Guha reviews two books on India history- Recovering Liberties: Indian Thought in the Age of Liberalism and Empire
By C. A. Bayly and Democracy and Its Institutions By André Béteille.
The start to the review is amazing:
THE REPUBLIC OF INDIA is the most reckless political experiment in human history. Never before was a single nation constructed out of so many diverse and disparate parts. Partitioned at birth on the basis of religion, India now has almost as many Muslims as the Muslim homeland of Pakistan. It has more Christians than Australia, more Buddhists than Tibet, more Sikhs, Jains, and Parsis than any country in the world. The Hindus, nominally the religious “majority,” are divided into tens of thousands of endogamous castes and sects. Meanwhile, the extraordinary linguistic diversity of India is represented on the country’s currency notes, with the denomination—50 rupees, 10 rupees, and so on—written in seventeen languages, each with a distinct script.
This is an unnatural nation, as well as an unlikely democracy. Never before was a population so poor and so illiterate asked to vote freely to choose who would govern it. Unlike in the West, where the franchise was granted in stages, the Indian constitution immediately gave the vote to every adult regardless of caste, class, education, or gender. This was an act of faith, greeted with widespread disbelief: writing of the first general elections, held in 1952, a prominent Indian editor observed that they were the “biggest gamble in history.” It was a gamble that seems to have paid off—there have been fourteen general elections since, each the greatest democratic exercise in human history (with some four hundred million voting in the last iteration in 2009), as well as regular elections in states more populous than France or Germany.
What follows is a useful snapshot of India’s history. I am skipping much of it as have very little understanding of the same.
In the end he wonders what went wrong in a country which always had great thinkers/leaders?
IN A BOOK PUBLISHED in 2007, the year marking the sixtieth anniversary of Indian independence, I argued that while a democracy had to be founded by visionaries, it could be run in mid-career by mediocrities. Such was the case with India, and with the United States, for the distance between Mahatma Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi was no more, and no less, than the distance between George Washington and George W. Bush. Five years later, I see that this might have been an excessively sanguine judgment. The people who rule India today are worse than mediocrities. Forget idealism or vision, they are not even competent, being motivated rather by vanity, greed, or nepotism (or all of the above).
“The state is impersonal; the Argentine can only conceive of personal relations,” wrote Borges. “Therefore, to him, robbing public funds is not a crime. I am noting a fact; I am not justifying or excusing it.” The causes of corruption in India are somewhat more sociological— not so much “personal” as “kin” and “community” and interest group. Public funds are diverted not to one’s friend or mistress, but to one’s nephew or caste-mate. But the effect is the same, namely, the undermining of institutions meant to serve society as a whole rather than a particular slice of it.
Apart from some exceptions. most instis are corrupt:
Some institutions have stood apart from the trend. The Election Commission of India runs polls efficiently and fairly; the comptroller-and-auditorgeneral rigorously scrutinizes public spending; the Finance Commission allocates funds to states in a non-partisan manner. Unlike in neighboring Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and China, the armed forces have stayed scrupulously away from politics. Many (but by no means all) judges of the Supreme Court are competent and honest.
On the whole, though, public institutions in India are defined more by corruption and incompetence than by transparency and accountability. The Gandhian period seems, in retrospect, an aberration. Inspired by the idealism and the spirit of self-sacrifice of the national movement, two or three generations of politicians, civil servants, and judges subordinated their personal ambitions (and kinship ties) to the impersonal goals of the institutions they had chosen to serve. As late as the 1960s, most cabinet ministers and all Supreme Court judges were, in a financial sense, incorruptible. But as the impulse animating the freedom struggle receded, the basic building blocks of the society reasserted themselves. Whether acting in their private or their public capacity, officials of the state would now privilege the interests of their family, caste, and community above those of the institution itself.
Final para says it all - Republic of India remains a work in progress
Sixty-four years after the British departed, the . The experiment has clearly not failed, nor has it emphatically succeeded. Home to the most elevating as well as the most depressing aspects of the human experience, it inspires—in this citizen at any rate—pride and embarrassment in equal measure.
The books and the review take too much of an uncritical Great Man view of history for my taste, in spite of the fact I take the view more seriously than many social scientists. The review is incoherent at times, but nonetheless an interesting read. I would like to hear what Acemoglu and Robinson would say about the books and India in general.
It will be really exciting to hear from Acemoglu/Johnson on India puzzle. Their blog has discussed so many countries but nothing on India so far. Eagerly awaiting some discussion on India. Haven’t read the book as yet so don’t know whether there is anything on India. Those who have, it will be great if you could share key ideas on this blog.