The Idea of India by Sunil Khilnani [A Review]

The Idea of India is an elegant explanation of the political state of the modern democratic republic of India and how it came to find itself in the state it is in. It is a concise analysis of the causes of innovation, destruction, survival and compromise within a democracy without historical precedent or contemporary equal. Despite the seemingly overwhelming obstacles and threats, Khilnani remains optimistic of the idea of India.

Cover image of The Idea of India by Sunil Khilnani

As you may hope, The Idea of India is not a long book. Given the book’s title and aims you would hope for something definitive, well-argued and concise. The body is divided into four main parts titled ‘Democracy’, ‘Temples of the Future’, ‘Cities’ and ‘Who is an Indian?’. Yet its body is even narrower than it looks on the shelf, for this 2012 edition contains three Introductions, a Preface and an Epilogue! Through most of the book, Nehru looms large as the central icon of Indian democracy. While other leaders of India’s independence movement had their own ideas of what form India’s post-Independence government would take, it would be Nehru’s vision, for various reasons, that would come to dominate, at least for a time and with limits.

In the second Introduction, for the 2003 edition, Khilnani concedes that no one idea can capture all Indians, but this book will try to make an argument for one idea that allows other ideas to emerge.

Yet, if India is to remain itself, global interconnection will need to be balanced by a deepening sense of Indianness, one that can think and act beyond the aggressive assertion of a monochrome selfhood. The Idea of India is an attempt, by means of a long-range historical perspective to bring that central ground into focus.

In the first section, on democracy, Khilnani seeks to answer the question of how democracy arrived in India and what its impact has been. He starts by arguing against nationalist and post-colonial myths which try to argue that pre-colonial India contained the foundations for democracy or that it was a parting gift from the British Raj or that the transition to liberal democracy was provided by the Congress Party. His description of the political structure of pre-colonial India was one of the early treasures of this book – in all my reading of India to this point, I had never read someone describe this aspect of this period so well. In contrast, the arguments against democratic influence from the Raj or Congress were more difficult to make.

Instead, Khilnani’s explanation is that India’s democracy emerged out of political contingency – not quite an accident of history, but not a clear doctrinal plan of action either and certainly not from whatever ‘retrospective mirage’ some have endorsed.

In the rest of this section, Khilnani covers the tests, challenges and crises India’s democracy has endured since independence – Partition and territorial disputes; creating a constitution and citizenship rights; the non-alignment policy and relations with neighbours; Nehru’s death and succession crisis. The impact of these tests are also discussed and, probably for this reason, Indira Gandhi’s time in power makes up a significant portion of the section. Though I sensed Khilnani was a little defensive of Indira, laying blame for the excesses of the Emergency period on others.

The effect of these challenges on Indian democracy, in Khilnani’s reporting, seem to be almost entirely negative. Territorial issues remain unresolved; politicians are focused on winning elections not governing or keeping promises; political fundraising is unchecked and corruption is rife; political violence has risen. Despite all this, democracy in India has survived, even thrived, although, paradoxically, it has done so to the benefit of populist and authoritarian political movements. In this, Khilnani is in large agreement with others I have read on the subject, such as Maria Misra in her Vishnu’s Crowded Temple.

What has protected India […] is not some innate Indian virtue or cultural uniqueness. Rather, it is the outcome of political invention, the intricate architecture or constitutional democracy established by India’s founders.

That constitutional democracy has prevented monolithic outcomes in India. It has stalled zealots in their tracks, penned demagogues into their corrals, taken the wind out of populist sails – just as it has frustrated and slowed more positive or desirable outcomes. But it is the crucial, under-recognised value of such a system: its capacity not to achieve the good, but to prevent the worse.

In Part Two – Temples of the Future, Khilnani analyses India’s economic progress. Khilnani says India’s 1950’s dream of becoming an industrial giant did not come to pass. India is in fact one of the world’s largest producers of manufactured goods, but well behind the top 5 which includes other Asian countries – Japan, South Korea and, of course, China.

Khilnani lays out the factors to blame for India’s underperformance. One was the strong voices opposed to industrialisation and materialism, favouring spiritualism and believing poverty will disappear with colonialism. Meanwhile, those who favoured industrialisation lacked capital and those with capital lacked interest, given they could earn well without industry. These differences were reflected at the political level as well, enhanced by the rise in power of the regions who were even less interested in industrialisation. But the biggest roadblock, according to Khilnani, was land reform. A process other Asian countries achieved to their great benefit, but which Nehru could not or would not push through. Policies Nehru did attempt did not succeed but only created a massive bureaucracy which would become another source of resistance to change to add to India’s entrenched culture and social order.

