The idea of India

As India prepares for economic take-off, its post-independence elite is leaving the political stage. But it bequeathes a rich democratic heritage in which traditional and modern ideas compete to define Indian identity
July 19, 1997

Since its inauguration amid the intense drama, excitement and horror of 1947, the public life of independent India has presented a scene of vivid collective spectacles and formidable individual characters, of unexpected achievements and unforgivable failures. The detail and sometimes the texture of this passage of history has been evoked in a rich tradition of reportage and travel writing, of fiction and cinema, as well as a huge specialist literature. But what is it all about? What story is being told?

Imperial and post-imperial accounts, as well as nationalist ones, all had their answers to this. The post-imperial story cultivated a plotline of decline and fall. It told of a slow but irresistible erosion of the sandcastles of the Raj, washed by the rising tides of India's ineffaceable past: a revival of the passions of community, religion and caste, stalking the scene in old and pristine form, the ageless subjects of India's history, ancient and modern. This story continues to sustain an often very sophisticated post-Raj literary style, a historicist nostalgia-a sense that without the carapace of imperial authority, things fall apart. It has produced the kitsch Gibbonism of Nirad Chaudhuri and the more studiedly dark meditations of the younger, fastidious VS Naipaul, drawn like a melancholy moth to his grandfather's land, always nervously reminding himself that "it is necessary to fight against the chilling sense of a new Indian dissolution." The temper of this nostalgic vision of India is reflected unthinkingly in journalistic evocations of "eternal India," of "political dynasties" and "feudal corruption."

For long, a standard Indian response to this dull narrative bass has been a percussive nationalism. For nationalists, 1947 marked a key point on a still building crescendo, a thrilling movement to a brighter future, where a settled and defined modern Indian nation, mature in its "emotional integration," would come to preside over its own destiny.

Yet the independent India that has emerged does not fit any of these stories. The picture today is a perplexing one, as many of the old certitudes-both imperialist and nationalist-crumble away. The mighty Congress party, the juggernaut of India's 20th century history, which for so long set the terms of an Indian selfhood, stands shunted into the position of a third party. A resurgent Hindu nationalism, represented by the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), has thrust forward as a rival contender for state power, but is unable to consolidate a truly nationwide following. As a result, political power today rests with a curious assortment of parties, representing lower caste, leftwing and regional groups. Presiding over this political salmagundi is Inder Kumar Gujral, India's most intellectual prime minister since Nehru, an unassuming former communist with a distinguished political career already behind him, who has entrusted the crucial portfolio of finance minister to a committed liberaliser, Palaniappa Chidambaram. For, despite India's political intricacies, the Indian economy is growing faster (around 6 per cent a year) and more consistently than ever before, thanks to the economic reforms begun six years ago. India at 50 is, without doubt, at a historical cusp.

Looking back, the history of independent India can be seen, most narrowly but also most sharply, as the history of a state: one of the first, largest and poorest of the many created by the ebb of European empire. The arrival of the modern state on the Indian landscape over the previous century and a half, and its growth and consolidation as a stable entity after 1947, are decisive historical facts. They mark a shift from a society where authority was secured by diverse local methods to one where it is located in a single, sovereign agency. The Indian state thus invites evaluation by the standards of classical sovereign states: its ability to maintain the territorial boundaries it inherited from the British Raj, to preserve its domestic authority and the physical security of its citizens, to act as an agent of economic and social development. Unlike the states of modern Europe, which acquired these responsibilities in gradual sequence, new states such as India have had to adopt them, and pursue them, simultaneously.

Rather more expansively, the period of Indian history since 1947 might be seen as the adventure of a political idea: democracy. Seen from this perspective, India appears as the third moment in the great democratic experiment launched at the end of the 18th century by the American and French revolutions. Each is a historic instance of the project to embody the ancient ideal of democracy under conditions where community is no longer held together by a moral ideal or conception of virtue, but must rely on more volatile solidarities and divisions including those produced by the exigencies of industrial production and commercial exchange. Each of these experiments released immense energies; each raised towering expectations; and each has suffered tragic disappointments.

The Indian experiment is still in its early stages, and its outcome may well turn out to be the most significant of them all, partly because of its sheer human scale, and partly because of its location-a bridgehead of liberty on the Asian continent. Asia is today the most economically dynamic region in the world, but it is also one where huge numbers of people remain politically subjugated. Its leaders have confidently asserted that the idea and practice of democracy is somehow inappropriate and intrusive to the more sober cultural manners of their people. The example of India is perhaps the most pointed challenge to these arguments.

