Three months, many long hours and I am finally done with Ramachandra Guha's opus - India after Gandhi. The history of sixty years of independent India, fourteen general elections, through droughts, floods and green harvests, numerous riots, four wars, from a flirtation with authoritarianism to its glorious repudiation in the subsequent election, from poverty and destitution to its slow rise as a major economy for the world to contend with, and, not least, Hindi music through the ages, Ram Guha chronicles it all, through prose and style that is at once precise as well as evocative, the tumultuous more than half century that this country has existed as an independent nation-state as opposed to a civilisation.
Through the first seventeen years, Nehru (as well as other giants of that time like Patel and Ambedkar) towers over the country and its people as well as in the pages of the book, steering India away from petty regionalism, linguistic chauvinism and religious fundamentalism. However, even after 1964, even though Nehru is no longer present in person, whether intended or otherwise, he is ever present in the pages of the book, as indeed he does even today in the very idea of India. Our development of heavy industry, a solid science and technological base, (though one wishes he had done more for primary education), a commitment to the secular and humanist ideals of the founding fathers, as Guha makes clear, has kept the country together for 60 years. Numerous Cassandras, mostly Western, some Indians, have predicted the dismemberment or Balkanisation of the country every time there have been wars, or riots or the unending series of secessionist movements whether in Kashmir or in the North East. And India has disproved them all. As Guha repeatedly stresses, it was precisely Nehru's insistence that every culture, every language, every religion, every creed, every caste would have its own place in the Indian polity that, illogically enough, has kept the country together. There has never been an overarching dominant culture to which all others have had to defer. India might be predominantly Hindu, but by no means is it a Hindu Pakistan, though the Sangh Parivar would dearly like it to be so. In that sense, India is very different from the melting pot that is America, where people of various cultures, ethnicity, religions and languages have come and found succour, but been absorbed into a predominantly Christian, (largely white) English speaking civilisation, the same being true of Australia. The disastrous effect of having a dominant culture in Asia and particularly South Asia, that Nehru foresaw 60 years ago, is now becoming evident in our immediate neighbourhood. Jinnah's insistence on a dominant Urdu culture that Pakistan put into practice and forced on the natives of East Pakistan (which had its own dominant Bengali, though still Islamic, culture) resulted in the dismemberment of the country in 1971. The dominant Sinhalese in Sri Lanka are finally realising the price of imposing a single dominant language and culture on their country is a civil war that has ravaged the country for something like a quarter century.
Today, we have jettisoned many of our Nehruvian ideals. It has become fashionable to deride and denigrate Nehru and Nehruvian socialism and secularism. But it is the Nehruvian ideal, the cliche of 'unity in diversity' that has precisely seen the country through the shocks of more than half a century. Nehru bashing, another term for revisionist history is now a popular pasttime by poster boys of the saffron chaddiwalas -- even the discredited self-styled Nehruphile K. Natwar Singh takes pot shots at him. But while Nehru's economic policies may have been less than sound (though as Guha clarifies, his views on a command economy were shared by a large majority in the Congress party), it is precisely because of Nehru and his firm hand that we today live in a country where Nehru bashing can continue unabated without fear of repercussion. Were such a thing possible in China or in Singapore with Mao ZeDong or Lee Yuan Kew.
Ram Guha's admiration for Nehru (that I share) does not blind him to Nehru's faults. His inability to gauge the perfidy of the Chinese in events prior to the Chinese war of 1962 (though an interesting highlight of the book is the account of the exchange of angry letters between Chou En-Lai and Nehru in the years just preceding 1962) and his blindness towards his friends like Krishna Menon are all dutifully documented. So are the roles played by the firm and unyielding Sardar Patel and the bureaucrat V. P. Menon with his carrot and stick diplomacy, in bringing the squabbling princely states into the Indian Union. None of this would have been possible for the far softer Nehru to achieve without the help of these two people.
The book is short on cultural developments in India, the various art and theatre movements as well as the flowering of Indian writing in English. Some of it is covered in a chapter on 'People's Entertainment' a large part of which is an entertaining description of the Hindi Film Industry. However, this is as it should be. After 800 odd pages of a political history, a detailed history of art and culture would have made the book far too unwieldy and it's best left to a separate study.
I would like to end by quoting from the last lines of Ram Guha's book, which summarises his idea of India:
So long as the Constitution is not amended beyond recognition, so long as elections are held regularly and fairly, and the ethos of secularism broadly prevails, so long as citizens can speak and write in a language of their choosing, so long as there is an integrated market and a moderately efficient civil service and army and -- lest I forget -- so long as Hindi films are watched and their songs sung, India will survive. Amen