And yet, in spite of his own warning, Guha has chosen to write India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy, an informed account of what has transpired in his country since World War II. Contemporary
But since the late 1980s, the country has undergone a remarkable transformation. In 1991, the Narsimha Rao government launched wide-scale economic reforms that ended the license-quota-permit raj (a complex patronage system set in place in the early years of
But what brought about this transformation? And how inclusive has it been? Guha, a noted Indian historian who has covered issues as diverse as environment and cricket in the past, takes a cautious approach in examining this meteoric rise, preferring to focus mostly on the good and the bad in policy that preceded it.
The beginnings of Indian democracy
He is an unmitigated admirer of
Whether such a goal was desirable is almost beside the point. It boggles the mind to think of the scale on which this project was carried out. Even today,
He also devotes close attention to the framing of the Indian Constitution. He delves into the long hours of confabulation that members of the Constituent Assembly indulged in to arrive at a charter that has come to be regarded as among the best and most equitable in the world.
Enamored as Guha is of Nehru, he gives space to the latter¹s political failures as well, most notably, his blind faith in
Nehru’s death left a gaping hole in Indian politics, and it took some years before this could be filled by none other than his daughter, the fiery Indira Gandhi. While Nehru was a sagacious leader, his daughter proved to be one of
The Emergency was a transparent effort to consolidate Gandhi’s position amid perceived threats to her leadership. Thousands of her political rivals were jailed during this time and several democratic conventions were suspended. Gandhi ruled the Congress with an iron fist and pushed forward the political career of her son Sanjay, who is today remembered for egregious abuses of state power, including forced sterilizations. (Sanjay’s political career ended with his death in a plane crash in 1980.)
The legacy of the Nehru-Gandhis
The history of modern
One of the many incidents that marked Rajiv Gandhi’s prime ministership was the Shah Bano case, which Guha examines in depth. Shah Bano was a Muslim divorcée who approached the Indian courts hoping to secure alimony from her husband. The case went all the way to
This angered several sections of the Muslim community who urged Rajiv Gandhi to overrule the court order through legislation. Gandhi complied. That launched a divisive phase in Indian politics and led to the rise of Hindu fundamentalist groups, all of which angrily decried Congress’s policy of appeasement toward Muslims. So vituperative have the charges and countercharges been that Indian politics today remain virtually split down the middle over the cause of Hindutva (Hindu nationalism).
This, Guha maintains, is the paradox of
This review appeared in Christian Science Monitor.