Amid the popular ferment that forged an Italian nation out of a congeries of principalities and statelets in the nineteenth century, the novelist Massimo Taparelli d'Azeglio memorably wrote, "We have created Italy. Now all we need to do is to create Italians." Oddly enough, when the British pulled down the Union Jack in 1947, no Indian nationalist succumbed to the temptation to express the same thought-"we have created India. Now all we need to do is to create Indians."

Such a sentiment would not have occurred to the preeminent voice of Indian nationalism, Jawaharlal Nehru. India's first prime minister would never have spoken of "creating" India or Indians, merely of being the agent for the reassertion of what had always existed but had been long suppressed. Nonetheless, the India that was born in 1947 was in a very real sense a new creation: a state that made fellow citizens of the Ladakhi and the Laccadivian for the first time, that separated Punjabi from Punjabi for the first time, that asked the Keralite peasant to feel allegiance to a Kashmiri Pandit ruling in Delhi, also for the first time. Creating Indians was, in fact, what the nationalist movement did.

After all, this was the India that Winston Churchill had once dismissed as "a geographical expression"-a land that was "no more a single country than the Equator." Churchill was rarely right about India, but it is true that no other country in the world embraces the extraordinary mixture of ethnic groups, the profusion of mutually incomprehensible languages, the varieties of topography and climate, the diversity of religions and cultural practices, and the range of levels of economic development that India does. The Indian nation is not united by a shared ethnicity (it incorporates almost every conceivable racial type), a common language (it has at least 17, according to the constitution, or 35, if one counts all languages spoken by more than a million people), or a single religion (India is home to every faith known to mankind, and Hinduism, the majority religion, itself reflects the country's diversity).

And yet India is more than the sum of its contradictions. It is a country held together, in the words of Nehru, "by strong but invisible threads . . . a myth and an idea, a dream and a vision, and yet very real and present and pervasive." That nebulous quality is what the analyst of Indian nationalism is ultimately left with. It is an idea-the idea of India. But what is that idea? Nehru articulated it as pluralism vindicated by history, seeing the country as an "ancient palimpsest" on which successive rulers and subjects had inscribed their visions without erasing what had been asserted previously. A generation of nationalist historians echoed him, making "unity in diversity" the most hallowed of independent India's self-defining slogans.

In the 1950s and 1960s came the skeptics, almost all based abroad, who began to take scalpels to this sanctified idea of India. Nirad Chaudhuri, the iconoclastic author of The Continent of Circe and other volumes of largely autobiographical social commentary, excoriated India's nationalist presumptions and what he saw as its civilizational inadequacies.

V. S. Naipaul, a descendant of Indian indentured laborers in the Caribbean, visited his ancestral homeland and chronicled his disappointment in An Area of Darkness and the even more savagely negative India: A Wounded Civilization. A host of Western writers portrayed the problems and limitations of India's modernization as portending the imminent breakdown of the nation and the inevitable collapse of its political institutions. Despite the doomsayers-and there were many who predicted India's disintegration well before the twentieth anniversary of its independence from British rule-the country survived, withstanding political, military, and economic challenges. By 1990 Naipaul was writing in celebration of the "million mutinies" through which Indian diversity was working to transform the democratic society he had so recently been prepared to write off.

How did India preserve and protect a viable idea of itself in the course of the last 50 years, while it grew from 370 million people to 970 million, reorganized its state structures, and sought to defend itself from internal and external dangers, all the while remaining democratic? Explaining this is central to the task taken on by Sunil Khilnani, the author of The Idea of India, a title probably borrowed from Amartya Sen's celebrated lecture at Oxford in 1993. "Reflective and incisive nonfictional interrogations of India's distinctive modernity have yet to be produced," Khilnani claimed recently, setting the stage for his own work. This comment was-as I informed the editor who offered me this review-in a dismissive notice of my own book, India: From Midnight to the Millennium. Though I mention this to declare an interest, I rather like Khilnani's slender volume, an amiable disquisition on Indian modernity structured as four essays on democracy, political economy, urbanization, and Indian identity.


