22 February 2024
India after Gandhi

India after Gandhi

In his third edition of “India after Gandhi,” historian Ramachandra Guha argues that India is now in the middle of its fourth crisis since independence.

In November 1997 Peter Straus, of the publisher Picador, contacted Indian historian Ramachandra Guha and asked him to consider writing a history of independent India. For years, historians approached India as if history more or less ended with its independence in 1947, and the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi in 1948.

Guha ultimately agreed, and the first edition of “India after Gandhi” was published in 2007, several years after the initial deadline. At 900 pages, the book appears a daunting task for any interested reader. But this narrative of the “conflict-ridden history of this unnatural nation and unlikely democracy” was a spectacular success – being engaging, gripping, and very readable.

The key issues in its first edition, which carry through to the new third edition, are the great challenge of forging a new nation and holding together this vast and diverse country as a multicultural and secular state – and in particular the issue of relations between the Hindu majority and the large Muslim minority.

Guha writes that, at independence in 1947, India was blessed to have a unique cohort of visionary and competent leaders, including Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel, and administrators and social workers who could heal the wounds of the bloody “partition” of India and Pakistan, and the assassination of Gandhi.

These leaders convinced over 500 independent princely states (which were never colonised by the British) to join the Union, although the status of Jammu and Kashmir was never cleanly resolved, and remains a major issue to this day. They led the drafting of the Constitution of India and the first general election, held in 1952 with universal suffrage. This election was comfortably won by Nehru’s Congress Party, the main organisation driving the Indian independence movement. The domestic map of India was redrawn with provinces created on the basis of local languages.

In 1959, the Dalai Lama escaped Tibet to be welcomed in India, much to the displeasure of the Chinese government. Then in 1962, China delivered India a humiliating defeat in a brief war, ostensibly over a disputed border. Relations between China and India remain tense to this day. Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi (not related to Mahatma Gandhi), became India’s new leader in 1966. To the great annoyance of Pakistan, she led India into the Bangladesh Liberation War, which resulted in the defeat of the Pakistani military and the transformation of East Pakistan into the independent state of Bangladesh.

Democracy seemed to be threatened when Prime Minister Gandhi declared a state of emergency in June 1975. But the resilience of Indian democracy was evident when the Congress Party lost government in the 1977 elections, the first time Congress was out of power since independence. But the chronic violence of Indian politics was evident in the assassinations of both Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv, who had succeeded her as prime minister in 1984. By promoting the political role of her sons, Indira Gandhi began the transformation of Congress into a family enterprise.

After ten years of lack-lustre leadership from Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), under the leadership of Narendra Modi, was elected in 2014. The ascension of Modi with his “muscular majoritarianism,” pro-Hindu, and anti-Muslim discourse was covered in the second edition of Guha’s history of India. But just five years after its publication, Guha felt the pressing need for a new edition. As Guha writes, “the Republic of India has undergone transformative changes of a kind previously not experienced in so short a time, with the exception perhaps of the first, formative years of the nation.”

This third edition of “India After Gandhi: A History” contains a new chapter, “Shock and Awe.” It covers Modi’s 2019 reelection, which places him, alongside Nehru and Indira Gandhi, as one of India’s most influential and charismatic leaders. Also featured are the controversial “demonetisation” initiative, abrogation of Kashmir’s autonomous status, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act which treated Muslims like second class citizens, incompetent management of the COVID-19 pandemic, large scale citizens’ protests, an unprecedented crackdown on dissent, and escalation of border conflicts with China.

There is also a new epilogue, “The Republic’s Rocky Road.” While Guha judged India to be a “50-50 democracy” in the book’s first edition, now he deems it closer to a 30-70 democracy, as five institutions are not functioning as the Constitution hoped they would. India’s political parties are “characterised by dynastic succession, the lack of inner-party democracy, and the cult of personality.” The legislature also deteriorated to such a degree that bills are now passed with undue haste and with little opposition scrutiny. Furthermore, the civil service and the police have become increasingly politicised. Guha additionally notes that questions have been raised about the capability and credibility of the judiciary. And he argues that most major newspapers and television channels have become propagandist arms for the government.

Guha proposes that the democratic institutions’ decline began with Indira Gandhi. But he states that Modi is best described as “Indira Gandhi on steroids,” as he has taken the democratic decline “further and deeper than any Indian politician before him.” He also writes of the corruption and criminality of India’s political class.

Guha concludes his work with the proposition that India is in the middle of its fourth major crisis since independence. The earlier crises were: building a nation during the chaotic years after independence and partition, wars with China and Pakistan, the deaths of two prime ministers, successive years of drought and famine in the early 1960s, and Indira Gandhi’s 21-month state of emergency from 1975 to 1977. In different ways, and by different means, India was able to survive these crises.

Today, Guha sees the stigmatisation of the 200-million-strong Muslim minority as one manifestation of an impending crisis, and the degradation of democratic institutions as a second. He sees the growing divide between the populous, poor states of north India and the less populous, prosperous states of south India as an emerging faultline. Hindu supremacism and chauvinism are more prevalent in the north, where the BJP has greater electoral success.

Guha sees India’s geopolitics in a fragile and uncertain neighbourhood as a fourth element of crisis. The country’s high unemployment numbers and overhyped economy, along with the rampant pace of environmental degradation, are two final elements of this crisis. He argues that India will navigate its way through it, but in so doing it will leave deep scars. He asserts that Indian democracy would be better served by coalition governments.

In today’s world of great geopolitical rivalry and contestation, India is seen as an increasingly important player and partner. Much is written about India’s current situation. But to understand India’s politics, economy, and society, it is critical to know its historical roots, and there is no better reference for this than Ramachandra Guha’s “India after Gandhi.”


This article by John West was first published by the Australian Institute of International Affairs on 13 February 2024.
Tags: india, India after Gandhi, Ramachandra Guha

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