Book Review: India since Independence by Bipan Chandra, Mridula Mukherjee and Aditya Mukherjee

ImageThe first edition of this book was published under the title “India after independence” in the year 2000, narrating the story of India from 1947 to the advent of new millennium. The second edition extends the narrative to the year 2007 which according to the authors was necessitated due to certain significant changes in the Indian socio-political and economic discourse. Following the integration with the international economy India registered unprecedented rates of growth in the first decade of the new millennium however, distribution of the newly created wealth remained skewed leading to unacceptable levels of inequality in incomes and living standards. India’s global position became more formidable, especially as a result of the civil nuclear agreements with advanced nations. Among the three new chapters added to the book the one on ‘Communalism and the use of state power’ analyses the events related to the 2002 Gujarat communal riots which the authors have unequivocally termed as the “greatest threat to the Indian democracy since independence.”

To root the story of contemporary India in its history, the authors start with a general overview of the consequences of colonial rule of almost 200 years on India’s economic and socio-political life. Ravaged agriculture and stunted industry, the legacy of India’s colonial past, weighed heavily on the task of rebuilding the nation. What the Cambridge school of historians are quick to term as the positive impacts of the colonial rule, (the railways, postal services, modern administration, etc.) the authors call “overall detrimental…operating within colonial framework, they became inseparable from the process of underdevelopment.” A. Gunder Frank had termed the transformation brought to the India economy by the British rule as “the development of underdevelopment.”

The spirit of nationhood was generated largely by the national freedom movement which spanned over a 100 years. Bringing out the critical features of the national movement, the authors accord the Congress party a central role in the process. A somewhat detailed sketch of the economic and political path independent India was going to follow had already been mapped out by the leaders of the national movement. The culture of consensus building greatly helped the making of the Constitution. The Congress party’s dominant position never became monolithic as its main leaders had immense respect for the democratic process.

The challenges faced by the Indian leadership at the dawn of independence are temporally categorised. The integration of princely states, communal riots and rehabilitation of around six million refugees, avoidance of war with Pakistan and the communist insurgency were the immediate ones. Framing of constitution and holding elections etc’ was the medium term problems while poverty, nation building and meeting mass expectations were long term challenges. In the course of national integration a serious impediment turned out to be the issue of official language and the linguistic re organization of the states. The vitriolic fervor shown by the leaders of the Hindi cause only succeeded in breaking down the consensus over acceptance of Hindi as the national language in the long term.

Special consideration has been given to the integration of tribals in the national mainstream who had lived in relative isolation during colonial rule. The authors commend Nehru for rejecting the dominant approaches of either leaving the tribals isolated as “museum specimen, to be observed and written about” or unrestrained assimilation so as to “engulf them by masses of Indian humanity” and arguing in favour of giving autonomy to tribals.

On the economic front India’s unique experience of attempting to transform into a modern industrial nation while adhering to the requirements of a democractic framework was unprecedented in world history. Despite the structural distortions produced by the colonial rule, India had certain advantages. The existence of a mature, independent and indigenous entrepreneurial class and the conglomerates like the Tatas, Birlas, Dalmia- Jains etc. akin to the “zaibatsu” in Japan or the “chaebol” in South Korea, provided the much needed agency to carry out the task of planned industrial development. The broad consensus over the role of public sector and the importance and planned and guided development among politically diverse groups made the initial endeavours seamless.

The economy is detailed in four chapters; under Nehru, from the mid-60s crisis to 1990, post 1991 reforms and the status of Indian economy in new millennium. While conceding to weaknesses of the era before reforms, particularly the “Kafkaesque web of license quota rules, import restriction shielding inefficient domestic producers,” the authors strongly argue in favour of the fundamental ground work done under the Nehru administration, “today’s possibilities are a function of the achievements of the earlier period; they have not arisen despite them.”

The populist policies of late 80s and the fiscal profligacy made the structural adjustments, popularly known as the ‘reforms,’ of the 90s inevitable. Unlike the stress experienced during 60s and 70s on the fiscal position and current account which could be attributed to external and/or temporary shocks, such as external aggression and oil price shocks, the problems of 80s were more structural in nature. The “xenophobia towards foreign investment” derailed India’s chances of realizing its potential and India completely missed the transformative experience as was realized in countries like South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan during the “East Asian Miracle.”

The authors term the reform as “ ..in the Indian context were almost revolutionary in nature, were ironically started by a minority government led by Narsimha Rao…” Immediate impacts were indded stupendous. India’s GDP rose from 0.8 percent in the crisis year of 1991-92 to 5.3 percent in 1993-94.

The book weaves its narratives according to leader- centric approach. Since independence to the 1960s, the central theme is the presence of Nehru, similarly Shastri, Indira and Rajiv become the lynchpins for later decades. Due to this, certain centrality and homogeneity creeps into the narrative. The voices of other important players or leaders during these periods are largely ignored. For example, on the issue of Communist insurgency in the early years of independence the description centres on the impressions formed by Nehru without any reference to the perspectives expressed by the Communist leadership.

One can also take issue with the bias shown in favour of Nehru. The chronicle of Nehru years is replete with his quotes, giving an impression that other important leaders of time hardly had anything of enduring value to say. The authors often glide over Nehru’s failures. For example, when Hindi hardliners kept polarising the language debate despite Nehru’s expressed opinion in favour of balanced negotiations, the authors provide no explanations for the absence of any attempts by Nehru to control such rabid elements.

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