When I arrived in India in February 2004, the country stood on the cusp of an exciting new era. The government led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) proclaimed that India was ‘shining’, the tourism ministry declared it was ‘incredible’, and the nation’s self-confidence seemed irrepressible. The economic reforms begun more than two decades before had pushed aside the suffocating red tape of India’s quasi-socialist controlled economy, and unleashed the country’s formidable entrepreneurial spirit.
India was changing in front of my eyes, as gleaming shopping malls selling the latest Western brands sprang up across its major cities. The streets of New Delhi were packed full of cars, and a growing middle class was gorging itself on luxury imported goods unimaginable in the old days of Indian ‘self-reliance’. Mobile phones were flying off the shelves and reaching into some of the remotest rural corners of the country. The economy was growing at more than 8 per cent a year, foreign investors were flocking to its shores, and the boom had given the nation a huge dose of self-confidence. India was being talked about in the same breath as China, not just as an unmissable emerging market opportunity but as a potential superpower in the making.
Ironically, the ‘India Shining’ slogan was credited by some for losing the BJP the election in April and May of 2004, because it had left hundreds of millions of rural poor feeling excluded. Yet the idea behind it lived on. A coalition led by India’s grand old party, Congress, came to power. The party’s choice of prime minister was the man who had started the ball rolling as finance minister back in 1991, the ‘father’ of India’s economic reforms, Manmohan Singh. The promise of a golden era beckoned. For several years, economic growth continued to impress, and when the Western world reeled under its worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, India merely shrugged off the bad news and kept on going.
The narrative was powerful. For the international media, it became distinctly unfashionable to report on the ‘old India’ of child brides and malnutrition, of caste and slums. Foreign journalists flocked to India, unearthing stories about India’s fast-growing middle class and changing lifestyles, subjects far more appealing to foreign editors eager to ‘capture the change’. In India, one leading newspaper proclaimed that India was officially no longer a poor country, not because poverty was falling, but because it boasted four of the world’s ten richest billionaires. Around the world, newspapers, commentators and politicians scrambled to proclaim the dawn of ‘India’s Century’.
In 2006, George W. Bush arrived in New Delhi to sign a landmark deal between the world’s two largest democracies, developing nuclear power for civilian use, proclaiming that ‘the partnership between our free nations has the power to transform the world’. Four years later, Obama called that accord ‘one of the defining partnerships of the twenty-first century’.
And so India re-entered the Western consciousness, and not just for its supposed mysticism, poverty and snake charmers. At Reuters, the global news agency where I ran the India bureau at the time, we hired dozens of new reporters to satisfy the demand for business news. When Slumdog Millionaire won eight Oscars, friends in Washington threw a Bollywood party. At Reuters we launched an Indian website and hired a Bollywood reporter.
In 2009, Singh won a second term in office, at the head of another coalition government. Then, just as India started to preen itself, just as its self-confidence took on a distinct edge of cockiness, the dream fell apart.
Where Beijing had wowed, charmed and slightly scared the world with its ruthlessly efficient Olympics in 2008, two years later India invoked scorn and not a little pity with its chaotic preparations for the Commonwealth Games. These games, a smaller version of the Olympics, invite fifty-four countries to compete in twenty-one different sports, ranging from athletics to lawn bowls, from swimming to rugby. Yet instead of advertising India’s rise, the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi proved a public-relations disaster. Just days before its opening, child labourers were photographed installing seats in the Games’ flagship Jawaharlal Nehru stadium, while outside the stadium a footbridge collapsed injuring thirty people. But it was the filth and lack of hygiene in the apartments at the athletes’ villages that most shocked the outside world. Building grime and debris littered the bathrooms even as officials arrived to inspect the accommodation, with pools of water in bathrooms and human excrement reportedly found in one sink. Stray dogs foraged freely in piles of rubbish outside the athletes’ apartments. The Scottish team proclaimed their accommodation ‘unfit for human habitation’, while one British newspaper summed it up bluntly: ‘India’s games stink’.
