India After Gandhi
India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy by Ramachandra Guha (HarperCollins 2007).
India is a successful democracy which was ruled for a time by the twentieth century’s only female dictator. Indian voters can choose among a kaleidoscopic array of political parties, yet a single family has dominated Indian government for the past ninety years. The current leader of India’s largest party owes her position to the fact that she married into the family business.
Ramachandra Guha’s remarkable India After Ghandi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy is misnamed. The 893-page epic is, above all, a history of the Nehru-Gandhi family, the clan of Kashmiri Brahmins that governed India for decades, and of the instrument through which they obtained and exercised power, the Indian National Congress political party.
Since at least 1930, when rising star Jawaharlal Nehru was selected as president of the Congress Party, Indian politics has been defined by Nehru and his kin. A parade of political actors – the British, the anti-imperialist Quit India Movement, the Hindu nationalists, Muslim refugees, Sikh separatists, Bengalis, Tamils, the list is lengthy – agreed with the Congress Party, or loudly opposed the Congress, or sought an alliance of convenience with the Congress, but no one ignored the Congress.
From that day in 1930 in Lahore (which was then part of British India) until his death on May 27, 1964, Nehru was the leader of the Congress. After independence, his titles included Prime Minister and Foreign Minister as well as the honorific “Pandit,” meaning “scholar.” Yet his role as dynastic patriarch was as important as the formal offices he held.
George Washington was, to crib from the title of a biography, the indispensable man in the formation of the United States, and Nehru’s comparable role in the creation of modern India cannot be overstated.
Nehru’s vision was of a secular, multi-ethnic, multi-religious democracy with political parties that crossed linguistic, cultural and caste lines. Nehru’s India would be a mild market economy with pronounced central planning. Nehru’s India would have a “non-aligned” foreign policy that would keep the newly independent nation at arm’s length from the Cold War.
But, before Nehru’s India could become reality, British India suffered bloody, protracted and arguably unnecessary death throes.
In Guha’s telling, India was partitioned because Muslim League founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah prevailed upon a pliable British establishment, while many Hindus were frankly glad to see the backs of their Muslim neighbors.
The landmass of British India can be visualized as a pepper with two large leaves on each side. The population of the pepper was overwhelmingly Hindu, while the population of the two leaves was overwhelmingly Muslim. To complicate matters, large communities of Muslims lived in the Hindu areas, and vice versa.
Jinnah, described by Guha as a vain and ambitious politician, felt that Muslims (and, as their leader, he) would have little power within India against the numerically superior Hindus. Jinnah therefore lobbied the British to partition the land into a Hindu heartland of India and two Muslim “wings,” called West and East Pakistan. The British, who culturally and institutionally felt more comfortable with Muslims than with Hindus, agreed.
The result was the largest migration in human history, Guha writes. As many as 10 million people packed their belongings and moved to what would be “their” country.
Partition upset almost everybody, and the communal violence (we would say “sectarian” today) was unspeakable. Gangs of Sikhs in the Punjab – which was ripped in half by the new boundary – killed Muslims indiscriminately. A Muslim mob attacked a train, which limped into its station with “all but two bogies . . . bespattered with blood inside and out,” according to an eyewitness. The last year of the British Raj saw continuous rioting by Hindus and Muslims alike. On the ground, Guha divides the blame equally.
But, at the apex of power, Guha argues that Nehru and Mohandas "Mahatma" Gandhi – both of whom opposed partition – conducted themselves as statesmen, while Jinnah and other Muslim leaders did not. “Tragically, no Pakistani politician was willing to take on religious fanaticism. Whatever their private thoughts, they were reluctant to speak out in public,” Guha writes. “This timidity was in striking contrast to the brave defense of their minorities by the two pre-eminent Indian politicians.” You can dismiss Guha’s praise for Nehru and Gandhi as partisan historiography if you want, but the silence of so-called moderate Muslim leaders is easy to believe in light of current events.
The Indispensable Man
“It is in the nature of democracies, perhaps, that while visionaries are sometimes necessary to make them, once made they can be managed by mediocrities,” Guha writes.
Nehru’s achievements are arguably greater – his challenges were certainly more daunting – than that of the American Founding Fathers. Many of the princely states resisted becoming part of India, the local maharajas covetous of their titles and property. Relations with Pakistan were frosty when they were not heated. Tribes in the economically and strategically important northeast rebelled against the Centre, as the national government in New Delhi was called. Many Indians wanted to redraw state lines on the basis of language, with the Marathi speakers and Gujarati speakers squabbling over who would have jurisdiction over the financial capital Bombay. Meanwhile, neither the United States nor the Soviet Union was happy with India’s non-aligned status, and the intentions of Chairman Mao were a conundrum.
Nehru had to grapple with all of these problems simultaneously. Guha portrays Nehru as a one in a billion man, a proponent of non-violence who was willing to use military force (to expel the Portuguese from Goa, for instance), an urbane and educated idealist who knew when it was time to be gritty and real.
Like Washington, Nehru could have been king. But he was a democrat, and he endured his many political setbacks with grace, waiting for the day when he could patch together support for his goals. Whatever his failings (and his ineffectiveness against government corruption was a significant failing), Guha writes, Nehru governed India as an elected leader, not as a Mughal emperor.
The democracy gene did not descend.
On January 16, 1966 – less than two years since Nehru’s death – his daughter Indira Gandhi was elected Prime Minister of India by a margin of 186 votes in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament. She was the second woman to serve as the head of government of a democratic nation (after Sirimavo Bandarnaike of Sri Lanka).
