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Ancient and modern: India at 50

What grade does the free state deserve? A middle second class, says Bhikhu Parekh: The Idea of India by Sunil Khilnani, Hamish Hamilton, pounds 17.99
Independent India's 50th anniversary offers a good opportunity to assess its achievements and failures. Its territorial integrity remains intact; unlike the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia it has defied all predictions about its disintegration. Democracy has struck roots: its brief suspension in the Seventies was decisively ended by a determined electorate. Liberalism, too, is deeply inscribed in India's major institutions, and the country remains firmly committed to individual rights.

It has so far elected two Muslim and one Sikh presidents, and has elected or appointed minority representatives to the most sensitive positions. After initial panic, the country has learnt to live with and even cherish its differences. Its cultural life displays remarkable vitality and its literary achievements have won international acclaim. When both the New Yorker and Granta devote special issues to English- language writing in India, Indians can rightly feel proud.

But India's failures are as depressing as its achievements are impressive. Nearly a third of its people live below the poverty line, and just over a third are illiterate. Although the hideous practice of untouchability was declared unlawful within two years of independence, it persists in subtle and crude forms. Some of India's minorities feel insecure, and fear the worst if the Hindu nationalists come to power - as seems increasingly likely.

Indian politics is heavily criminalised and thrives on corruption. The large middle class wallows in shallow consumerism and lacks a social conscience. India's higher education is in a shambles, and its creative output in philosophy and the social and natural sciences meagre. Its deeply colonised consciousness remains parasitic on the West. Overall, independent India's performance merits a middle second class.

How are India's successes and failures related, and how can they be explained? Sunil Khilnani's elegant and well-argued book addresses these and related questions. Although at places hurried and inconclusive, and somewhat over- committed to the modernist project, he tackles them with erudition and insight.

In Khilnani's view, India began well under its first prime minister. Jawaharlal Nehru was convinced that India needed a strong state both to hold the country together and to give it a coherent identity. He knew that the state had to be democratic, secular, culturally plural and committed to industrialisation. Accordingly he devoted his considerable energies to building up state institutions, consolidating the Congress Party, successfully selling his pluralist vision to the masses, and giving the new state popular legitimacy.

For Khilnani, Indira Gandhi's long rule represented a change for the worse, though not without redeeming features. She split Congress, politicised state institutions, undermined federalism and revived religious and caste identities. Relying on crude populist appeals, she undermined the role of mediating institutions and equated democracy with simple majority rule. Her economic strategy was incoherent, weakly implemented and heavily mortgaged to the cause of her own survival.

However, Mrs Gandhi's populism had the ironic consequence of deepening democracy. Once people were told that they were the ultimate and unmediated source of power, they used it in every way they could to pursue their goals. For Khilnani, Mrs Gandhi's successors - including her son Rajiv - lacked even such vision as she had, and were largely content to stay in power by sectional appeals and devolving power to the regions. When the Indian economy became virtually bankrupt in the early 1990s, they turned to liberalisation as a panacea without much thought as to how it affected the poor and sucked the country into the global economy.

For Khilnani, unrestrained liberalisation, the rise of Hindu nationalism, pressures for a one-dimensional national identity and the failure to appreciate the centrality of the state constitute the major dangers facing the country today. He rightly suggests that the answer lies in a pluralist vision of India committed both to respect for its deep diversity and to coherent economic development.

Much of what Khilnani says is persuasive and deserves attention. I was disappointed that Nehru was not located in the modernist tradition, which had begun to develop from the early decades of the 19th-century onwards. As a result, he appears to come from nowhere and seems more original than he really was.

Although Khilnani is right to stress the importance of the state and democracy, he uncritically accepts the Western understanding of them and misses the complex ways in which Indians have given them distinctly Indian forms. As for Hindu nationalism, its belated entry on the scene needs an historical context. For nearly 25 years, Nehru's secularism was a regnant doctrine. Neglected and despised visions of Indian identity predictably struck back at the first available opportunity, with a militancy that augurs ill for the country. If they are to be tamed, the Nehruvian vision needs to be broadened and deepened.