Sunday, March 20, 2011

India After Gandhi

THE word 'Gandhi' in a google search results in some 40 million pages. He is a world figure and undoubtedly the best known Indian. Any study of India is incomplete without him. Ramachandra Guha acknowledges the fact by naming his book on the history of the country as "India after Gandhi: The history of the world's largest democracy".

The problem with most country specific history books written by natives, is their lack of objectivity due to the holier than thou nature of the subject. Guha skillfully manages to avoid that pitfall and comes up with an unbiased and refreshing account of India.

The book narrates events as they happened, without any emotional clout attached. Guha talks about Kashmir as effortlessly as he mentions the Indian film industry. Reading about the formation of an independent India with the accession of princely states is both interesting and informative.

If Gandhi was instrumental in getting India its independence, Nehru shaped the modern India. The book discusses in detail Nehru's role as the architect of modern India and the political dynasty he left behind. It also sheds light on his philosophy of not equipping the armed forces with the latest weapons in view of a growing Chinese threat. India paid dearly for this gross miscalculation in 1962.

His daughter, Indira Gandhi, succeeded him as the prime minister of India and had her own outlook. Mrs Gandhi's style of power politics made sure 'that Nehru's halting yet honest attempts to promote a democratic ethos in a hierarchical society were undone by his own daughter, and in decisive and dramatic ways.' The emergency and the excesses committed by her younger son Sanjay, were just a few examples of this new political era. She changed the rules of the game forever!

What impresses most about the author is his honesty in dealing with controversial subjects. He diligently handle issues like Kashmir, formation of Bangladesh, Indian troops in Sri Lanka, minorities in India, and the 'unforgiving' ideology of RSS. Guha makes sure the truth reaches you even if it means criticising certain Indian policies.

There are some notable omissions though. The Jeep scandal of 1948 involving Nehru's close friend VK Menon, working as the then High Commissioner for India in UK, finds no mention. The case was closed without a proper inquiry. Many commentrators have called it the first case of political corruption in post-independence India.

India after Gandhi is as much about hope as it is about India. The country survived the worst of communal riots, the threat of secessionist movements like those in Punjab and Nagaland, years of economic hardships and wars with neighbors. Time and again people have written off India, as the author stresses throughout the book, but everytime India came out stronger.

Guha ponders in his epilogue on why India survives. The answer comes from a renowned Pakistani journalist Ayaz Amir, "When will it dawn on us that it is not India's size, population, tourism or IT industry [that is] making us look small, but Indian democracy." The freedom to choose who leads you is India's greatest strength. It's this building block which holds the nation together.

The book, perhaps reflecting the artistic taste of the country, opens with lines of legendary urdu poet Mirza Ghalib and signs off with him.

India after Gandhi is a book of immense scholarly work. Read it to rediscover India!

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