India's own past as well as the contingencies of its post-partition unity prepared it poorly for democracy. Huge, impoverished, with a culturally diverse and largely illiterate population, and inheritor of a hierarchical order designed to resist the idea of political equality, independent India had little reason to suppose that it could function as a democracy. Yet India continues to have parliaments and courts of law, political parties and a free press, and elections for which hundreds of millions of voters turn out, as a result of which governments fall and are formed. The modern idea of democracy has taken deep root in this old and sophisticated civilisation.

For all its magnificent antiquity and historical depth, contemporary India is a creation of the modern world. The fundamental agencies and ideas of modernity-European colonial expansion, the state, nationalism, democracy, economic development-have all shaped it. The possibility that India could be united into a single political community was the wager of India's modern, educated, urban elite, whose intellectual horizons were extended by these modern ideas and whose sphere of action was expanded by these modern agencies. It was a wager on an idea: the idea of India. And one of the remarkable facts about the nationalist elite that brought India to independence was its capacity to entertain diverse, often competing visions of India. "One way of defining diversity for India," the poet and critic AK Ramanujan once wrote, "is to say what the Irishman is said to have said about trousers. When asked whether trousers were singular or plural, he said, 'Singular at the top and plural at the bottom.'" But Indian nationalism before independence was plural even at the top, a dhoti with endless folds. Its diversity was incarnated in the gallery of characters who constituted the nationalist pantheon, a pantheon whose unageing, cherub-like faces are still on display, painted with garish affection on calendars and posters or moulded into just recognisable statues and figures in tea shops across the country.

It contains people from markedly different backgrounds, yet whose trajectories were often parallel. Most passed through some form of western education, and some led cosmopolitan lives. At the head of this pantheon is Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the Mahatma. Born in 1869 in the Gujarati port city of Porbandar to a line of Dewans, he experimented as an adolescent with ways of becoming more manly and strong like the colonial masters, travelled to London to study law (disembarking at a grey Southampton dressed, to his chagrin, in white flannels), and discovered vegetarianism in Holborn, before moving to South Africa to practise as a barrister. Politicised by the brutalities of that regime, he returned to India to become, from the 1920s, the dominating leader of the Indian National Congress and arguably the most remarkable public figure of the 20th century. It also contains less well remembered men, such as Vallabhbhai Patel. Born in Gujarat six years after Gandhi, to a family of landowners, he also passed through London's Inns of Court and then worked his way up through municipal and provincial politics to become for a brief moment-between Gandhi's death in 1948 and his own in 1950-one of the most powerful men in Indian politics. It has room for men such as Subhas Chandra Bose, born in 1897 in Orissa, the son of a Bengali lawyer, who became a radical Congressman and spokesman for Bengal, lived in Europe during the mid-1930s, and grew fascinated by the examples of Mussolini, Hitler and Ataturk. He persuaded the Nazis and the Japanese to support the creation of his own army to fight the Raj, only to die in a plane crash months before the end of the second world war. It also encompasses figures such as Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, born to parents of the untouchable Mahar caste in Maharashtra six years before Bose, who lifted himself out of the near universal illiteracy of his caste to gain doctorates from Columbia and London universities, be called to the bar at Gray's Inn, and become the leader of India's most oppressed groups. A thinker of lucid and focused anger and one of the main drafters of India's constitution, he was, until his death in 1956, a perpetual thorn to the upper caste pieties of the nationalist elite. But surpassing all in his influence on independent India was Jawaharlal Nehru. Born in 1889 to an ambitious provincial Brahmin lawyer, he was educated at Harrow, Cambridge and London's Inner Temple. On his return he drifted into nationalist politics through the influence of theosophy and Annie Besant, established a powerful and intriguing relationship with Gandhi and, as India's first prime minister after 1947, decisively shaped its politics.

Each of these figures, like other nationalists, and in conformity with the demands of modernity, had to invent their public selves. They created and expressed these selves sometimes through that literary genre which Indians embraced in the 19th and 20th centuries, the didactic autobiography: a genre that in Indian-as in Irish-hands fused picaresque personal adventures with the odyssey of the nation. But often more important than their pronouncements were their practical actions-the dress, gestures, tone and style they adopted to express their ideas of India. They had to make themselves Indian according to their own ideas of what that meant. The Raj had ensured that an Indian identity could not be assumed as a natural condition. Some chose to devise an ostentatiously "traditional" self; others declared for a more western or modern one-together they forged a distinctively Indian modernity.