After discussing more policy failures in the remaining years of the Nehru government, Khilnani moves on to discussing the factors that led to an Indian financial crisis in 1991. These included a state whose productivity was stagnating, increased defence spending to deter China and Pakistan, failed monsoons and the subordinating of long-term economic planning in favour of electoral necessities. There were some successes during this period, such as the avoidance of the impact of 70’s oil shocks and a green revolution that made India’s food supply more independent. But the protectionism, the control on the banking sector, the reliance on cheap foreign loans, could not be sustained and economic liberalism was forced on India when bailed out by the IMF.

But liberalisation did not provide the benefits Indians hoped for. Deficits, debt, corruption and inflation remained high. Yet, there is an argument to be made that democracy and liberalisation created the environment for private enterprise and regional political parties to provide solutions where the state, civil service and technocrats failed.

In Part 3, Khilnani turns his attention to India’s cities. He discusses their history, the contrast of pre-colonial cities with the cities of the Raj and post-independence cities. A common theme is how India’s cities continually defy the intentions and expectations of who would wish to direct them. For example, the cities produce their own politics which are far from what was intended, and peace is maintained between different religions and castes through mutual indifference rather than mutual respect.

Khilnani devotes some space to discuss planned post-colonial cities such as Chandigarh before inevitably diving into that ‘commercial and cultural capital, a totem to modern India’; Bombay. In particular, how the image of Bombay differs from its reality, how its demographics altered with Partition and the impact this has had. Khilnani also contrasts Bombay with Bangalore – a city that has experienced rapid growth through non-traditional industries that has become a gateway for foreign corporations and investment into India and a technical workforce immigrating from India.

Khilnani also covers the rise of India’s small towns; a recently developed form between the village and the city. These, say Khilnani, are thriving on rural surpluses and small industries and have a distinct culture but lack infrastructure and, crucially, police.

In Khilnani’s final section, he seeks to answer the question of Who is an Indian? The problems are significant. Modern India, it can be convincingly argued, is an invented nation with no historical precedent. It contains a multitude of religions, sects and castes; a dozen major languages with thousands of local dialects; a myriad of ethnic and cultural communities. There is no unity to be found in these sources. What Indians do have in common is shared narrative structures – epics, myths, folklores; a family resemblance in art, architecture and religious motifs. All this leaves Indians both weakly united and weakly divided.

But over the past generation the presumption that a single shared sense of India – a unifying idea and concept – can at once define the facts that need recounting and provide the collective subject for the Indian story has lost all credibility. […] One benefit is that we can now see how those situated at different locations in Indian society have produced their own distinctive conceptions of the nation. But the costs have been heavy.

Khilnani analyses various Indian attempts at dividing Indians further – such as Hindu and Muslim Nationalist efforts – and of attempts at Indian unity such as Gandhi’s vision and especially Nehru’s, ambitiously articulated in his The Discovery of India. Despite real and perceived failings of Nehru’s vision – a secular vision that India’s very religious population felt was being imposed on them; a multicultural vision without historical precedent – Khilnani argues India owes much of its survival to Nehru’s vision.

That was its most important trait: it did not monopolise or simplify the definition of Indianness. For all the political vexations visited upon it, it could claim success: India, an ungainly, unlikely, inelegant concatenation of differences, after fifty years still exists as a single political unity. This would be unimaginable without Nehru’s improvisation.

The common point in each of these chronological sections is the resurgence of Hindu Nationalism. In contradiction to other unifying ideas of India, the BJP’s one, according to Khilnani, is to make India culturally and legally uniform and to use state power to achieve it. But its success is being undermined by the rise of regional power which is pluralist, unique and based on different historical, political and economic experiences. At their extreme, they also give voice to separatist movements which, Khilnani admits, are not without merit but are, in many cases, impractical. But as well as thwarting the BJP, regional power also prevents the implantation of national policies from the central government for, for example, environmental policies.

Reconciling these differences, Khilnani says, will take considerable skill and imagination. India, he says, is fragmenting into three identities – an Anglicised metropolitan elite, a huge Hindi-speaking middle class and vernacular regional cultures. He closes by giving readers reasons for hope for the commitment to an idea of India and reasons for scepticism.

There is always a feeling with books like this that the author is on a hiding to nothing. India’s culture is so politicised, so argumentative, that every man and his dog will be lining up to discredit any attempt to compose a book such as this regardless of merits of the ideas it contains. Meanwhile, Westerners and other non-Indians may wonder what they could gain from reading this book.

As to the second question, Khilnani has some answers – that the direction and progress India takes is relevant to the West, in fact, in India’s present the West may witness its own future.

