o answer the question whether India has been a successful democracy Ramachandra Guha invokes the great comedian Johnny Walker’s lines from a movie where his answer to all the questions of life (like whether he would marry the lady he so dearly loves) is , “ Boss, phipty, phipty. ” Much the same could be said of the book. There could not have been a more daunting topic for a writer, especially Indian, than “ India after Gandhi. ” Guha handles this humongous theme in a “ phipty, phipty” sort of way.
Our writers will create one from scratch for
Coming to the positive phipty, most of the political events post Gandhi have been dealt with. Some like the five year plans in some detail and others like the IPKF misadventure in Sri Lanka only in passing. One area where the book breaks new-ground is in regard to the numerous separatist and insurgent movements in the troubled north-east. At least for me the background against which the movements took place and the enormous cost to the resident population became much clearer. A. N. Phizo of the Naga National Council is given an especial coverage which is thoroughly deserved.
The states reorganization, the 1971 war, the emergency, Babri demolition and other important events are given their due. The numerous twists and turns in the Kashmir problem have been well delineated. The negative phipty is heavier from my point of view. As for any book of such wide breadth, the depth is sadly missing. The whole Nehru era though occupying a third of the book feels shallow when compared to recent works like M. J. Akbar’s spirited biography of Nehru. The post liberalization India is given a cursory glance.
To be fair to the author, his main intent is to chronicle India till 1989 from when on he reckons history is too close to the present to permit an unjaundiced rendering. Vallabhbhai patel and Rajaji, Gandhi’s hands and head to Nehru’s heart, who had active political lives after independence are given short shrift. Rajaji’s prescience when he warned of the dictatorial kernel in the Congress in the late Nehru – early Indira Gandhi days, so well chronicled in Rajmohan Gandhi’s biography of his grandfather is not mentioned at all.
In fact if one were to read this as a biography the “ Gandhi- Nehru clan” of post-independent India one wouldn’t find too much amiss. Also the book fails to give genuinely popular movements like the Chipko movement, Narmada Bachao Andolan and Bhoodan movements their due. Coming from an environmentalist like Guha this is unexpected to say the least. Another aspect of the book is the remarkable absence of criticism of successive Indian governments and their policies. Other than the mandatory criticisms of Nehru for the 1962 defeat and of the RSS-VHP-BJP axis there is little to be found by way of criticism.
As one browses one gets the suspicion that this book is meant for a foreign audience as much as one Indian . One has to endure such sentences as, “ in the late 1990’s, the top three male actors were all Muslims with a common surname, Khan. ” Indians are deemed to be successful only when acknowledged by “ the west. ” Julia Roberts celebrating Ash as “ the most beautiful woman in the world”, A. R. Rahman conducting Birmingham Symphony whose first Guha conductor had been Sir Edward Elgar.
I couldn’t control my irritation at Rahman being compared to a fellow 99. 99% of Indians don’t know and scratched my back in retaliation. One aspect of the book which Indians will find amusing is the periodic predictions of doom undertaken by western intelligentsia about the survival of India and its democracy. Such predictions surface sporadically throughout the book and lighten it up. Someone had predicted that the 1967 general elections would “ surely” be the last in India’s history for after that India would “ surely” become an autocracy under Indira.
Another example is of General Auchinleck who said in 1948, ” (India) is a sub-continent as varied as Europe. The Punjabi is as different from a Madrassi as a Scot is from an Italian. The British tried to consolidate it but achieved nothing permanent. No one can make a nation out of a continent of many nations. ” And here I am, a Madrasi(i. e. a south Indian) living in Punjab, eating parantha for breakfast and rice-rasam for dinner, my colleagues coming from all the states on the Indian map and conversing with me in Hindi and the general’s mother tongue!
A rather good performance for an imminent banana republic I’d say. All in all not a bad read. Guha’s engaging style makes the book interesting if not informative. There are plenty of anecdotes ??? a standard feature of Guha’s writing. Like for example the fact that 30 great pyramids could be built with the masonry of Bhakra ??? Nangal dam (which incidentally I saw just yesterday). It is emphatically not for a serious student of history but a good one from where to start one’s reading of post independence India.