In the years after independence, the nationalist elite came to be dominated by Nehru's vision. He was ostensibly the most anglicised of them all, and indeed it is impossible to bury the trail of his passage through British cultural institutions: public school, Cambridge, His Majesty's prisons. But in fact he had a profound sense of India's past, and this was matched by a personal life that was unmistakably Indian. Nehru wished to modernise India, yet the India created by this ambition has come increasingly to stand in an ironic, deviant relationship to the trajectories of western modernity that inspired it. In Nehru's metaphor, the "garb of modernity" has not proved uniform, and Indians have found many and ingenious ways of wearing it.

For Nehru and many nationalists, the west's present delineated the image of India's future. Yet the odd twist is that India's present may actually contain more than a hint of the west's own political future. The themes and conflicts that animate India's politics today have a surprisingly wide resonance-the assertion of community and group rights; the use of democracy to affirm collective identities; the difficulties of maintaining large-scale, multicultural political unions; the compulsion to sustain democracy without prosperity. The older democracies might recognise that each of these stands uncomfortably close to their own doorsteps.

Once a society structured by stable hierarchies, where politics had a marginal-if spectacular-function, India is today the most intensely political society in the world. Democracy has energised Indian society in unprecedented ways. Introduced initially by a mincingly legalistic, nationalist elite, democracy has been extended and deepened to become a principle of society, transforming the possibilities available to Indians. They have embraced it, learning about it not from textbooks but by extemporary practice. The democracy that exists in India is quite distant from the glib "preconditions" laid down in the burgeoning academic literature on democracy and "democratisation." Corruption, violence, rule bending, all are well practised features of Indian public life. Institutional continuities, though, have endured. Despite brutal kicking during the Emergency, the constitution itself has maintained its identity, and agencies such as the supreme court and the election commission (which oversees the conduct of elections and has become in the popular eye the most trusted of the state's institutions) have become upholders of the original letter and spirit of India's impossibly magnanimous constitution. Citizens have been able to turn to the courts to restrain the activities of the state and political corruption is increasingly subject to legal scrutiny and punishment. A vigorous press helps too. Above all, the democratic idea has seeped through the many layers of India's stratified society. At the very top, among the political elite, the culture of dialogue and consensus established during the nationalist movement continues even as the personnel change. This is exemplified in the current United Front coalition, which for the first time has brought together regional politicians who share little with each other and even less with their Congress predecessors, and which has held together for a year, confounding all expectations. Lower down, hitherto unrepresented groups, the lowest in the caste order and those altogether excluded from it-who now call themselves Dalits and Bahujans-are organising to enter politics. Both regional and national elections have thus become intensely competitive, with voters showing considerable discrimination in their choices.

Today, no one in India-whether drawn from the political class or from the vast citizenry-seriously entertains the possibility of an authoritarian solution to the country's problems. One of the most important and heartening findings of last years' mammoth election study, conducted by the Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, was that 70 per cent of the electorate did not agree with the suggestion that India might be better governed without political parties and elections. Those who voiced most dissatisfaction about democracy were college educated young men living in urban centres-a group which also tends to support the Hindu nationalist BJP.

Yet the very success of India's democracy has, at times, appeared to threaten its survival. The idea of political equality has engendered the menace of a tyranny of the religious majority, a threat traumatically manifested in 1992 by the destruction of the Babri mosque at Ayodhya, wrecked by militant Hindu activists. The BJP has already tasted national power-if only for a fortnight last year-and there is a real prospect of its gaining a more durable grip on the state. It speaks for many millions in north and west India who have long felt a sense of cultural injury. But now that it has a stake in power (there are BJP governments in five states), the behaviour of the BJP is increasingly conforming to that of any other Indian party: prone to corruption scandals, to vicious factional squabbles, and with an ideological profile that is beginning to blur. In India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, the Hindu nationalists have entered into an alliance with their sworn enemy, the Bahujan Samaj party-a lower caste party led by the feisty Mayawati-while in Punjab the BJP has formed a coalition government with the Akali Dal-the Sikh party associated throughout the 1980s with bitter and violent secessionism. One might regard such accommodations, less cynically, as a positive effect of India's democratic framework which, by offering a wide variety of groups the chance of a real stake in power, has forced them to play by the rules.

The democratic framework has also produced a creative upheaval in the personnel of the political class: an indication of this is the social composition of the Lok Sabha, the national parliament. The current Lok Sabha houses 28 parties (more than ever before), while the number of parliamentarians drawn from the Brahminic upper castes has declined from over half in 1952 to less than a third. Meanwhile those with rural backgrounds have increased their parliamentary presence to more than 50 per cent. It is the BJP alone which remains top-heavy with members from Brahminic castes.

