Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Greatest Indian Rope Trick

India has forever been an enigma for the western scholars of politics. Seeped as some of them were in their own theories about what makes a democracy work, they never took post independence India's unique and exceedingly important experiment in self-governance seriously. The faces of these commentators over the years have been different; the words in their columns laced with different degrees of incredulity and dismissal; the events provoking the pronouncements of the impending death of Indian democracy varied but the underlying refrain has always been the same- 'How can a country with India's size, poverty, diversity and complexity hope to survive as one nation, much less a united democratic, secular republic?!'

Obituaries were written, forecasts of looming demise made at every step of the way of the Indian experiment yet India continued to defy those gloomy predictions and charted its own unique path towards her improbable destiny. This march of Indian democracy strengthened the cause of the democratic ideas all over the world in ways that tomes of western volumes on political theory and the success of western democracies could never hope to do. For if the indian democracy had failed, it would have exposed democracy as an ideology that requires punishingly restrictive conditions for it to be of any operational value. Political theorists have maintained a whole gamut of conditions to hold in order for a fledgling democracy to work-- people must be educated enough; they should be economically prosperous enough; they should be politically aware enough; they should have a common dominant culture; they should speak one common language and so it goes. In other words, democracy was pronounced to be too impractical for the vast majority of people even by its most passionate adherents. It was seen much like a complex modern piece of machinery that requires too many independent parts to work together in perfect unison for it to have any practical utility. In this context, the indian democracy is a living and breathing example that democracy is not a machine but an organism which can, given somewhat favorable conditions, continuously evolve itself towards its own better versions.

The story of India's democracy is perhaps the most important story of post war 2oth century. In fact, I will go so far to say that it is the most important political contribution of last 100 years. That is why it is heartening to note that someone finally picked up his pen to tell this fascinating story in its entirety.

Ramachandra Guha's 'India After Gandhi' is a monumental work-- any work detailing the chaotic history of post independence India can not be anything but. It is full of entertaining anecdotes and staggering in the breadth of its research. Despite the inevitable difficulty of tying
together the seemingly varying narratives into a satisfying whole, it never wavers from its underlying theme--an insightful account of the challenges faced by Indian democracy over the years.

At one level, one may not go too astray in choosing to read this historical work as an adventure novel where the protagonist starts his life as a wounded underdog but the strength of his convictions enable him to overcome the apparently insurmountable odds. At another level, 'India After Gandhi' is also a story of the triumph of the ideals of her founding fathers. There can be no question-as the book makes it abundantly clear- that India and moreover the world at large were singularly lucky to have people of the calibre of Gandhi, Nehru, Patel, Kriplani, JP, Ambedkar, Rajagopalachari and countless others who sowed the seeds and then nourished the fledgling sprout, helping to grow it into a big tree that now serves as an example for the rest of the world. Admittedly, the generations of politicians following those collosuses were minions but it is a tribute to the greatness of those nationalists that these minions have not been able to uproot the essential ideals of the indian nation from her soul. India continues to thrive, despite all the hiccups, challanges, frustrations, corruption, violence , communalism and a myriad number of regional problems ; it continues to serve as a beacon of hope to the freedom-loving, oppressed souls of the world assuring them that democracy and freedom is not the preserve of the elites; that they too can reap the rewards of democracy if only they can summon the courage to withstand harsh weather in order to sow its seeds. That perhaps is India's most lasting contribution to the rest of humanity and the greatest rope trick its conjurers have ever pulled.