Yet it was the stench of corruption that really sickened many Indians. A twelve-day event that had been hailed as India’s opportunity to showcase its arrival on the world stage served instead to uncover its politicians’ supreme ability to steal. Government auditors were to conclude that more than $400 million was wasted from a total budget of some $2 billion.4 The accounts also revealed a trail of rigged tenders and vastly inflated bills that ranged from $80 for individual rolls of toilet paper to $514,000 for a bandstand that was never even built.
Then, a few months after the Commonwealth Games in 2010, an even more damaging scam broke over the nation, striking at one of the most emblematic industries of the new India.
In the decade from 2002 to 2012, the number of mobile phones in India had grown from 6.5 million to 900 million. Today far more Indians own mobile phones than have access to toilets. But, as it turned out, government licences to operate telecommunications’ bandwidths had allegedly been given away at rock-bottom prices in return for hundreds of millions of dollars of bribes. When the government’s independent auditor investigated, he concluded that the episode had cost the exchequer tens of billions of dollars in lost revenue.5 The telecom industry was supposed to be a prime example of the rich pickings found in India’s vast and expanding consumer market. Instead it became a prime example of how the government’s almost insatiable greed could tarnish even the most shining of success stories, and a caution to foreign investors of the perils of doing business here.
These scams, eagerly gobbled up by India’s now-dominant television news channels, seemed to do more than damage India’s image abroad. They seemed also to undermine India’s self-belief. The government froze. Its inability to make decisions was magnified only by the fear of making the wrong one, or of being associated with corruption. If graft could not be eradicated, the system’s only defence against these allegations was to seize up completely. Partly as a result, long-overdue reforms to liberalize the Indian economy further – to sort out labour relations and regulate the way that farmland is acquired for industry, to allow in more foreign investment, and to expand India’s overloaded infrastructure with more roads, power plants and ports – were delayed or derailed.
The reforms enacted by Singh in 1991 had not just unleashed two decades of economic growth, they had also generated a consumer and information revolution. They had led, in other words, to what some economists call ‘a revolution of rising expectations’, as India’s people sought to throw off the narrow confines of class and caste and take their place in the modern economy. But economic progress had also placed huge new demands on the Indian state to deliver. It was no longer enough for India’s government to get out of the way of the private sector, as it had started to do in 1991; it now needed to build the physical infrastructure and nourish the human capital, as well as provide the governance and regulatory framework, required to support that economy.
In that task, the Indian government has largely failed. Today, the Indian state seems stuck decades in the past, while the private sector strives to remain on the cutting edge of twenty-first-century progress. As the second decade of that century opened, India’s economic miracle began to fade. Growth slowed and foreign investors began to re-evaluate their initial enthusiasm.
As the gap began to yawn wider between the Indian people’s aspirations and its politicians’ ability to deliver, frustration gathered. In 2011 a nationwide movement against corruption brought hundreds of thousands of people, many of them members of the traditionally politically apathetic middle class, onto the streets. They were organized through Facebook and Twitter and encouraged by television anchors who began to see themselves as crusaders for change. As the Arab world rose against its dictators and military rulers that year, so the youth of India experienced their own collective epiphany: that they could demand more from their rulers, and that tolerating corruption with a shrug and a grumble was no longer enough.
But that movement, and beyond it the general mood, also contained a deep sense of despair about the nature of democracy. The leaders of the India Against Corruption movement asked whether parliament, made up of India’s elected politicians, could any longer be trusted to make the nation’s laws. Many ordinary citizens asked the same question. Could a democracy that was so corrupted really satisfy the fast-growing aspirations of its people?
Polls showed that a majority of middle-class Indians felt that democracy itself was an obstacle to the country’s economic progress,6 and some even looked enviously towards the apparent certainties of China’s one-party, pro-growth dictatorship.