[…] the odd twist is that India’s present may actually contain more than a premonitory hint of the West’s own political future. The themes and conflicts that animate India’s politics today have a surprisingly wide resonance – the assertion of community and group rights and the use of democracy to affirm collective identities; the difficulties of maintaining large-scale, multi-cultural political unions; the compulsion to make democracy work despite economic adversity, to sustain democracy without prosperity. The older democracies might recognise that each of these stands uncomfortably close to their own doorsteps.

As to the first question, I don’t doubt that politicisation explains many of the criticisms levelled at this book. Are those criticisms fair? It is difficult for me, as a non-expert, to answer. I did look at some negative reviews of this book and found them unpersuasive. Certainly, if a critical take down was written with the eloquence, appeal to evidence, scepticism and persuasiveness of The Idea of India, it would warrant serious consideration, but I am not sure such a dismantling exists. Instead, what I see is common ground between Khilnani and other authors I have read and praise for this book from Indian historians, journalists and politicians whose names would be familiar to readers on India. Further, Khilnani appreciates the nuances of his topic frequently throughout the book – the alternative evidence and explanations, the merits of opposing arguments. It deflates the simplistic criticisms without compromising his conclusions.

Faced with India’s scale, diversity and sheer complexity, this book is necessarily fiercely selective. Its treatment of events and personalities is dictated by larger thematic and interpretative concerns.

Context matters when reading a book whose subject matter is fluid. The Idea of India was originally written in the mid-90’s when India was emerging from an economic crisis and into an identity crisis that this book was addressing. Since then, there has been a Global Financial Crisis which generated doubts about market capitalism including the very changes that were previously forced on India in the early 90’s. This is what Khilnani discusses in his third Introduction, for this 2012 edition. In a premonition of our current times, Khilnani points to a looming crisis in democracy where it has stalled in the West, has been rejected by Russia and China and is increasingly viewed in India as an impediment.

Speaking of such issues, there is a temptation to compare India and China for some obvious reasons. Given China’s rapid economic advance relative to India’s there is an equal temptation to come to simple conclusions of the merits and weaknesses of democracy vs autocracy. Is India’s democracy the reason its economic progress lags China’s? Does respect for human rights and the political will/whim of the people come at such a large economic cost?

In principle – and after Nehru – in practice, the choice came to be posed simply: either democracy had to be curtailed, and the intellectual, directive model of development pursued more vigorously (one of the supposed rationales offered for the Emergency of the mid-1970’s); or democracy had to be maintained along with all its cumbersome constraints, and the ambition of a long-term developmental project abandoned.

It is not a question this book sought to answer directly, yet it inevitably shows the flaws in the thinking behind such layman questions. Instead of comparing India to China, a comparison to the achievements of Japan and South Korea changes the perspective of the entire question.

The exercise of democratic rights has averted any recurrence of that terror of British India, famine. The last famine to devastate the subcontinent was in 1943, when distribution failures and inaction of the part of the British Raj killed three million people in Bengal. Independent India has acted decisively to forestall food emergencies, and an uncensored press and free parliamentary opposition have been vital to concentrating the minds of governments to this end. (China, where information was suppressed by a one-party state during the famines of the late 1950’s – in which it is estimated up to thirty million people may have died – is a telling comparison.)

I have very little to say critically about The Idea of India. One outstanding question I did have at the end concerned the factors working for and against India’s regional politics and separatist movements versus its central government and national unity. Given the threats India faces from Pakistan and China, is not national security a strong factor for national unity and against separatism? Does the situation of Kashmir serve as warning to separatism, that states which pursue it would inevitably be fought over by powerful neighbours?

I would also point out that despite the scale and complexity of the issues India faces, identified in The Idea of India, Khilnani maintains a quiet optimism throughout.

In India the idea of democracy has released prodigious energies of creation and destruction. Democracy as a governmental form will no doubt suffer the vicissitudes to which all human institutions are prey. But as an idea, as a seductive and puzzling promise to bring history under the command of the will of a community of equals – a promise that, given the inevitable gap between intentions and consequences, can at best only hope for partial fulfillment – it has irreversibly entered the Indian political imagination. A return to the old order of castes, or of rule by empire, is inconceivable: the principle of authority in society has been transformed.

I learned a great deal from this small book, it broke a lot of myths and my own assumptions and blew my mind several times, including in the epilogue which covered such topics as the lingering influence of Partition, India as an ultimate test of Western ideas, the inevitability of democracy and its precarious viability. Khilnani’s appreciation of nuance and complexity behind the issues and ideas he is investigating are perhaps the book’s greatest strength. Its hidden achievement is in the skill of writing to deliver so much to think about in a small concise book.

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