India After Gandhi: The History of the World's Largest Democracy

India After Gandhi: The History Of The World's Largest Democracy - Ramachandra Guha It's a slightly strange genre, these giant histories of the present. Comparing to the other two i've read - [b:The Fate of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence|185540|The Fate of Africa A History of Fifty Years of Independence|Martin Meredith||1077899] and [b:Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945|29658|Postwar A History of Europe Since 1945|Tony Judt||1979891] - this one takes the cake for sheer human scope: India just has more people than either Europe or Africa. This kind of thing is inevitably always only a skimming of the surface, even if it is 900 pages long. The point would have to be to find some shape to that surface, some grasping towards a unified theory of the thing.

Guha, however, has the benefit here of working with a continent-sized place which is a single country, so theres an order of magnitude more detail about Indian political history than about any single government in Europe or Africa. This is also kind of the book's downfall though. A political history of modern Indian is - seemingly inevitably - focused on the Congress Party. The Party is inevitably focused on the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. Despite the massive scope, the book feels a little thin at times. The cast of characters, so to speak, remains relatively limited.

Figures like Ambedkar or Vajpayee show up...kind of around the edges. I think - as someone totally unfamiliar with the issues - I would have appreciated more of a follow through of those ideologies and political currents, understanding more of how they interacted with and influenced rule, than another political shenanigan pulled off by Nehru et all. Theres just so much here that merely summing it all up is too much information already, but I still felt that somethng of the grand shape of things, even on the most superficial level, was still out of my sight. Regionalism, communalism, populism, language, caste, religon...they're all brought up and addressed often, but always circling around the straightforward linear narrative.

As a total aside, in a chapter about entertainment at the end, he mentions that the Independece movement always had a puritanical streak (and that Gandhi apparently never saw a movie all the way through!) That's fascinating to me. What happened to that? Where did it meet Indian society? How do these things carry through? Not that there isn't a solid effort to get at social history- there is, as well as technological, cultural and economic. All of it is fascinating and none of it is quite enough.

Maybe it's because I couldn't help comparing it to Israel at times. The scale is so ridiculously different, and yet there are familiar beats to the broad outline. The dates kind of line up (independence in 47/8, strong socialist centralization, first time opposition taking power in 1977, shifts into capitalism in the 90's along with rises of identity politics and hardening of secterian positions, etc.) and of course the usual questions of religion, communalism, democracy, identity, etc as issues. On the one hand, it kind of makes me feel a little more normal, to think that this is just the way these things play out. On the other hand, it's probably not a very good comparison and sent me looking for patterns that might not exist.

If there is a connecting thread that he attempts to follow through, it's the question of democracy on this vast - and varied - a scale. It's amazing to see some of the disdain the very notion of democracy in India was held in at the beginning. Could this many people, unconnected, uneducated, make meaningful political decisions? It jumped out at me, the occassional mentions of groups of people mired in poverty, still, as the years go by, into the 21st century, and I wonder if everything just went over them or if it mattered there. Well, they end up voting for populists and demagogues and sons-of and movie stars. So, they're pretty normal, really. I think the ultimate conclusion, despite Guha's final fairly complex and not unpessimistic assessment of the state of Indian democracy, is that it really, really matters.

Very recommended, even if it mostly raised more questions than it answered, for me.