I had arrived in India from a previous posting in Pakistan, a country feeling its way in the post-9/11 world under the military dictatorship of General Pervez Musharraf, and been immediately intrigued by India’s insanely complex democracy. I had interviewed the BJP’s deputy leader Lal Krishna Advani on board his orange campaign bus as he toured southern India, I had met Congress leader Sonia Gandhi, as well as her children Rahul and Priyanka, as they campaigned in their traditional strongholds in Uttar Pradesh. I had watched, enthralled, as the world’s largest exercise in democracy unfolded in the spring of 2004, in four phases, across 700,000 polling stations and four weeks.
In the years that followed, I’d had plenty of time to ponder India’s unique democracy. I had visited the insurgency-racked states of Kashmir, on the country’s northwest border with Pakistan, and of Manipur, on its eastern border with Myanmar, and I saw first-hand what happens when democracy is mangled and manipulated. Strangely, those trips gave me a greater respect for the benefits democracy brings to the heart of India. I had seen politicians failing to honour their promises, but I had also seen voters getting their revenge, mostly at the ballot box.
In 2007, on the sixtieth anniversary of India’s Independence from Britain, I’d thought long and hard about the nature of democracy here, as I talked with a charming elderly gentleman about the horrors of Partition.
His name was Ranbir Rai Handa, and he had been just fourteen years old when he was pitched into the madness of Partition, forced to flee his hometown of Lahore on a train travelling from newly independent Pakistan to India. What he saw when he arrived in Amritsar on 14 August 1947 still kept him awake at night. Thousands of Muslims, men, women and children, all waiting to take a train in the opposite direction, slaughtered before his eyes, killed, stabbed and beheaded. Three or four trains full of Muslims were due to leave for Pakistan that day. None of them did. ‘I saw Muslims being burnt alive, thrown onto bonfires, I saw bodies, I saw blood, I saw many things,’ he told me over a cup of tea at his New Delhi home. ‘The madness that very first day could have finished everybody.’
About 12 million people, Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus, fled for their lives during Partition. Almost a million died. Entire trainloads of dead bodies crossed the border in both directions. In 1931, Winston Churchill had warned that if the British left India, majority Hindus would gain ‘the armed ascendancy’, public services would collapse and the country would fall back rapidly ‘into the barbarism and privations of the Middle Ages’. Introducing democracy to a country as poor, diverse and divided as India was described by one sceptical newspaper editor as ‘the biggest gamble in history’. At the time, it must have seemed a particularly bad bet.
And yet, those dire warnings had not been borne out. Despite the violent orgy of its birth, India had survived and even begun to prosper, as the world’s largest democracy and a broadly secular state. The historian Bipan Chandra had summed up for me neatly at the time. ‘Despite the country being partitioned, and so much bloodshed, India became a secular, democratic country,’ he told me. ‘I think that is one of the greatest achievements of modern times.’
India is a nation of almost unimaginable diversity, whose Hindu majority is stratified and divided into a thousand castes and sub-castes that were supposed to define every person’s identity and place in society. But it is also home to the world’s third-largest Muslim population, as well as Sikhs, Christians, Jains and Buddhists. It boasts twenty-two official languages and many more dialects, many with mutually unintelligible scripts, and myriads of peoples with different traditions, value systems and outlooks. In its cities, beggars bang their withered limbs on the windows of luxury imported cars, while densely packed slums lurk within sight of modern office blocks. It is a land whose IT industry stands at the forefront of the twenty-first century, but whose villages sometimes seem stuck in a far-distant past. To put it another way, there are many forces that divide India, from caste to class and economic inequality, from language to religion. All have caused conflict, sometimes brutal slaughter, and yet none have changed the map of India that had been drawn – in haste by the rapidly departing British – in 1947.
