India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy

I find Indian political history immensely fascinating.

I missed recording some of the reads on the subject from before I started maintaining this blog.

However here are some posts dealing with the subject.

Freedom at Midnight looks at the freedom struggle from an imperial viewpoint. I read somewhere that the account was written as an image building exercise for the reputedly (a reputation well deserved I think) vain Lord Mountbatten.

Then there is the tangential Annihilation of Caste which deals with an influential speech by one of the Indian constitution’s principal architect, Dr. BhimRao Ambedkar.

I read Nehru’s Discovery of India and Gandhi’s My Experiments with Truth, both of which I might need to come back to write a little about.

The runup to and the aftermath of the subcontinent’s independence is a cauldron of ideas and personalities with quite a few towering figures, the foremost of which are the trio of Mohandas Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Excluding the British, these three lawyer-politicians were key in carving out shape of the subcontinental electorate. On a slightly lower rung, but not without their own vast spheres of influence, were other powerful personalities. There was the gentle giant Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (Bacha Khan, or, the frontier Gandhi), the fiery crusader for the depressed classes Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar, C Rajagopalachari and V K Krishnan Menon, each a south Indian Mephistopheles in his own way and the indubitable Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel.

Reading Guha’s magnum opus, one can see the complex machinations, the different streams of political, religious, and racial, ideologies, each of these personalities espoused that were temporarily masked by the looming prospect independence from a foreign rule.

Gandhi seems to have been intent on using populism and personal morality as a lynchpin to galvanize the masses into resisting the British rule. His ability to abstract complex debates that the statesmen of the times were engaged in to simple acts of defiance, like threading their own Khaddi or mass rallies, worked at undermining the moral authority of the British, who were themselves engaged in debates back in Britain about the very same issues of equal representation and franchises for their own working class.

Drawn into this fold of piety and unity were a great many leaders like Nehru, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Sheikh Abdullah, and Bacha Khan.

Standing complimentary with Gandhi, but with independent minds were Nehru and Patel. Nehru’s vision seems the most long-lasting, all-encompassing, and magnetic. An extremely well read, far-thinking, and hardworking statesman, Nehru’s policy-making skills and general direction of leadership seems to me to have put India on the right path immediately after Independence. Patel’s formidable efficiency and patriotism is marred by an extreme partiality towards the caste Hindus.

Gandhi seems genuinely megalomaniacal but I guess that was part of his saintly charisma. I find him morbidly fascinating because I do not agree with his morality, saintliness, refusal to think beyond religion, his romanticization of the villages of India, and his denial of the evils of caste system, and yet, to see him marching up and down the country, put his foot down, and brave physical danger and argue for the right things every now and then, bring together warring factions of people, is inspiring. It is frustrating to try and quantify and judge his impact on pre- and post-independence psyche.

Nehru’s wins seem to be as egregious as his inability to mentor the party for succession. Initially, it seemed to me a fault of Nehru’s that the party imploded into a corrupt personality cult. But closer readings seems to show that with a lot of intellectuals and senior politicians retiring or passing away, and through a series of short-lived successions (including Lal Bahadur Shastri) the rest of the crop of Indians could not match the vision of the core team.

Guha’s book is a must-read for Indians who want to get a grip and comment on Indian politics.

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