Apr 21, 2010

‘India after Gandhi’ by the Man of Modern Middleground - Ramachandra Guha

He was someone, about whom I had heard from people who read his books, and people who attended his talks. Having not read any of his books, I went in with an open mind to hear someone speak about modern-day India. Mr. Ramachandra Guha, the author of India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy gave a talk here at ASU, and I am producing almost a transcript of the talk.

All rights exist with the speaker, and certain errors might have crept in while writing the blog. My opinion on a few statements is also interspersed within. (Will write a opinion blog soon)

Mr. Guha began the very well attended talk with an unusual statement ‘India is the most unnatural nation.’ He mentioned that other countries usually have a ‘shared language and faith and a common enemy.’ With this, he gave examples about the British and the French and their mutual conflicts. A critical analysis of Pakistan being a superbly European nation, especially with the political system there, was interesting. In contrast, Indian does not privilege a specific religion, and has the largest population of Hindus, Christians (more than Australia), Muslims, Sikhs etc., more than any other country in the world, he said.

Due to the collective leadership in this ‘multilingual political unit’, we also see the denomination in 17 languages on an Indian currency note. Hence he again stressed on the fact that India is the most unnatural nation, and the ‘World’s least likely democracy.’ Unlike the US elections where the candidates are identified by their political party or name, he emphasized that it was the political party symbol in Indian ‘democratic’ elections that reached out to the millions of people. He commented on the Indian democracy to be a 50:50 working democracy in typical Johnny Walker (Bollywood) style.  He next drew reference to the Florida election in 2000, and mocked Indian democracy probably works better than that.

Following this, he provided an instance where non-Indians endorsed the Indian system. JBS Haldane, a Scottish biologist who immigrated India and embraced the Indian culture, apparently answered a journalists question on moving to India, by saying ‘60 years of wearing socks is enough. ’ The opinion that India is a better model for world organization than any other country in the world, being the closest approximation to the free world is definitely true. JBS Haldane also mentioned that this model may break, but it is still a good experiment. In response to a professor from Berkeley who labeled India as a ‘land of scoundrels,’ Haldance mentioned that it was better to be a scoundrel in India than elsewhere.

It is this part of the talk that actually got me immersed into it completely, and that Mr. Guha has simple yet effective instances to drive in a point.

Mr. Guha next made a thought-provoking and simple analysis of the problems that plagued India, each and every decade after its independence. And each of these problems has ‘tested the democracy of this single unified nation’. It was the communist approach that a few politicians adopted, taking inspiration from China and Russia that plagued India right after its independence in the late 1940s. Following this, we had the conflict of language leading to formation of separate states in the 1950s, and the Burma/China conflict and drought in 1960s. The emergency decade of 1970, where Ms. Indira Gandhi imposed a curfew on basic right of life was yet another disturbing phase in Indian history, followed by the Sikh riots in 1980. The rise of Hindu fundamentalism leading to the Babri Masjid-Ayodhya riots in 1990 coupled with the never-ending Kashmir border issue with Pakistan made our problems worse. And this decade was filled with terrorist attacks all over, the Godhra riots in Gujarat and the instability in Kashmir. What I’d have probably liked to hear is how India actually bounced back from each of these problems as an emerging superpower today.

The next interesting part of the talk was the five major conflicts and challenges that India majorly faces. He listed the five points and commented he on each of them.

1. Identity politics involving language, caste and religion: the fact that Kannada speakers in Bangalore are in minority and feel insecure, underlines this point. Similarly, the Hindu caste system which almost got abolished in the city culture and the competitive fundamentalism between religions is yet another challenge.

2. Border States: India being ‘50% democratic and 80% united,’ has more Christians in Kerala who where there earlier than in Europe, apart from Muslims and Christians living united, with the highest literacy rate. Mr. Guha also provided an instance where he saw a Rajasthani pickle seller amidst booksellers in a big fair in Kerala, thus showing more diversity. Contrastingly, two neglected states Nagaland and Manipur along with the troubled state of Kashmir demand for separate country status, which is not idealistic.

3. Instability on neighboring country: Compared to Canada which is the luckiest country in terms of borders (with the not-so-troublesome US below and Arctic Circle above), India has Pakistan (political anarchy), Srilanka (recovering slowly from the civil war), and Nepal, which makes contributes to our troubles.

4. Growing Maoist insurgency in the heart of India (almost 1/5th of India) is another  concern.

5. Abuse of natural environment, and domestic resources has cost India a lot in the bargain. Indian cities are known for the highest pollution, dead rivers, and non-existent forests. With this, the never-ending environmental crisis is threatening the economic development of the nation.

I couldn’t help but agree with Mr. Guha on all of the five topics, but somehow felt that the lack of efficient leadership and corrupt political system was another factor affecting India’s growth. But Mr. Guha conveyed that point at the end of the talk.

The final point of the talk was on how India can become a 60% democracy, since 100% democracy is practically impossible and 60% is good enough for the country’s growth.  It all depends on the state, private enterprise, and the civil society, of which the latter two were not present earlier. And now we have ‘an active civil society, good private enterprise and a corrupt state.’ It is this system that needs cleaning now, in my opinion.

Mr. Guha ended this talk with a statement by Ashis Nandy (Political psychologist): “In India the choice could never be chaos and stability but it could only be manageable or unmanageable chaos……….”

He answered a few questions from the audience; one of the answers included ‘US is both a democratic and an imperialist country,’ and pointed out instances where it tries to be democratic and other cases where it is imperialist.

For a change, a speaker was not too preachy and not boring, and kept the attention of both Indian and non-Indian audience occupied for the entire 45 minutes. His skill of providing an example to prove a point with subtle humor is definitely commendable.  Another point to be noted is that, he never targeted a country/group directly; instead he posed a real instance and mocked at them. I am sure such skills are partially natural and partially acquired with experience. He truly is the ‘Man of Modern Middleground’

At the end of the talk, I purchased the book and got the book signed by him and spoke a few words. The final remark from this cricket-lover was that ‘Tendulkar is the greater cricketer than Ponting, and the only mistake Tendulkar made was to evade customs duty for his Ferrari. Ponting has not faced his own Aussie Bowlers, while Tendulkar has.”

A refreshing, and a thought-provoking talk! Cannot wait to read his book!

(Photography credit: Arvind Ramachander, Cricket Credit: Akshay Pulipaka, Nilotpal Chakravarthy)


  1. Shreyas Aji MuraliApril 21, 2010 at 5:56 PM

    Good post! I would have been there if I was at ASU, but you've summarized it well!

  2. Thanks for this post Viju!
    looks like I missed a very interesting talk... :|

  3. Thank you guys :) It was an interesting talk, and I tried my best to summarize it, am happy you guys read it and liked it.


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