Sunday, April 6, 2014

'Rogue Elephant' By Simon Denyer

About the Author: Simon Denyer Bureau Chief, China at The Washington Post


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.

The  book is also available on Flipkart