"This book," Khilnani tells us in his introduction, "is an initial venture into the task of retelling the political history of independent India." The qualification is necessary; Khilnani competently organizes a series of reflections on well-worn themes, and despite the occasional lapse into the turgid prose that afflicts all political scientists, generally does so with style. Style is central to both the pleasures and the pitfalls of his narrative. Khilnani is charmingly self-indulgent, fond of sweepingly colorful generalizations. (The Government's Planning Commission is a "retirement home for the socially benevolent," whatever that may mean.) His penchant for sweeping one-liners is fetching in an academic-who can resist a chapter that begins with the sentence "India in the 1950s fell in love with the idea of concrete"?-but he cannot resist an epigram, even when it is more witty than wise. "Like the British empire it supplanted, India's constitutional democracy was established in a fit of absent-mindedness," he declares, ignoring the overwhelming weight of evidence to the contrary in nationalist literature.

Khilnani tells us he is working on a biography of Nehru, and he is sound on the lasting contributions made to the Indian state by that remarkable man, whose extemporization of Indianness remains an enduring legacy to so many Indian liberals. A highly self-aware scholar, Khilnani ends his book with an assertion of the value of Western political theory and a useful if contentious bibliographical essay that students of Indian politics will appreciate. But the unwary should be warned that Khilnani's glibness sometimes trips him up. Any reader of Mahatma Gandhi's autobiography knows that he did not "discover" vegetarianism in Holborn; Nehru was never a head of state; Chandigarh is not "400 kilometers north of Delhi," which would put it in Kashmir; the Mughals entered India in 1526, not 1528 (this would be like a British historian placing the Battle of Hastings in 1068). This sort of carelessness is disconcerting, for it undermines the reader's willingness to take some of the author's more esoteric suggestions seriously. For instance, Khilnani attributes the existence of "less stark inequalities" in the Indian state of Kerala to its "own cultural forms of matrilineal property inheritance"-a dubious proposition at best, since not all Kerala communities are matrilineal and inheritance per se has few redistributive implications, but one made worse by being wholly unsubstantiated.


More important, Khilnani's exegesis on Indian modernity inadequately examines its failures. Nehru's legacy to India was a mixed one. It consisted of four major pillars-democratic institution-building, staunch secularism, nonalignment, and socialist economics. The first two were indispensable to the country's survival; the third (not examined by Khilnani) preserved its self-respect and enhanced its international standing, though without bringing any concrete benefits to the Indian people; the fourth was disastrous, condemning the Indian people to poverty and stagnation and engendering inefficiency, red-tapism, and corruption on a scale rarely rivaled elsewhere.

In the five decades since independence, Indian democracy has failed to create a single Indian political community. Instead, we have become more conscious than ever of what divides us: religion, region, caste, language, ethnicity. The Indian political system has become looser and more fragmented. Politicians mobilize support along ever-narrower lines of political identity. It has become more important to be a "backward caste" Yadav, a "tribal" Bodo, or a sectarian Muslim than to be an Indian. This is particularly ironic because one of the early strengths of Nehruvian India-the survival of the nationalist movement as a political party, the Congress Party serving as an all-embracing, all-inclusive agglomeration of the major political tendencies in the country-led to this situation by undermining the evolution of a genuine multiparty system. Had the nationalist movement given birth to, say, three parties-one right of center, one social democrat, one communist-a culture of principled and ideological contestation might have evolved in India's polity.

Instead the Congress Party's dominance stifled this process, and opposition to it (with a few honorable exceptions, like the pro-free enterprise Swatantra Party between 1959 and 1974) was largely based on the assertion of identities to which the Congress was deemed not to have given full expression-regional, religious, or caste-based. With the increasing weakness of the Congress, politicians have been tempted to organize themselves around identities other than party (or to create parties to reflect a particularist identity).

