Two Cheers for Democracy ; India after Gandhi by Ramachandra Guha MACMILLAN [Pound]25 (871Pp)

Article excerpt

The world's media, once full of despairing stories headed "Can India Survive?", now gush almost continually over the coun-try's democratic culture, vibrant social life and entrepreneurial dynamism. All the authoritarianism, corruption, poverty, caste-ism, injustice, squalor and superstition for which India was once notorious seem suddenly to have vanished into thin air.

The truth, of course, is far more complex. Despite all the recent changes, India remains a land of contradictions. It possesses nuclear bombs but cannot generate enough electricity to supply its own capital; the cuisine is the finest in the world but the water can be lethal; most streets have a few religious shrines but there is rampant corruption at all levels of society; the people are the kindest and most hospitable on earth, but that has never prevented them from brutalising their own in ways that might shock Dick Cheney.

India has never been a homogeneous place but, in the 60 years since independence, some classes, sectors of the economy and regions have changed far more than others, making the nation ever more diverse. Much has been written about isolated aspects of independent India but nobody until now has attempted to write its complete history. As historical eras go, the period covered is short but its complexity mind-boggling.

The multiplicity of languages, religions, cultural traditions and customs, not to mention the byzantine twists of Indian politics, can intimidate the doughtiest scholar. We are fortunate that Ramachandra Guha, who has previously written on India's environmental history and the social history of cricket, took on the challenge. He has produced a superb, gloriously detailed book that is essential reading for anybody with any serious interest in modern India.

When, on the eve of independence, Jawaharlal Nehru spoke of India's "tryst with destiny", he was well aware of the difficulties ahead. Much in Nehru's grand vision of a free, democratic and secular India was never to be realised, and although he and most of his associates were scrupulously honest, politics, business and administration descended rapidly into venality and corruption. The broad nationalist ideology that had driven Gandhi, Nehru and their generation came, moreover, to be fragmented by those ethnic, religious and regional forces that the British had identified as the biggest obstacles to Indian national unity.

Even as Nehru orated to the Constituent Assembly, millions of Hindus and Muslims were moving to and from the new Islamic state of Pakistan. This migration was anything but peaceful. Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims, egged on by communal organ-isations, were baying for each other's blood. The carnage was so appalling that Gandhi, instead of celebrating independence, embarked on rounds of fasting and prayer to bring his country to its senses.

Guha's laconic descriptions of the ethnic cleansing bring out the brutality but, as he points out, it was not the masses who had demanded partition. It was Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the leader of the Muslim League, who had insisted on it and the British who, in their hurry to leave, had rushed it through without adequate preparation or security. …