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 identityby Sunil Khilnani / July 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
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…