kothari, 1988, Decline of Parties and Rise of Grass Roots Movements’ in His State against Democracy, in Search of Humane Governance, Ajanta Publications, Delhi, pp 33-54.

8 Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, p 154. 9 Sir Walter Roper Lawrence, 1928, The India We Served, Cassell and Co, London.

Economic and Political Weekly August 25, 2007

Dear Reader,

To continue reading, become a subscriber.

Explore our attractive subscription offers.

Click here

Back to Top