India is indeed the world’s largest democracy. But, writes essayist Guha, the question is, what sort of democracy?
India’s first postindependence government was marked by Jawaharlal Nehru’s admirable determination, in the face of the violence accompanying the partition of India and Pakistan, to establish India as “a democratic secular State where all citizens enjoy full rights and are equally entitled to the protection of the State, irrespective of the religion to which they belong.” Nehru, highly regarded for his statesmanlike and reasonable views, did not want partition in the first place; it came about, Guha suggests, for several reasons, not least a long tendency for India’s Hindu majority to underestimate the nation’s massive Muslim population. Though Nehru’s successors attempted to put beneficial programs in place, including much-needed land reform, they have in the main been no match for him, Guha further suggests. Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, was, unlike her father, “neither well-read nor widely traveled,” inarticulate about many of the nation’s most pressing problems and world affairs—the market economy, the Cold War, the development and strengthening of that secular state. She was deft in certain ways, however, balancing the U.S. against the USSR; Richard Nixon was moved to fury when she went to war with Pakistan over East Bengal, soundly defeating America’s closer ally. Increasingly isolated as her power grew, Gandhi did nothing to stop rising religious strife throughout the early 1980s, which culminated in her assassination. Her successors have made progress in some areas, Guha writes, though, he notes, “India is no longer a constitutional democracy but a populist one.” He closes by elaborating on that distinction, as well as noting India’s growing contributions to global culture.
Evenhanded, particularly on the thorny matter of Indo-Pakistani relations. Well timed to coincide with the 60th anniversary of independence, and well worth reading for anyone interested in world affairs.