Aside from my reporting, I owe much of my understanding of India’s democratic achievements to Ramachandra Guha’s magisterial history India After Gandhi. Guha, a historian and political commentator, is the leading chronicler of Independent India. As he points out in his book, the real success of modern India is political, not economic. It remains to be seen if India can transform its software success story into more general prosperity, he wrote. ‘But that India is still a single nation after a testing 60 years of independence, and that it is still largely democratic – these are the facts that should compel our deeper attention.’
For all its faults, democracy has provided a crucial pressure valve during the past six-and-a-half decades that has preserved a broader peace. Indeed, India’s very diversity, where people of different religions, castes and even languages are thrown together in its vast cities, may have been a source of strength. There was, in a sense, no other way to live in peace. Compromise is a way of life in a nation where no one sect or group could reign supreme.
Democracy has also given voice to the voiceless of India: the media may still be captured by the elites, but political power has increasingly been grabbed by representatives of the underprivileged, allowing one of those treated as ‘untouchable’ – a member of the lowest rung of the caste system, and a woman too – to be elected as a chief minister of the country’s largest state. Politicians may not always have delivered much to their electorates, but the poor at least had the chance to turf them out of office every five years – an opportunity they often embraced enthusiastically. Nor should we forget the freedom of speech that Indians cherish, one of this nation’s greatest strengths that seems to sustain its vigour.
Today, a pan-Indian feeling has grown even as regions have reasserted their own identity, while the exuberant cinema of Bollywood and the national obsession with cricket have become strong cultural glues.
Over that cup of tea, Handa had told me that he still remembered the Muslim and Sikh families who helped his parents during the Lahore riots of 1947, including his family’s Muslim driver who returned unbidden to risk his life by driving their car and belongings across the border to India. Today his daughter is married to a Muslim, a fact that Handa delights in, just as he takes deep pride in secular India.
If Indian democracy is a miracle, much of the credit has to go to India’s first batch of post-colonial leaders, especially Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru,7 the upper-class and urbane British-educated lawyer who devoted his life to the Indian nationalist struggle, was a close friend of Mahatma Gandhi although a very different character, and ended up becoming the newly independent nation’s first prime minister. People like Nehru, his much more down-to-earth deputy Vallabhbahi Patel and B. R. Ambedkar, the Dalit leader who chaired the immense effort to draw up a new constitution for India, will be remembered as the giants of Indian democracy, the men who built and defended the institutions upon which a nation was founded.
The British had left behind not a unified nation, but a patchwork of territories, some ruled directly by the Raj, others indirectly through a variety of chiefs and princes. There were more than 500 so-called ‘princely states’, ranging from the size of a European country or American state to just a collection of villages, and many of the Maharajas, Nawabs, Nizams and other potentates who ruled them began to dream of their own independence from New Delhi. Patel was ably backed by his sharp secretary V. P. Menon, and the pair somehow convinced the collected ‘princes’ to come on board in the building of a new nation that would see their privileged roles dismantled. True, the Hindu ruler of the Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir vacillated, only joining India after tribal raiders from Pakistan invaded and backed him into a corner, while the Muslim ruler of Hindu-majority Hyderabad in the south held out until Indian troops invaded in 1948. Yet from this patchwork rose a new united nation of India.
The crafting of India’s constitution was a scarcely less formidable obstacle to overcome. Nehru supplied and stoutly defended his idea of a secular nation where every citizen would be entitled to vote and minorities would feel secure and protected, a powerful vision that has been central to the preservation of India’s nationhood ever since. Ambedkar presided over a three-year drafting process and a constituent assembly that contained more than 300 members. The members were almost as diverse as the nation itself, but somehow they gave birth to a document of 395 articles and 8 schedules, probably, according to Guha, the longest constitution in the world. The assembly resisted a temptation to replace the English of the erstwhile colonial rulers with Hindi as the national language of administration, a move that would have threatened the smooth absorption of India’s non-Hindi-speaking east and south. It also resisted a call to introduce reserved seats for Muslims, a move that again would almost certainly have cemented divisions rather than removed them. But Dalits or untouchables, the victims of thousands of years of discrimination at the foot of India’s powerful caste system, were to have reserved seats set aside for them in legislatures and jobs reserved for them in government.
