When confronted with a disappointing Indian reality, we are apt on occasion to ask “what if” questions, even about a long gone past. Like what if Patel rather than Nehru had been India’s first prime minister? Or if Subhas Bose had remained in India during World War II and led India after independence, instead of either Nehru or Patel? Or if a Nehru-Ambedkar understanding had averted Ambedkar’s 1951 departure from the union cabinet? Or if the prime ministership of a united India had been offered to Jinnah in 1947? (That was about seventy years ago.)

Such questions may usually be dismissed as being purely hypothetical, but a related question may make practical sense. Are our present-day discontents of recent origin or connected to the beginnings of the Indian republic? Were crucial mistakes made in the 1947-50 period?

We cannot return to 1947 for starting afresh as a free nation. Yet, if critical errors were made at the beginning, understanding those errors may prevent their repetition. Fathoming yesterday may conceivably help fashion a happier tomorrow.

This study enquires into our republic’s start, but at first its aim was more limited. I began by merely wanting to address sweeping criticisms of Gandhi and Nehru levelled by two interesting men – a swami from Gujarat and a professor from America. I ended up examining our republic’s beginnings.

A weaver may begin to move his shuttle, and a potter his wheel, before the design of the cloth or pot takes shape in his mind; and something similar can happen when a writer starts to tap the keyboard.

Spelt a number of ways in English, Sachidanand has long been one of India’s popular names, including for swamis, i.e. for persons of spiritual attainment or authority. In December 2013, in his ashram in Dantali near Anand in central Gujarat, I met the Swami Sachidanand who has a wide following among Gujarat’s Patidar (or Patel) communities and no doubt among other groups as well.

It happened like this. Working at that time on a study of Darbar Gopaldas Desai (1887-1951), a remarkable but largely forgotten Patidar who, unusually, was also a prince, I found Swami Sachidanand of Dantali deferentially mentioned in a small book on central Gujarat’s Patidars which I had liked for its useful information on Darbar Gopaldas.

Learning that this swami was urging people to practise objective thinking freed from miracles and blind faith, I became curious to meet him. A gifted, sharp-witted and public-spirited Patidar friend called Surendra Patel, London-based for much of the year but then present in Gujarat, kindly took me to Swami Sachidanand.

Before I refer to my conversation with him, I must point out that Swami Sachidanand is not controversy-free. He has strong backers and devotees but influential opponents as well. He has been implicated (utterly falsely, admirers insist) in an old criminal charge which has yet to see final disposal.

Born Nanalal Trivedi in 1932 in a village in Patan district in northern Gujarat, the Swami is a Brahmin, not a Patel. Not that he himself is particularly interested in castes. At age twenty-one he left his home in search of spiritual truth and walked without money across much of India; at age twenty-four he was guided by a swami in Ferozepur in Punjab, which lies near the Pakistani border.

When he was thirty-four, priests and scholars in Varanasi, impressed by his learning, conferred a title on him. Since then he has travelled and lectured across India and the world – almost all parts of it, including China, Africa, Latin America, Russia, Europe, the US and Australia. Active in relief work during droughts and after the 2001 earthquake, Swami Sachidanand has also written extensively in Gujarati. Some of his writings have been translated into English and Hindi.

In Dantali he received me, younger than him by three years, with warmth and courtesy. As the Swami, Surendra bhai and I occupied chairs, a few of his devotees sat around him on the floor. Within a minute or two, the Swami was volunteering opinions about Gandhi.

“I was his great admirer. Whenever my conservative friends criticised Gandhiji, I strongly defended him. I was living in UP [Uttar Pradesh] at the time. A picture of Gandhi always hung on my wall. But when China attacked India in 1962 and our army retreated, I felt humiliated. I felt that Gandhi’s ahimsa had weakened India.

“I took the Gandhi portrait down from my wall, brought it to the Ganga, and solemnly sank it into the waters. Gandhi was a great man but he failed to understand two things: the value of the sword, and the danger from Islam.”

I listened patiently and silently to these and other remarks, though at one stage I briefly opened my mouth to wonder about the fate of India’s weak and disabled if dominating Indians possessed swords and guns in addition to their wealth.

The Swami sent me away with books and good wishes, which I appreciated, but I also carried a thought that I should try one day to consider and respond to his views.

Was it really Gandhi’s ahimsa that had weakened India and caused the 1962 defeat? Was Gandhi in fact flawed in his understanding of the sword, of Islam, of Muslims? Did he appease the Muslims at great cost to the Hindus?

It was while the wish to examine such questions was knocking on my mind that I heard friends speak of Perry Anderson’s attacks on Gandhi. Did I not want, they asked, to rebut his charges that Gandhi was anti-Muslim, that he forced Pakistan on an unwilling Jinnah, that he helped fashion a Hindu state where Muslims would remain subordinate, a state which had enslaved the people of Kashmir?

I had not read Anderson’s charges, I truthfully replied, adding that I was fully engaged in other work, which was true too.

Also true was the fact – embarrassing for one who for several years had taught political science and history at a leading American university – that I did not know who Perry Anderson was. until the winter of 2014-15, I was as unaware of Perry Anderson’s history as I had been a year earlier of Swami Sachidanand’s story.

When I gathered that Perry was the brother of Benedict Anderson, with whose fame and work I was familiar, I was impressed. Benedict Anderson has helped a generation of political scientists and lay persons across the world understand what nations are and are not, and what nationalism is.

To try to know where Perry Anderson comes from, I have browsed through a few of his books. In these he tries to understand history, including of the remote past, from a Marxian perspective, and to analyse thinkers like Jean-Paul Sartre, Herbert Marcuse and Antonio Gramsci. A foreword to one of his books calls Perry Anderson “[a] proponent of class struggle as the primary historical operator of social change”.

The thinking of Leon Trotsky is highly praised in at least one of Anderson’s works. While the European Union has been a research focus for him (evidently Anderson finds the EU’s bureaucracy insufficient), his attention towards India seems recent. It has resulted in a mostly negative appraisal of Gandhi, Nehru, the Indian republic’s ideology, and the trajectory of independent India.

This appraisal is contained in The Indian Ideology, which was published in October 2014 by Three Essays Collective, Gurgaon. That 190-page book combines, and in some places revises, three long articles by him published earlier in 2012 in the London Review of Books.

In his foreword, Perry Anderson informs us that The Indian Ideology is part of a historical introduction or background for a forthcoming study by him of “the inter-state system of the leading powers” of our time. In other words, this book, which appeared earlier as articles in LRB, is, like those pieces, only a lead-up to the real thing, which will be a study, we are told, of the powers that together control our world today.

But The Indian Ideology and its blurb reveal that the author also has narrower, more specific and immediate intentions. He wants, we are told, to provide for Indians an “honest reckoning” of “the catastrophe of Partition” and “an understanding of what has gone wrong with the Republic since Independence” (blurb). He ends his text with a practical exhortation: Indians should “put away the effigies” of Gandhi, Nehru, Patel and company and “all they represent”.

Should Indians be bothered by a charge sheet and call to action drawn up by a wide-ranging American professor? Moreover, doesn’t Gandhi usually take care of himself, even though he has been dead for nearly seven decades? Having only recently taken the trouble to answer the raw accusations that Arundhati Roy, the novelist and activist, had levelled against Gandhi over caste and over the Gandhi-Ambedkar relationship, did I want to “defend” Gandhi again?

Excerpted with permission from Understanding the Founding Fathers: An Enquiry Into The Indian Republic’s Beginnings, Rajmohan Gandhi, Aleph Book Company.