Tuesday, 18 September 2012

A memoir on the evolution of India’s socio-politics and economic policies from the pre-colonial to the mid-nineties

(Book review on THE IDEA OF INDIA by Sunil Khilnani)
The book is a vivid description of the socio-political-economic order of India from the pre-colonial era till around 50 years after independence (around 1996) – the year Sri H D Deve Gowda, assumes the Prime Ministerial responsibilities of this great nation. While traveling through time, the author takes the readers through a celestial journey in the most descriptive, yet lucid manner, spread across 4 chapters – Democracy, Temples of the Future, Cities and Who is an Indian? In every chapter, he leaves behind a lot for the readers to ponder upon and to debate on the current (mid-nineties) socio-political environment.
The opening chapter on Democracy could not have been a better description of the country’s struggles to come to terms to the concept of democracy, after centuries of colonial oppression. As the author himself notes – “Few states created after the end of European empire have been able to maintain democratic routines; and India’s own past, as well as the contingencies of its unity, prepared it very poorly for democracy. Huge, impoverished, crowded with cultural and religious distinctions, with a hierarchical social order most deliberately designed to resist the idea of political equality, India had little prospective reason to expect it could operate as a democracy.” But, this concept of democracy, which the author defines as – “a type of government, a political regime of laws and institutions,” had “penetrated the Indian political imagination and has begun to corrode the authority of the social order and of a paternalist state.” What follows next is a frank description of the evolution of democratic systems in the nation through the layered social structures of varnas & jatis (Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Sudras), explaining how economic and social balances were maintained in the days of the yore and finally raising a question – “Did British rule ruthlessly fracture the patterns of Indian society, or was it compelled to adapt to native styles, and merely preside in glorified manner over the more subterranean movements of India’s history?” This is where, the author introduces the Indian National Congress and its gradual evolution from “a stiff debating club that met annually during the Christmas vacation” to what Nehru once commented it as, “the mirror of the Nation.” The author then goes on to give an account of the role of Congress under Gandhi and Nehru during the freedom struggle and moves on to define the phase between 1947 till Nehru’s death (in 1964) as “… unsurpassed importance, during which the state stabilized, became a developmental agency and aspired to penetrate all areas of the society’s life, and showed that it could be subject to democratic procedures.” The author further illustrates the various political and economic changes that followed hereafter, from Indira Gandhi’s rule to Emergency to her assassination to communal tensions during the Babri Masjid demolition and the resurgence of Hindu nationalists. He finally ends this chapter by stating, “Conflict is a part of what Democracy is: a raw, exciting, necessary and in the end ultimately disappointing form of politics, that encourages people to make for themselves that most intimate of choices – to decide who they are and how they wish to be recognized, and to refuse to be ruled by those who deny them recognition.”

 In the next Chapter, Temples of the Future, the author describes how in the mid-50s onwards, a new and resurgent India tried to cope with the economic and commercial requirements by investing heavily in various infrastructure projects – starting from the Bhakra Nangal Dam in Punjab to building a new capital in Chandigarh (by Le Corbusier) to the gigantic steel plants in Durgapur, Bokaro and Bhilai (aided by the British, Germans and Russians) – “embodied the vision of modernity to which India had committed itself.” This is where the author comes down heavily on the developmental agenda of the newly elected Governments in the early phase of post Independent India by stating, “the economy created in the name of the intellectual blueprint of the 1950s, state-directed and regulated, founded on heavy industry and isolated from international competition, has not delivered its promises.” He goes on to critically dissect what went wrong through the first 50 years in post independent India and explains, “Nehru’s economic design was unquestionably more coherent than any of its Indian rivals in the 1950s. But it had to be built in real and particular circumstances, and inevitably intentions did not match outcomes.” The difficulties, he points out, “were rooted in the land: a very unequal distribution of land-ownership, defended by a powerful social order and very low levels of productivity.” Khilnani raises the question why, even with the Congress party ruling most of the states until 1957, economic reforms could not be administered. He finds out, “…Congress had never been a strongly ideological party… it was a broad political coalition, itself dependent on what some have described as ‘India’s ruling social coalition’ of commercial and industrial capitalists, rural landlords and the bureaucratic and managerial elite (in later decades, newly enriched farmers and unionized public sector workers would clamber aboard this coalition raft).” An interesting account on the failure of Indian planning and Planning Commission follows with the latter gradually “toppled from its throne” shifting the economic decision-making powers to the Finance Ministry in the late 1960s, while the commission continues to exist as “a sophisticated accounts office and a retirement home for the socially benevolent.”

In the third chapter, the author pens down the sentiments of Nehru behind building metropolises with a vision to “not only make them symbols of a new sovereignty but an effective engine to drive India into the modern world.” Khilnani gives an elaborate description of how the port cities of Bombay, Calcutta and Madras came into existence during the colonial regime and later, in the post independence era, newer cities were built to relive Nehru’s vision. The author went on to describe the changing skyline over the next couple of decades and how India’s modern cities competed for global visibility and recognition.

In the ultimate chapter of this book, Khilnani raises an interesting question – who is an Indian? At the time of independence, the country had a “multitude of Hindu castes and outcastes, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Jains, Buddhists, Parsis and tribes; speakers of more than dozen major languages and thousands of dialects; myriad ethnic and communal communities” – how to unite such a diverse group as citizens of a new, free and democratic republic under a common code of law? He sets the tone of the chapter by recounting the horror of the Ayodha communal riots (read: carnage) and linked it with BJP’s electoral manifestoes, which saw this as the forging of ‘one nation, one people, one culture.’ The author further depicts how the various communal, ethnic or social movements, for the demand of an independent Bodoland, Khalistan or Tamil Eelam, have further dented India’s image as a nation united in its diversity. He concludes by explaining, “The contest is over economic opportunities and about cultural recognition. It is a contest for ownership of the state.”

Overall, the book finds close semblance to Nirad C Chowdhury or VS Naipul’s historical delineation of facts, while it is enriched with political economic detailings of Amartya Sen or Dreze and the socio-political perspectives of Pawan Verma.