Book review

Will India ever be a great power? Twenty-four other questions are also answered in this book

Scholarly caution and not political rhetoric runs through ‘Seven Decades of Independent India’.

The Bharatiya Janata Party spares no opportunity to claim that nothing much happened in this country till Narendra Modi took over the reins of power in New Delhi in 2014. Prime Minister Modi remains the party’s chief vote-gatherer. With general elections barely a year away, one expects to hear more of the same song.

But what has India’s actual journey been like in the 70 years since it became an independent nation? What are the country’s achievements and failures and what lies ahead? Scholars have engaged with these questions in the past. But for those with short memories, or those who are just plain curious about the varied ways of looking at India, Seven Decades of Independent India: Ideas and Reflections is a worthwhile reading journey.

The book is edited by Vinod Rai, former Comptroller and Auditor General of India, and Amitendu Palit, senior research fellow and research lead (trade and economic policy) at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. A compilation of 25 scholarly essays, it boasts of several distinguished academics among contributors: for instance, Shivshankar Menon, SY Quraishi, Dipankar Gupta, AK Shiva Kumar, Dhruva Jaishankar, Sumit Ganguly, Pronab Sen and Ashok Gulati.

The topics cover a vast range, from predictable subjects – like India’s external security challenges, India’s place in a globalised world, Indian media, India’s elections, Indian industry, Indian NGOs, rise and fall of Indian planning, India as an Asian power, challenges facing higher education and healthcare in India – to more provocative ones. One essay has as its title the country’s favourite question: “Will India ever be a great power?”

More wide than deep

It is, necessarily, a broad sweep. In the introductory chapter, the editors reflect on policy, governance and institutions. They note that understanding India’s journey over the seven decades it has travelled since 15 August 1947 is not possible without contextualising it in the light of the pain and trauma of Partition. That milieu in which independent India took its baby steps sowed the seeds of hatred at a great depth among India’s major religious communities. Given this situation, independent India’s founding fathers and policymakers need to be credited for realising the importance of building a secular country and making its institutions function in a way that sought to be uninfluenced by religious tensions and biases.

Reading the book in 2018, many questions arise, including ones about the future of India as we know it, at a time when a basic tenet like secularism is being questioned. The editors of this book don’t dive into this in any detail, but they deal with other contemporary issues. In the introductory chapter, for example, they touch upon the “leverage enjoyed by the current Modi government” and note that the “latter’s political authority enabled it to implement the rather audacious demonetisation of more than 80 per cent of the Indian currency in circulation on 8 November 2016.” They cautiously eschew elaborating or commenting on the long-term “benefits” of demonetisation, but they assert that the “political goodwill for the Prime Minister and for his party following the electoral victory in 2014 helped the government to push ahead with the measure despite the hardships for common man and setbacks to the economy.”

One of the essays which I found both compelling and relevant today is “Democracy’s Angry Crowds: Civil Society and Legitimacy in India”, by Subrata Mitra, director of the Institute for South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore. “Though democratic states derive their legitimacy from popular support, the relationship of civil society and democracy is not as straightforward as it might appear at first sight,” he writes. Mitra raises a very topical and provocative question at a time when agitating crowds pushing at the barricades, contesting public policies they consider illegitimate, have been in evidence around the world: does civil society activism in India enhance democratic consolidation, or does it stymie the institutions of accountability and policymaking, and subvert the course of electoral democracy?

Foreign policy buffs will be happy to find three essays in the book focussing on external affairs: one with external security, another with “India and ASEAN” and the last with ‘India as an Asian Power’. The insights may not be totally original, but each chapter is a repository of information and useful background.

One of the most thought-provoking essays deals with the persistence of caste in India. Authored by eminent sociologist Dipankar Gupta, it argues that castes no longer form a “system” but are active as “identities”. The essay has fascinating segments on the origin of myths. Gupta writes: “When castes interacted as a ‘system’, people behaved in accordance with an ascribed rank, or what was ordained by birth. This hierarchy was manned and patrolled by the ruling caste of the region and even defined by them.” This is the reason the caste rankings varied from region to region, but the ‘system’ held on the whole. This came unstuck when the village economy collapsed.

By the time India became independent and zamindari was abolished, this system had begun to wobble. With no oligarch or ruling patron who could keep the various castes in place, caste as a “system” collapsed, points out Gupta. But caste persists, because though the systemic aspect collapsed, caste as an identity remained and it is this that fuels competition and politics in India today.

Questions we cannot ignore

There is an excellent essay on healthcare by noted development economist AK Shiva Kumar. It analyses why the healthcare system, as it has evolved in India over the past 70 years, has not been able to effectively meet the needs of the people. With the Modi government’s proposed health reforms and Ayushman Bharat on the anvil, Shiva Kumar’s insights and comment that “it is important for India to firmly, and not half-heartedly, embrace the concept of Universal Health Coverage” becomes particularly relevant.

The chapter on “Sustainable, Productive Agriculture” by Ashok Gulati and Gayatri Mohan offers serious research and asks important questions, such as: “Is it sustainable to have paddy cultivation in Punjab?” One key message of the essay is that there is going to be no sustainability in agriculture without judicious use of water through appropriate water-pricing policies and adoption of precision irrigation technology like micro-irrigation. This is a must-read chapter. The government’s own think tank Niti Aayog recently released the results of a study warning that India is facing its “worst” water crisis in history.

Amitendu Palit, one of the editors, has an essay on ‘Jobs in India’. He makes a point which has been made earlier about automation and displacement but bears repeating: “Unlike in the past, idle labour can no longer be absorbed, except for short cyclical bursts, through expansionary development programmes for building infrastructure and enhancing public goods. Sooner, or later, these programmes and projects would also be forced to reorganise into more automated managements entailing lesser employment and fewer jobs.” That of course will have its set of side-effects, but must be planned for.

The editors admit in the preface that despite the depth and range of issues covered in the book, there are gaps. One glaring gap is the subject of women. None of the 25 essays deals directly with the achievements of women in the past seven decades, and the huge challenges that still remain. Perhaps another compilation of essays from the duo can remedy that.

Seven Decades of Independent India: Ideas and Reflections, edited by Vinod Rai and Amitendu Palit, Penguin Viking.

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