On the eve of the Indian independence, many doomsayers foretold that the entity called India would not survive too long. They believed that owing to its religious, ethnic and linguistic diversities, it would fragment into many mini-nations. Contrary to their predictions, India not only survived but also emerged as an economic power to reckon with. But the big question is whether India has been able to achieve what the founding fathers of the nation had envisaged for it in 1947. If you throw this question to different set of Indians, the answers would be dissimilar. Some people will tell you about a shining India vis-a-vis its impressive growth rate while others would draw your attention towards a dark underbelly of underdevelopment and deprivation. 'India Since 1947: looking Back at a Modern Nation' tries to find answers to such questions and explores how 'the Idea of India' has fared during the last 66 years.
Edited by Atul Kumar Thakur, this anthology has many renowned writers, economists, environmentalists, bureaucrats, politicians and journalists chiming in with their own unique perspectives on India.
Ram Chandra Guha, the eminent historian, opens the book with a highly readable essay on bilingual intellectuals; writers and thinkers who were/are equally at home with English as well as at least one of the Indian languages. The best examples are Mahatma Gandhi who wrote in Hindi, Gujarati and English with equal ease and Rabindranath Tagore whose translations of his own work 'Gitanjali' fetched him a Nobel Prize. While listing the causes of the decline in the numbers of 'linguidextrous' intellectuals, he writes, ''The decline of the bilingual intellectual in contemporary India is thus a product of a combination of many factors: public policy - which emphasised the mother tongue alone; elite preference- which denied or diminished the mother tongue altogether; social change- as in new patterns of marriage; and economic change- as in the material gains to be had from a command of English.'
In his essay 'India: Where Democracy has Gone Wrong', Prem Shanker Jha ponders over the issue of genesis of corruption in India. 'The origins of corruption', he says, 'can be traced in two deep flaws in the constitution India adopted in 1950. The first is the omission of a system for meeting the cost of running a democracy i.e. the entire process of selecting and then electing the people representatives. The second is the failure to enact provisions that would convert a bureaucracy that had been schooled over a century into believing that their function was to rule the people into its servants.' This reviewer can't agree more. Undoubtedly, the political sleaze and the bureaucratic arrogance have been the biggest hurdles in the progress of India.
Politicians (with the exception of the leftists), businessmen and the purveyors of crony capitalism have always praised the 'meteoric rise' of Indian economy after the liberalisation policies of 1990s. Growth rate and direct foreign investments have now become the only criteria to measure development. The worsening conditions of the poorest segments of Indian society are not part of any discussion about India's growth story. If you utter even a single word about the inclusive growth, you are either branded anti-development or are bracketed with the Ultra-Maoists. This inequitable economic growth, however, bothers Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze. In their essay 'Putting Growth in its Place', they strongly advocate for a development model where each and every Indian partakes of the fruit of the progress. Right now, 'An exaggerated concentration on the lives of the minority of the better-off, fed strongly by media interest, gives an unreal picture of rosiness of what is happening to Indians in general, and stifles public dialogue of other issues. Imaginative democratic practice, we have argued, is essential for broadening and enhancing India's development achievements.'
The rise of Naxalism or Maoism is a side effect of such sloppy development models which widen the gap between the 'haves' and the 'have-nots'. In 'India: Underlined in Red' Atul Kumar Thakur delineates the factors that breed extreme ideologies like Naxalism in India. Though, he is unequivocal in denouncing violence to achieve a political end, he accepts that in some clusters the Naxalite movement has altered the social and political power structures and has empowered the oppressed classes. An incisive and perfectly balanced essay, it is written surprisingly by a 29-year old.
Beyond the politics and the economy, there is a delightful article by India's best cultural historian Pran Nevile about K L Saigal and his legacy. It is a well-known fact that India's three greatest singers of the post-independence era, Rafi, Mukesh and Kishore had started their musical careers by imitating the great Saigal. But the reviewer wishes that the editor had included more on the contemporary music scene in India since Saigal sahib was a pre 1947 phenomenon. South Indian singing legends like Yesu Das or Ghantasala come to mind.
There are four articles out of a total of thirty that disappoint us, because they are either hurriedly written pieces or rely more on polemics than in-depth analysis of serious issues.
Ultimately, this is a great collection of essays about post-Independence India, outlining policies or ideas that worked in India as well as what went wrong during the last six and half decades of its post-colonial existence. It is not only useful for Indian policy makers but can also be helpful to leaders of other South Asian countries that share a history with India.