Engagement with contemporary history can be a knotty, and sometimes naughty, business. The object of study is optically too close for one to get an un-blurred perception of it. It teeters dangerously into current politics and does not have the advantage of judging events in the light of the consequences that flowed from them. Therefore historians generally keep away from such slippery zone. Yet the temptation is difficult to resist, because it is a ‘happening history'. Sumit Ganguly and Rahul Mukherji have dared into this realm of present-past and dealt with it in a manner that is marked by conviction and felicitous ease, producing a book of substance.
India's ‘biography' of the last three decades has been presented as the story of revolutionary changes in foreign policy, economic transformation, political mobilisation, and the fortunes of secularism.
India's nonalignment-based foreign policy, according to the authors, was quaint at best, and hypocritical at worst. After the end of the Cold War, it lost its relevance. India has since altered the policy texture, if not the rhetoric. It has developed closer ties with Israel, without spurning Arab friendship. Its relationship with Pakistan has seen everything — from active to proxy warfare; diplomatic growling to sabre-rattling and nuclear one-upmanship; and the not-infrequent assurances of mending fences to peace breaking out. In the authors' view, troubles with Pakistan reflect a structural fault that runs across the political landscape of the subcontinent and is related to the unfinished business of Partition. India's relationship with China, has been fluid, linked as it is with its economic and military might as well as with the Chinese stakes in the subcontinental politics, not to speak of the memories of 1962. India has reordered its ties with Southeast Asia, proclaiming its role in the Indian Ocean littoral. Its relation with the United States has, since the days of the Cold War, largely been a ‘balancing exercise'. This changed dramatically when India crossed the nuclear Rubicon, although the country did not quite suffer the diplomatic isolation it was threatened of being consigned to.
The economic transformation India has been going through comes in for high praise. There has been a major shift from the interventionist and “overly dirigiste, favouring ‘custodialism' over ‘husbandry'” to deregulation and free market economy, ushering in an economically vibrant India. The authors give full credit to Prime Ministers P.V. Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh for tiding over the 1991 crisis and bringing in this big change. They are, however, alive to India's poor record in areas such as power generation, rural employment, literacy, and health care.
On the socio-political mobilisation front in the post-Emergency era, Ganguly and Mukherji identify the rise of lower castes putting an end to dominance by the upper castes as the definitive feature that robustly redefined Indian democracy. But, they say, it has come at a price — populism; institutional decay; triumph of group rights over individual rights; the unhealthy, even if unintended, consequences of reifying caste; and so on.
Of all the transformations, the most alarming has been the one related to ‘secularism'; the shift away from that salutary principle has nudged India into illiberal sectarian politics. The authors refer to three “deliberate choices that undermined the secular order”: Indira Gandhi's courtship of a violent Sikh fundamentalist preacher; Rajiv Gandhi's move to nullify a critical verdict of the Supreme Court on Muslim personal law; and the failure of Narasimha Rao to save the Babri Masjid.
The price India has had to pay for unleashing communal politics is too well known to need recall. Often, in the face of political exigency, lofty principles are given short shrift and less than honest acts are drowned in empty rhetoric. The authors are apprehensive of the BJP's virulent anti-secularism, even while being conscious of the Congress' softer versions of it which the party comes up with as a counter to the BJP's line in the political arena.
Indian political scene has several promising features, such as judicial activism, a proactive Election Commission, and a vibrant media. There have also been challenges of managing development in such a way that the benefits do not turn into a Barmecide feast to the common man. The authors are critical without being partisan but hopeful that India can redeem itself. After all, democracy needs to be self-critical without becoming diffident of its ability to function effectively. The book conveys that message clearly.