The India that grew out of this phenomenal effort was proud and progressive, with the state at the helm of a new industrialization policy. Its economy stuttered along for decades, at a modest pace of expansion that became dismissively known as the ‘Hindu rate of growth’, yet arguably it still did more to dignify its people and advance their literacy and health than any government operating on this soil had ever done before. Thanks to Nehru, it drew together other developing nations into a position of ‘non-alignment’ between the antagonistic blocs of the Cold War world. It was a nation that went to war three times with its arch-rival Pakistan, twice over Kashmir, which had been divided and a source of tremendous friction ever since that Pakistani incursion was repulsed. It went to war once with China, and subsequently has never lived comfortably with its northern neighbour. Yet it kept its own army firmly out of politics, setting itself apart from Pakistan.
Nehru and his cohorts were immensely popular in the years that followed Independence, yet they resisted the temptation to allow broad popularity to slide into one-party rule or to undermine the checks and balances of a democratic system. It was a temptation that other post-colonial leaders from Ghana to Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka to South Korea and Indonesia, all succumbed to.
Such was the aura surrounding Nehru that his family have come to dominate Indian politics in the five decades since his death. But if Nehru helped to build and defend the institutions of democratic India, the same cannot be said for his daughter and ultimate successor, Indira Gandhi (whose husband Feroz was, incidentally, no relation to the Mahatma). She had been selected by Nehru’s Indian National Congress party to become prime minister two years after her father’s death in 1964, because senior leaders thought she would be would be weak, a ‘mute doll’ in the words of one senior figure, who would be easy to manipulate.
She proved exactly the opposite, the ultimate Iron Lady of Indian politics who ruled ruthlessly and centralized power remorselessly, effectively dismantling intra-party democracy within Congress in the process. She had tremendous charisma and a natural connection with the poor, and is remembered with affection and awe by many Indians to this day, but her socialist economic policies were far from a success.
In 1975, faced with a judicial challenge to her rule, and a popular nationwide protest against her government, Indira Gandhi showed her authoritarian teeth, suspending democracy, jailing opposition leaders, curbing free speech and imposing emergency rule. It remains Indian democracy’s darkest hour.
Yet even by then, less than three decades after Independence, democracy had taken root in India, and Indira’s attempt to uproot it proved futile. Two years after the start of the Emergency, as the period is now best known, Indira was forced to back down, and was thrashed at the polls.
Indira, with her signature shock of grey hair nestled among the black, was to be voted back into office three years later, and then assassinated by her own Sikh bodyguards in 1984, in the midst of a Sikh insurgency, and after ordering Indian troops to clear out the insurgents from their religion’s holiest shrine, the Golden Temple in Amritsar.
The story of the Gandhi dynasty, of Indira’s son Rajiv, prime minister from 1984 to 1989 and also assassinated in 1991, his Italian-born widow Sonia, who overcame her reluctance to get involved to become, today, the most powerful figure in Indian politics, and their son Rahul, the dynasty’s crown prince, will be told in more detail later in this book. Together, the family has ruled India for more than half of its post-Independence history, and their tale is intimately entwined with the story of Indian democracy, for good and for ill.
India has changed dramatically since the days of Nehru and Indira, even if its villages sometimes still seem to be mired in the Middle Ages. Gone are the socialist strictures that held it back, even if the bureaucracy is still infuriatingly overexacting; gone is the old-fashioned distaste for business, even if its politicians still make a show of wearing modest handspun cotton. Today’s India is characterized by a scramble for wealth and a desire to flaunt it. But the debate over Nehru’s legacy remains alive: what remains of his ambitious vision for the world’s largest democracy?
