Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi is the remarkable story of the largest democracy in the world, which has survived for 60 years against impossible odds. A prolific writer on varied subjects, Guha raises several challenges that the Indian experiment in democracy, a work still in progress, faces in the new century. I asked him about these and other matters in a recent exchange.
LM: What is the difference between “history” and “historically informed journalism”?
RG: The further in time the historian is from the period he is writing about it, the more one can trust his powers of judgment and the depth of his research. Distance lends balance; the archives open up 30 years after an event; more memoirs, biographies, and scholarly studies become available. On the other hand, when dealing with the recent past, the historian can never fully separate himself from the din and clamor of partisan political debate. As an adult who lived through and often commented upon the Mandir/Mandal and liberalization debates, I cannot be completely objective—although I have tried. But the more crucial difference relates to the availability of source material—since both primary materials and secondary materials only begin to accumulate or be available two or three decades later.
LM: Indira Gandhi has been a very polarizing figure. I met her once when she was a hostess to her father, during whose lifetime she seemed docile and unremarkable. When did she learn machiavellian tactics to be a strong but somewhat ruthless leader? Did Nehru groom his daughter to be a political figure/leader, if not a dynastic successor?
RG: In her time as Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi comprehensively annihilated the image of herself as a docile, dumb doll. Since her papers are closed to scholars, one does not have a full understanding of this transformation. Perhaps the years without her mother and estranged from her husband nurtured in her an inner strength; perhaps the elixir of power made her strong, as well as headstrong.
On the other question, there is no evidence of any kind that Nehru hoped, or expected, or desired, that his daughter would become Prime Minister. In 1965, Indira Gandhi was contemplating moving to a private life in London. If Lal Bahadur Shastri had lived longer, she would be no more than a marginal footnote in modern Indian history. It was the “Syndicate” of Congress bosses who, in their collective wisdom or unwisdom, chose her to succeed Shastri. Later, unlike Nehru, she made sure that her own sons would succeed her. So the “dynasty” is the creation of Indira, not Nehru.
LM: Is there an objective biography of Indira Gandhi that you can recommend? After reading your book, my interest in knowing more about this strong figure in the pantheon of world leaders is piqued.
RG: There is, alas, no biography of Indira to compare with S. Gopal’s biography of Nehru, Rajmohan Gandhi’s biographies of Patel and Rajaji, B. R. Nanda’s biography of Gokhale, or Dhananjay Keer’s biography of Ambedkar. This is in part because those other works relied massively on primary materials, whereas, as I have noted, Indira’s correspondence is still secret for the most part. This said, Katherine Frank’s book is quite good on Indira the person, and Inder Malhotra’s book insightful on Indira the politician. I hope a younger scholar can now step up to the plate and do a full-fledged life of Indira! I would be happy to provide assistance, to guide him or her to primary sources that are available but remain untapped.
LM: Even after Indira Gandhi’s unsuccessful attempt to establish a Nehru dynasty and suspend the Indian Constitution, why did senior cabinet ministers and Congress leaders unanimously pick a rookie like Rajiv Gandhi to succeed his mother? Was this not a serious failure in judgment?
RG: It was indeed a serious failure. While in Nehru’s time (and even Mahatma Gandhi’s) there were other powerful and influential Congress leaders who could act as a countervailing force, Indira systematically removed all sources of opposition to her within the party. The twin victories of 1971, electoral and military, gave her a larger-than-life image. If Indira was not quite Indira, Indira was certainly the Congress, and the Congress was Indira.
Meanwhile, Indira also cultivated chamchas and sycophants. To flatter Indira and her sons became a vehicle of upward mobility within the Congress. But the top job remained a preserve of the first family. So, when she was assassinated in 1984, the servile, sycophantic Congressmen could think of no other alternative except her rookie son. Had Sanjay been alive, he would have succeeded her instead of Rajiv. As they say, thank heaven for small mercies. The Congress, and India, might have done a lot better with someone other than Rajiv; on the other hand, they would certainly have done a lot worse with Sanjay at the helm!
LM: In your Epilogue, you use the terms “hardware of democracy” and “software of democracy.” Can you please expand on these terms?
RG: By “hardware” I mean the basic institutions of democracy—such as free and fair elections, an independent judiciary, and a legitimate state system. By “software” I mean the processes which deepen the work of these institutions on a day to day basis—such as a free press, an accountable police form, a transparency in governance and administration. I call India a “phiphty-phiphty” democracy, because while elections are fair and regular, and the higher judiciary (reasonably) efficient, the press has succumbed to the lure of glamour and celebrity, politicians and bureaucrats can loot the treasury with impunity, and there is too much arbitrary use of state power.
LM: What is your prognosis for the democratic experiment in India? With most of the cabinets being coalition governments, can this form of democracy survive or lead to a kind of political balkanization?
RG: Alas, I am a historian and not an astrologer, although I recognize that were I to become one, it would be, in India, a most profitable change of profession. Still, I would say that there is little fear anymore of balkanization. But India is not going to become a “Great Power” either.
Among the impediments to that ambition are the rising influence of right-wing and left-wing extremism, the growing divide between rich and poor, and the corruption of the state. India will muddle along in the middle—as it has always done.
|Lakshmi Mani taught at the Rochester Institute of Technology for 20 years. She writes on American and Indian-American literature, and is a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow.|