A distinctive feature of the Nehruvian legacy was its visionary rejection of India's assorted bigotries and particularisms. The Nehrus-displaced Kashmiris-were, by upbringing and conviction, completely secular. Not only did Indira Gandhi marry a Parsi, but her daughters-in-law were an Italian Christian and a Punjabi Sikh. The one strand of political opinion Nehru and his offspring abhorred was that of Hindu religious revivalism. Nehru himself was an avowed agnostic, as was his daughter until she discovered the electoral advantages of public piety. All four generations of Nehrus in public life remained secular in outlook and conduct. Their appeal transcended caste, region, language, and religion, something impossible to say of any other leading Indian politician. There could be no starker indication of the end of Nehruvianism than the fact that, 50 years after partition and independence, religion has again become a key determinant of political identity. Demolishing a mosque they say stands on a Hindu holy site, denouncing what they decry as the appeasement of minorities, clamoring for office and power for their "saffron brigades," Hindu revivalists have assertively attempted to convert the religion of the "majority" into a badge of Indian identity.

If the Nehruvian version of democracy is discredited, democracy itself is not. Amid India's myriad problems, it is democracy that has given Indians of every imaginable caste, creed, culture, and cause the chance to break free of their lot. There is social oppression and caste tyranny, particularly in rural India, but Indian democracy offers the victims a means of escape, and often-thanks to the determination with which the poor and oppressed exercise their franchise-of triumph. The significant changes in the social composition of India's ruling class since independence, both in politics and in the bureaucracy, are proof of democracy at work, but the poor quality of the country's democratic political leadership in general offers less cause for celebration. India's rulers increasingly reflect the qualities required to acquire power rather than the skills to wield it for the common good. Pluralist democracy is India's greatest strength, but its current manner of operation is also the source of its major weaknesses.

These new developments are ensuring a dramatic transformation of Indian society, but they imply another idea of India than the one in which the Nehruvians rejoice. The workings of Indian democracy have served to create and perpetuate India's various particularisms. The Hindu-Muslim divide is merely the most visible, but that within Hinduism, between caste Hindus and the former "untouchables," and now between the upper castes and the lower intermediate castes known as the "backwards," is actually transforming Indian society in ways the founding fathers did not anticipate. Caste, which Nehru and his ilk abhorred and believed would disappear from the social matrix of modern India, has not merely survived and thrived, but has become an instrument for highly effective political mobilization. Candidates are picked by their parties with an eye toward the caste loyalties they can call upon; often their appeal is overtly to voters of their own caste or sub-caste, urging them to elect one of their own. The result has been the growth of caste-consciousness and casteism throughout Indian society. In many Indian states, caste determines educational opportunities, job prospects, and governmental promotions; all too often, India's unique brand of affirmative action means you cannot go forward unless you're a "backward." Whether through elections or quotas, political mobilization in contemporary India has asserted the power of old identities, habits, faiths, and prejudices, which suggests a more complex form of "modernization" than that implicit in Khilnani's essays.


In economics, too, the Indian idea described by Khilnani is fading. Self-sufficiency and self-reliance were the twin mantras of Nehruvian India, which shackled itself to statist controls that emphasized distributive justice above economic growth, stifled free enterprise, and discouraged foreign investment. The Government's reasons were embedded in the Indian freedom struggle: since the British had come to trade and stayed on to rule, Indian nationalists were deeply suspicious of foreign investment. (One of the lessons history teaches us is that history often teaches us the wrong lessons.) "Self-reliance" thus became a slogan: it guaranteed both political freedom and freedom from economic exploitation. The result was that for most of the five decades since independence, India pursued an economic policy of subsidizing unproductivity, regulating stagnation, and distributing poverty. We called this socialism.