(Neither Indira Gandhi nor anyone else in the Nehru-Gandhi family is related to Indian spiritual leader Mohandas "Mahatma" Gandhi, although the two families worked together politically since Indira was a child. The name was established when Indira wed Parsee businessman Feroze Gandhy, who adopted the spelling “Gandhi.”)
Indira did not inherit her father’s patience for sluggish democratic process. Seven years earlier, while her father was attempting to negotiate a solution to unrest in the southern state of Kerala (in which the Congress Party was weak), Indira stated in a speech, “When Kerala is virtually on fire, it becomes the Centre’s duty to go to the aid of the people; the misrule of the Communist rulers of the State has created a situation which is unparalleled in the history of our country. Such a situation does not brook legal quibbling.”
Once she moved into the prime ministerial residence, Indira’s autocratic tendencies became pronounced. Her government invoked President’s Rule – direct control of a state by the Centre – when it suited her. She nationalized banks. She stripped the princely families of their remaining prerogatives. She invaded East Pakistan (one of the leaves on the pepper), creating the independent nation of Bangladesh. She ordered nuclear testing.
And, from June 25, 1975, to March 21, 1977, her word was law.
The Emergency, as the period is called, haunts India like the Vietnam War haunts the United States and the disappeared haunt Argentina. It’s the period of history which challenges the nation’s idea of itself, in India’s case by demonstrating how thin the line is between “the world’s largest democracy” and a Third World dictatorship.
The story began when socialist office seeker Raj Narain ran against Indira in her Allahabad constituency in the 1971 general election. He lost, but he filed suit against her for a list of picayune election law violations. The gears of justice moved slowly but, on June 12, 1975, the trial court found that Indira had received political support from government employees on at least two occasions. The judge declared her election void but stayed the ruling for 20 days to allow an appeal to the Supreme Court.
Eleven days later, the Supreme Court began to hear the case. As an interim remedy, the court held that Indira could attend Parliament but could not vote – a ruling which cast doubt on her ability to continue as Prime Minister. Guha describes what happened next:
“Once the decision was made, it was executed with remarkable swiftness. On 25 June, [barrister] S.S. Ray helped draft an ordinance declaring a state of internal emergency, which the pliant president, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmad, signed as soon as it was put in front of him. That night, the power supply to all of Delhi’s newspaper offices was switched off, so there were no editions on 26 June. The police swooped down on the opposition leaders, taking JP [Narayan], Morarji Desai, and many others off to jail. The next day, the public in Delhi, and in India as a whole, heard on the state-controlled radio that an emergency had been declared, and that all civil liberties were suspended.”
Indira used a relatively new law, the Maintenance of Internal Security Act, to detain thousands of political opponents without trial. News reports had to be “pre-censored.” Satirical humor was forbidden. Interestingly, the business community and the middle class generally welcomed the Emergency.
Notoriously, Indira’s younger son Sanjay, who was being groomed as a successor, began a campaign of forced sterilizations in an effort to control population growth. “Lower government officials had to submit to the surgeon’s knife before arrears of pay were cleared. Truck drivers would not have their licenses renewed if they did not produce a sterilization certificate. Slum dwellers would not be allotted a plot for resettlement unless they did likewise,” Guha writes. “Local officials prepared lists of ‘eligible men,’ those who already had three or more children. Police vans would come and take them off to the nearest health centre.”
In January 1977, Indira called for new elections. The reasons for her re-embrace of democracy are a mystery, in part because her private papers are still sealed. Perhaps she missed the public adulation of her earlier political triumphs. Perhaps she was stung by the criticisms of friends of India. Perhaps she simply believed that she and the Congress would handily win the election.
They didn’t. The opposition Janata Party took control of the government, and Indira and Sanjay lost their constituencies. For the first time since Independence in 1949, India was governed by a party other than the Congress.
It didn’t last, and Indira reclaimed the premiership after the general elections of 1980. This second act of the Nehru-Gandhi family, still unspooling, has a Godfather III quality to it. The names and faces look familiar, the rivalries and motivations are similar, but it’s watered down and lacks the excitement and draw of the original.
Five months after the general election, Sanjay died. He lost control of his small plane while practicing loops, crashing near his mother’s house.
In 1984, Indira ordered an assault on a Sikh holy site sheltering militant separatists. In retaliation, two Sikhs in her personal guard machinegunned her to death in the garden of the Prime Minister’s residence as she walked across the grounds to be interviewed by British actor Peter Ustinov.
Indira’s elder son, the commercial pilot Rajiv, was immediately installed as Prime Minister. In 1989, he lost his office, as Congress failed to win a majority in the Lok Sabha. In 1991, he lost his life at the hands of a Tamil suicide bomber.
Since 1989, the Congress has consistently won the most or second-most seats of any party in the Lok Sabha but has failed to win a majority. The Congress rules, or opposes, in coalition with other parties. Its leader, Sonia Gandhi, is Rajiv’s Italian widow who learned Hindi as a second language and who abjures the premiership because the average voter does not consider her to be “Indian.”
Little men and women run India now, Guha argues, men and women more interested in how they can benefit from public office than in how the public can benefit from their service. One-sixth or more of candidates for elective office have criminal records, he notes. The average parliamentarian owns assets worth several hundred thousand U.S. dollars – an enormous sum in India. Almost all political parties are now family affairs, with sons and daughters inheriting seats.
India After Gandhi is the story of the family which set that precedent.