Despite the conflicts surrounding caste reservations and the events in Ayodhya, a definitive polarisation among the electorate along lines of religion or caste has not occurred. As more come to believe that their future economic prospects will improve-that they too can join a middle class said to number 200m-the sirens of Hindu sectarianism may become less seductive. Certainly, there is no turning back from liberalisation. On this there is agreement stretching from the Hindu nationalists to the communists of West Bengal.

Democratic politics has imparted a mercurial quality to India's political identities. The results are visible in the unlikely political and cultural coalitions that pepper Indian public life today. Totemic of this was last year's global cultural summit in Bombay between Michael Jackson and Bal Thackeray, leader of the nativist and extremist Hindu party Shiv Sena. It spawned a dizzying spiral of ironies: here was a militant Hindu nationalist, his name anglicised after an English Victorian novelist, welcoming a black American who would prefer to be white to his city (renamed Mumbai to rid it of colonial residues).

In its politics, India has managed to achieve relative-if precariously balanced-success. It has allowed most of its citizens to live together with a larger measure of freedom than ever before and with more freedom than the citizens of other comparable new nation states (think of China). But by the standards of modern liberty, it has not allowed them to live well. The aspiration to economic modernity has yielded a much more uneven picture: for most Indians it has been a failure, notwithstanding the recent growth record. Deprivation and maldistribution are the norm, for reasons that are numerous, and necessarily complex and disputed. But essentially it has been a political failure. It was politics that created the curiously mixed and uneven character of India's economy: the close conjunction of luxury and destitution, of a lumbering state economy and nimble entrepreneurial capitalism, of the highest technology and grotesque physical labour. Competing ambitions collided to create this lopsided pattern of economic modernity after 1947: the interests of big industrialists, the hopes of Gandhian miniaturists, the ambitions of Nehru's intellectuals, and the power of those who controlled the land and its produce. No single vision triumphed.

What did carry the day was something no one had wanted but all had conspired to make, which gives India's economic life a painfully undecided character: poised for dramatic change yet never quite accomplishing it. While its politics have opened up its society to history in dramatic ways, in its economics India managed until the late 1980s to preserve what was, for a democratic country, an extraordinary insulation from the forces of the global economy. Since the early 1990s, it has dramatically revised its economic identity and encouraged hopes of an Indian economic miracle to rival those of east Asia. Perhaps now "take-off" really can be achieved.

From the ancient sacred space of Benares to the decaying colonial pomp of Calcutta, from the high rationalism of Chandigarh to the software utopia of Bangalore, from Bombay's uneasy blend of parochial politics and cosmopolitanism to the thrusting new cities of the north, driven by surpluses from a selectively prosperous countryside, India's cities express the country's unruly historical rhythms, and vividly reveal the unequal opportunities of its citizens. They have become distended both by pressures from the countryside and by the cultural and economic pulls of the world beyond. Only about 25 per cent of India's population have direct access to the cities, but images of them have fired the imagination of all Indians. They have emerged out of an intricate, discontinuous history: remade by the will of the Raj, with its shifting, precise and-for most Indians-bewildering sense of what a city was; rearranged again by a nationalist conception of what the modern Indian city should be; and now once again subject to re-arrangement by new post-nationalist ambitions. In India's cities, democratic equalisation confronts the actual disparities of economic opportunity.

The nationalist confidence of 1947 that the definition of "Indianness" would be permanently settled with the inauguration of an Indian state was overly optimistic. The emergence of a political Hinduism, of regional voices, and of the claims of caste identities has given the question of "Who is an Indian?" a sometimes lethal vitality. Nehru's idea of India sought to co-ordinate within a modern state a variety of values: democracy, religious tolerance, economic development and cultural pluralism. The unexpected historical trajectories of these various components since 1947 has made it more difficult to sustain a vision of a single political community.

Yet the idea of India displays a remarkable tenacity. Like their nationalist predecessors, Indians of vastly different backgrounds and ambitions today all wish to claim it for themselves. Modern Indian politics continues to plunder the nationalist pantheon for its iconography. Old arguments and battles are replayed today with the current generation's new meanings and desires: Ambedkar is once again ranged against Gandhi; Patel is brought into battle against Nehru. Even as they divide, these struggles themselves testify to the presence of a common history, a shared Indian past. The struggle for that past is a struggle to determine the future ideas of India. It is a struggle whose protagonists are at once products of ancient habits and of modern ambitions, who have found in democracy a form of action that promises them control over their own destinies. These struggles constitute the identity of India's history since 1947. And, in its constant ability to encompass diverse ideas of what India is, this history is itself expressive of the Indian idea.