Socialism, Indian style, was a compound of nationalism and idealism. It was the conviction that items vital for the economic well-being of Indians must remain in Indian hands-not the hands of Indians seeking to profit from such activity, but the disinterested hands of the state, the father and mother to all Indians. In this kind of thinking, performance was not a relevant criterion for judging the utility of the public sector: its inefficiencies were masked by generous subsidies from the national exchequer, and a combination of vested interests-socialist ideologues, bureaucratic management, self-protective trade unions, and captive markets-kept it beyond political criticism.

The "permit-license-quota" culture of statist socialism allowed the ruling politicians to use politics as a vehicle for self-gratification. Over the years India has overflowed with the sort of professional politicians the educated middle classes have come to despise, sanctimonious windbags clad hypocritically in homespun who spouted socialist rhetoric while amassing uncountable-and unaccountable-riches. Of all this, there is very little in Khilnani's book. His admiration for the Nehruvian project is boundless: Rajiv Gandhi, the impatiently modernizing prime minister, is mentioned precisely three times, whereas P. C. Mahalanobis, the socialist advisor to Nehru's Planning Commission, gets a fulsome seven pages, including the titles of the "technically striking but intellectually rather listless" papers he published as a statistician in the 1930s and 1940s.

In fact, India's misfortune, in Jagdish Bhagwati's famous aphorism, was to be afflicted with brilliant economists. And clamorous politicians: for every group claimed a larger share of a national economic pie that decades of protectionist economic policies prevented from growing. It is sadly impossible to quantify the economic losses inflicted on India over four decades of entrepreneurs frittering away their energies in queuing for licenses rather than manufacturing products, paying bribes instead of hiring workers, wooing politicians instead of understanding consumers, and getting things done through bureaucrats rather than doing things for themselves. The penny, or rather the paisa, finally dropped in the major financial crisis of 1991, which forced the Government to let sweeping dogmas die and to adopt new policies. India's economic liberalization since then has often seemed hesitant, but its essential repudiation of Nehruvianism now seems irreversible.


"The idea of India," Khilnani concludes, "has been constituted through struggles to balance contrary pulls in a coherent political project, to respect the diversities of culture with a commitment to a common enterprise of development." This unexceptionable proposition rests on an idea of India as, in essence, an ever-ever land, the product of a long history, a wide geography, and a short memory. This India is a plural nation, where diversity is as natural as sunshine and there is no alternative to democratic coexistence. The stresses and strains of competing identities are real. In pluralist India, it is essential that each citizen feels secure in his or her identities. But Indians have come to understand that while they may be proud to be Muslims or Marwaris or Mallahs, they are secure in these identities only because they are also Indians. It is their larger national identity that gives them the framework within which to work, trade, compete, and coexist with other members of the broader society, contend for political office, and feel safe behind defensible borders.

So the only idea of India that can work is that of one land embracing many. It is the idea that a nation may endure differences of caste, creed, color, culture, cuisine, costume, and custom, and still rally around a democratic consensus-on how to manage without consensus. It is an India open to the contention of ideas and interests within it and unafraid of the power or the products of the outside world.

Our founding fathers wrote a constitution that gave passports to their ideals. Where Freudians note the distinctions that arise out of "the narcissism of minor differences," in India we celebrate the commonality of major differences. If America is a melting pot, then India is a thali, a selection of sumptuous dishes in different bowls. Each tastes different, and does not necessarily mix with the next, but they belong together on the same plate, and they complement each other in making the meal a satisfying repast. Khilnani's four essays do not culminate in quite so direct an explication of his title. Yet his somewhat uneven, decidedly partial, but intelligent and readable book reveals that he belongs in a congenial camp, among those who cherish an idea of India as a land that safeguards the common space available to a medley of identities-an India that remains safe for diversity.

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  • Shashi Tharoor is the author of The Great Indian Novel and other works of fiction. His most recent book is India: From Midnight to the Millennium.
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