Those who see the glass half-full argue that India’s credentials as a secular democracy have been challenged at every stage of its post-Independence history and passed the test. Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination in 1948 at the hands of a Hindu nationalist extremist robbed the nation of its father and its conscience, yet India survived. Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984 triggered vicious anti-Sikh riots that killed 2,700 people in violence that was said to be aided and abetted by local Congress politicians and even the police. The nation’s secular fabric was sorely tested again by the rise of the Hindu right in the 1990s and communal riots in Gujarat in 2002 that killed 2,500 people, most of them Muslims. Yet two years later the Hindu right was thrown out of power and into retreat after the 2004 elections in which 400 million people took part. Democracy and the nation survived, and peace was largely regained.
Those who see it half-empty argue that merely keeping India together is no longer nearly enough. Under democracy, corruption and cronyism have flourished, criminality has entered politics, and caste divisions have become important political markers. The institutions meant to support a modern, lawful democracy have been seriously undermined, from parliament to the police force, from the judiciary to the bureaucracy. In their place has grown up a vast network of patronage and vested interests, of corruption and nepotism. The gap between rich and poor is yawning ever wider, and hundreds of millions of people scrape out lives of terrible poverty and deprivation, even if they bear their suffering with incredible strength. A Maoist insurgency in central and eastern India is pulling poor, tribal Indians away from democracy and towards a violent resolution of their problems. At the same time, gulfs are growing between politicians and the business elite, politicians and the middle class, politicians and the growing mass of young people.
These pessimists see a state responding to its people’s anger and scrutiny in ways that remain rooted in the past: cracking down on protests, censoring social media, and sometimes just shutting down. With bureaucrats now scared to make decisions, lest later they be called upon to justify them, they see a state that has frozen like a deer in headlights.
Those who see the glass half-empty see middle-class Indians withdrawing from India’s broader society, focusing narrowly on themselves and their own families. They see them seeking private education for their children, private health care for their families, travelling privately in their own cars, and living in gated, guarded communities. They see the self-exile of a growing middle class that is unprecedented in global history.
But those who see the glass half-full see an unprecedented awakening of India, enabled by an Information Revolution. They see young people who care about the future of their country, and activists who are fighting bravely – using the tools and institutions of democracy – to forge a better nation. They note that India’s people are now demanding transparency, accountability and efficiency – and the extension of opportunity to more than just the exalted few. They see India’s more and more powerful private sector also demanding coherent decision-making, the rule of law and a complete overhaul of the country’s overburdened infrastructure. They see voters demanding more from their elected politicians, and rewarding those who respond. This is the story of that awakening.
The present era feels like a pivotal moment in India’s modern history, a time of change when the old ways have broken down. It is time to ask whether democracy will deliver. Will India emerge, like China, as an economic and diplomatic powerhouse? Will India come even close?
By the summer of 2013, the power unleashed by the economic reforms of Manmohan Singh two decades before had completely dissipated. Economic growth was sinking below 5 per cent a year, and inflation rising towards 10 per cent. Exports were contracting, the current account deficit widening and foreign investors scrambling for the exit. The rupee fell by more than 20 per cent in just the first four months to a new all-time low against the dollar in August 2013, and talk of crisis rent the air. The New York Times proclaimed that the Indian economy stood ‘in disarray’, with worse still to come.11 Singh’s own reputation was in tatters.
In the course of this book, I will trace not just Manmohan Singh’s fall from grace, but democracy’s broader malaise, as corruption and nepotism seemed to gnaw at its very soul. But I will also trace India’s awakening from that democratic slumber, as the power of television, information technology and good old-fashioned grassroots activism try to harness the power of popular frustration and turn it to good use. We will meet people all over India fighting for change, sometimes in the glare of the national spotlight, sometimes in the shadows. We will ask what lies in store for the world’s largest democracy, who might lead it, and in which direction.
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