India after Gandhi: The History of the World's Largest Democracy
(2007) by Indian historian Ramachandra Guha explores the realities of India’s optimistic independence from Britain on August 15, 1947. It was well received in academic and general circles, including at The Economist
and The Wall Street Journal
, where it was voted a Book of the Year. The expansive work of more than 800 pages covers quite a bit of India’s political and cultural history since 1947; it was praised for its depth of research (Guha spent over ten years working on the book) and faithful portrayal of leading Indian political figures.
Its themes include defying social expectations, establishing unique cultural paths, and the nuances of democracy.
The prologue presents a picture of India under English colonial rule. Guha notes how poets responded to the occupation; he describes the immense amount of money Englishmen gained from exploiting Indian workers and resources. Through the 1930s, a pervasive stereotype in England claimed that Indians were unfit for self-rule; this specious belief was publically advocated by Winston Churchill, one of England’s most famous Prime Ministers in the 20th century. Churchill said that if England withdrew from India there would be mass civil war and the country at large would return to “the barbarism and privations of the Middle Ages.”
At first, Churchill wasn’t totally wrong. The year after England’s departure was very chaotic. Mahatma Ghandi, the spiritual leader of the country, was assassinated just six months after independence. North-west India was separated into a new country, Pakistan. The British government arranged for this separation so that the Muslim-majority region would have a clearly-defined territory. This division caused great battles between Muslims and Hindus; to escape murder, many Muslim populations migrated to Pakistan and more Hindu’s immigrated to India.
However, this chaos wasn’t as long-lasting as Churchill and many other English statesman predicted. National elections were held, and to the surprise of many people, were regularly held for the next 60 years (India after Gandhi
was published exactly 60 years after Indian independence). Since Britain first established a military presence in India in 1757, English writers claimed that due to India’s sprawling geography and many religions, the country could never be united under a single constitution.
Guha details the attitudes of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister. Nehru set the tone for the future democracy of more than a billion people by stating in the country’s constitution that all Indian citizens will receive the same civil rights regardless of their religion. Historically, Guha notes that India has largely downplayed the number of Muslim individuals in the country. Nehru, who was well-travelled and educated at Oxford, avoided this mistake through his experience.
While civil war raged in the first couple years of his administration, his stance on religious tolerance made him very popular throughout India, and during his administration (1947-1964) he was able to stabilize a country most leaders in the world thought would never be a real democracy. His reforms included expanding the right to vote to women and creating social programs to benefit the poor and boost the well-being of the middle class. Under Nehru, “untouchables” were ushered into sanitary living quarters and women could publically sue for property ownership.
The 1970s and 1980s were a more volatile period for India. Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, was Prime Minister for 12 years. She proved to be a skilled politician when negotiating with Russia and improving India’s role in the global economy, but she showed less tact toward India’s various religions than her father. She supported East Pakistan in the 1971 independence movement and went to war with Pakistan; East Pakistan won, and the resultant state is Bangladesh. Richard Nixon, then the President of the U.S., would forever hate Gandhi for weakening a country he saw as a strong ally.
While Indira Gandhi initially appeared to support democratic institutions, after the Bangladesh Liberation War, she consolidated power like an authoritarian. She flooded the judicial and administrative branches with people who expressed loyalty to her. From 1975 to 1977, she declared a state of emergency in anticipating a coup. During this time, forced sterilizations and unexplained arrests were common. She was voted out of power in 1977 but would return to power through popular elections in 1980.
Gandhi allowed for legislation that discriminated against Muslim minorities, and public dissatisfaction with her became so great that she was shot and killed by two of her bodyguards (religious minorities) in 1984.
India continues to be a rising global power. Guha posits that India was able to do this by setting on its own path rather than mimicking models of self-government from Europe and the U.S. He explores prosperity common in a major Indian city, like Mumbai, where the number of “middle class” people continues to grow.
With that said, Guha admits there is room for improvement. India is more of a “populist” democracy rather than one ruled by a constitution. Thus, the rule of law is less closely followed throughout the country, which enables wide-spread corruption that increasingly makes national headlines. Because it is so populist, the current democratic country is also prone to radical right movements that distrust and denigrate religious minorities. While Guha has faith in India’s democratic institutions, he cautions readers that a continuing democracy is not an assured fact.