Friday, June 28, 2013

Book Review: India After Gandhi

Guha was invited to deliver the convocation address for this year's batch of ISB's MBA graduates. Couple of this year's attendees happen to be my friends. A month after the convocation, while sipping coffee at the Starbucks in Cannaught place, they declared that Guha is good but not up to the bar to deliver a convocation address at ISB. As this article also confirms, they were expecting a corporate big-shot. Clearly, neither of them had read any of Guha's works, nor were they familiar with the challenges in history writing.

Truth. It is the ring of truth around history that makes it so special, so fascinating. That and the fact that we are all impacted by it one way or another. Yet, we are so cynical to accept it. It has proven difficult for us to even write about it objectively, an objective acknowledgement is close to impossible. Typically, we end up either glorifying it beyond measure or go the other extreme and trivialize it.  To accept history as it is would only make it seem more real, more humane. It will rob us from having delight in our expectation of a past to which we can escape to. "Those were the days....", just saying the expression evokes a feeling of richness. It is one of our greatest follies that we choose to forget that the present is only a child of past.

It is against this backdrop, Ramachandra Guha's India After Gandhi, is to be appreciated with our utmost respect.  History in Indian school textbooks stops once India got independence. Like a fairy tale, they might have also added "... And they lived happily ever after". As much painful as child birth can be, the true test of a mother is in the upbringing of her child. Even in the Ayn Rand's epic novel - Atlas Shrugged, the novel ends as lights go out and the protagonists are flying to their secluded sanctuary. There has been no follow up, either by her or by anyone else, to what it will take for the protagonists to rebuild the world, to shape it the way they want to, to attempt to architect a near flawless process that can be the guiding light for generations to come. There is a reason for it - it is hard.

The first half of the book covers the Nehru years of India. From Patel's groundbreaking achievement to merge 500+ princely states, to the challenges faced in organizing the first general election. It is a travesty that Sukumar Sen's name is not known to many of us. Sukumar Sen was the first Chief Election Commissioner of India and was responsible for setting up the process of an election. The book covers other important events such as framing of our constitution, division of states on linguistic lines, Kashmir and Sheikh Abdullah. It pays homage to most of our founding fathers by essaying their role in building our nation.Ordinary people rose to the occasion and are now immortals.

 The triumph of the book is its reporting on Nehru. On secularism, non-alignment, apolitical army and scores of other things, it rightly bestows the credit on to Nehru and ensures that we understand the debt of gratitude we owe to this one man.  Nehru's India was an ideological one, an ideology that was a blend of traditional Indian with the right mix of modernization to result in inclusive development. It was an India where everyone was indeed equal, religion and politics were indeed separate. Yet, it also highlights how missteps were made, some through his insecurities, some through bad decisions. The Kerala incident where a democratically elected CPI party was dismissed is indeed a black mark on Nehru's legacy and it should be called so. It does not, in any way,  diminishes his accomplishments,  rather there are lessons here that we should learn.

The second half of the book covers the life and times of Indira Gandhi, Emergency, regionalization of politics, assassinations and riots.  Here is where Guha's writing gets more tricky to navigate. There is significantly more bias in his reporting, an undertone of constant satire mocks through these pages. For instance, the chapter on Rajiv Gandhi is titled "This son also rises" and begins by a quote from Ashis Nandy - "In India the choice could never be between chaos and stability, but between manageable and unmanageable chaos, between humane and inhuman anarchy, and between tolerable and intolerable disorder". Guha comes off little bit disillusioned and may be, perhaps his first hand knowledge of these events colors his writing.

It is not clear if it was due to the limitation in size of the book, it stands at around 750+ pages currently, but several important facts are left out. There is no mention of strained relationship between Sanjay Gandhi and his mother. Events like calling off the emergency or how congress came back to power in 1980 elections are also loosely explained.

After all the reality drama of Indian history, comes the most enriching sections of the book : Epilogue. In the Epilogue, Guha provides his observations and commentary on why India survives to this day.  In a community, state or country there has to be a shared thread which will glue a country with such diverse religions, races, castes etc. A call for independence got people together but once independent, what is the reason for us to stick together?  Guha argues that division of India into states on the basis of language was a necessary masterstroke; and it is the language that binds people with each other. Guha also argues that a blanket enforcement of Hindi language on all states would have been a blunder. It is surprising to understand how language plays such an important role.


One can only understand the present if one understands the past. If things are wrong today, its seeds were planted two or three decades ago. What we do now will not matter to us, it will matter to the next generation. There are several books written on how India survives and thrives; but most of them only cover the recent history. The real seed was planted by the first generation of our founding fathers. They were leaders but they were humans as well, just like Gandhi. India After Gandhi is a must read to understand where we come from and why it happened like this.



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