THE IDEA OF INDIA by Sunil Khilnani Hamish Hamilton pounds 16.99

Rural Karnataka provides a polychrome canvas of what the Victorians loved to call "the unchanging East", an inert Orient petrified into an eternal blend of grandeur and decay, primitiveness and ancient learning. Scenes resemble pictures from a child's Bible: men pushing wooden ploughs behind pairs of oxen, women bearing earthenware vessels on their heads, carrying water home from the wells in the evening. They have been doing this for thousands of years, and they look as if they have a few centuries still to go.

But have they? Not according to the pundits and their armouries of statistics. Once again India is ready for "take-off", and this time, they say, it really will become airborne. Billions of dollars are being invested in her businesses; her middle class is now immense (about 140 million people); and she has the world's greatest number of listed companies on her stock- market - 7,985 compared to the Americans' 7,671. Bill Gates has predicted that it will become the next software superpower, and has apparently identified the southern Indians as the world's "smartest" people after the Chinese.

The traveller in rural India has difficulty in assimilating this. What is the use of computers for people who sleep on the roadside and have not enough to eat? How does software "trickle down"? Anyway, where are these middle-class millions? You don't see many of them in towns and villages, and they can't all be in Bangalore.

Sunil Khilnani is sceptical about India's economic prospects, pointing out that recent liberalisation has led to enormous corruption, and arguing that even a high growth rate, if unaccompanied by coherent social policies, will exacerbate inequality without reducing poverty. But he is no pundit anxious to set down answers. The aim of this short and brilliant book is to explain, not to predict, to show how India has reached her present position, her idea of herself, and to indicate the strengths and weaknesses she carries after 50 years of independence. As an interpretative essay on a vast subject, it is difficult to praise too highly. Perhaps one might regret its concision, the compressed allusiveness that could have been diluted by more examples, but it is undeniably a work of great intelligence, a book that manages in the space of 200 pages to identify, unravel and explain many of the complexities of modern India.

The author's "idea of India" is a fluid concept, based on Nehru's vision and much amended, in varied and sometimes bewildering directions, since the great man's death. He doesn't bother much with the imperial angle (ie, without Britain India would never have existed) or the nationalist view (a people unchained, seizing the future, etc). At the apex of the idea sits democracy, which Khilnani insists was not a gift of the departing British, although he admits that the Raj established (rather late in the day) the principle of representative politics. Britain's more conscious legacy was the concept of the state, which had scarcely existed in the pre-colonial subcontinent, and which made it possible for the Indians to invent themselves as a national community ready and willing to take it over. Once they had done so, their anglicised urban elite was able to deliver democratic government to a people who had not asked for it. Of such paradoxes and confusions is modern India made.

Jawaharlal Nehru, whose biography Khilnani is writing, emerges as the crucial figure in this book. As India's first and greatest prime minister, he was able to impose his fundamental ideas and values on a sometimes recalcitrant populace: democracy, religious tolerance, planned economic development and cultural pluralism. Aware of the potential dangers - especially from those wanting their nationalism based on Hinduism and the Hindi language - he insisted on what Khilnani calls an "intricate, pluralist definition of Indianness", on seeing India as "a space of ceaseless cultural mixing". Nehru had failures both abroad (the war with China in 1962) and at home, inflicting on his country a heavy industry that was incompetent, expensive and environmentally destructive (in this respect, as the author points out, Gandhi demonstrated a "deeper ecological sense and a prescient grasp of the relationship between modern man and nature"). Yet they remain dwarfed by the sheer magnitude of his achievement: the creation of what the author rather breathlessly calls a "bridgehead of effervescent liberty on the Asian continent", together with the "establishment of the state at the core of India's society".

No one undermined Nehru's idea of India more then his daughter, Indira Gandhi. Although she cannot be blamed for all of India's contemporary problems, she can be identified with some of the worst of them. Her centralising policies and her treatment of provincial governments led to regionalism and secessionist movements; at the same time her bending of constitutional rules so weakened the established democratic process that now, as Khilnani notes, "the meaning of democracy has been menacingly narrowed to signify only elections." A third problem, the invasion of politics by caste and religious identification, is the most lethal of all. Hindu nationalism, that "new monster on the political landscape", was responsible, among other things, for "the most piercing assault ever faced by the Indian state", the destruction by militants of the mosque at Ayodhya on the grounds that the god Ram, seventh incarnation of Vishnu, had been born there 900,000 years ago.

Indian democracy now is a lot more brutal than it was in Nehru's day. In Bihar, for example, one MP has admitted that no one can even contest an election without a hundred gunmen at his side; in 1992 no fewer than 33 members of the State Assembly had criminal records. Such evidence suggests that India's democracy resembles Lebanon's gangster politics before the civil war. But although he recognises such defects, Khilnani remains optimistic about the future. The establishment of a democratic India was remarkable in itself, an improbable achievement in a caste-ridden society embedded in a continent where similar experiments have been notoriously unsuccessful.

How surprised the Victorians would have been! Aware of how poorly representative institutions were functioning even in Italy, they could not conceive of them taking root in the heathen, despotic, unchanging Orient. But the resilience and the continued existence of India, "an ungainly, unlikely, inelegant concatenation of differences", persuade Khilnani that it can survive as a single political entity. The Indians still have faith in politics, and "the idea of India displays a remarkable tenacity".

This excellent book is permeated by a sense of ambivalence, inevitable perhaps with this subject, maybe inevitable also with an Indian writer educated and now working in Britain. The author's dispassion is rather alarming - reminiscent at times of those 19th-century figures who wrote about India or administrated her from Whitehall without ever feeling the need to leave England - but it may be an advantage in the study of an idea which owes so much to Britain's connections with India. And it is useful too in a discussion of Nehru, whose ideas were so strongly influenced by encounters and collisions with the West.

In one of his few digressions, Khilnani illustrates Nehru's personal ambivalence by describing the building of Chandigarh, Le Corbusier's monstrous new capital of the Punjab. Anxious to demonstrate his country's place in the modern world, the prime minister rejected traditional architecture and selected the Swiss megalomaniac to build a multiple carbuncle on the north Indian plains. Fortunately, Le Corbusier's handiwork did not entail the destruction of an existing town. But it was bad luck on the Punjabis who, after losing Lahore to Pakistan, were forced to settle in the unfinished concrete of Chandigarh.

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