Engagement with India’s past and the present


A brilliant engagement with a familiar theme, but creatively and provocatively revisionist in mood and intent

THE REDISCOVERY OF INDIA: Meghnad Desai; Allen Lane. Penguin Books, 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110017. Rs. 699.

Since Jawaharlal Nehru wrote his talismanic book, independent India has repeatedly sought to discover itself, and its 60th birthday has been a big occasion to choreograph the nation’s past and present which has allowed every expression of narcissism, playful cynicism, and ready hypothecation to ideologies.

Meghnad Desai’s Rediscovery of India is a brilliant engagement with a familiar theme, but creatively and provocatively revisionist in mood and intent. Desai’s lordly public image with two sides — one linked to London and the other to New Delhi — comes across in his perception of India and in the way he wants it to be in the global context.

The book posits that India today presents a picture of a well-functioning economy and dysfunctional politics, and that its problem lies in a flawed understanding of its own history. “Like a patient with a psychological problem, India needs to revisit its birth traumas as a nation.” More explicitly, India would integrate with the new globalised capitalism better, only if it corrected its understanding of its colonial experience and the way it conceived its nationhood. In this, he sees no place for the country’s old, misty history.


Beginning with Vasco da Gama’s expedition, Desai proceeds to evaluate India’s transformation under British colonialism. He has less to say about the economic exploitation by the colonisers than about the precious lessons imparted by them. But the fact is that the conquest and the subordination it imposed had made India suspicious of foreign trade and foreign capital and it needs to be exorcised. He argues that India’s territorial definition as well as its political/constitutional training and ambitions were crafted by the British, but the heady consciousness of nationhood was not inclined to acknowledge it.

Desai rejects the monochrome nationalist projection of a ‘righteous fight’ against monolithic imperialism. Hence there is less of nationalist agitation than of negotiating intentions, posturing, or frustrations. The Mahatma’s idiosyncratic presence is not missed, nor are his missed opportunities. In his view, Partition was a “bad compromise but then none other was viable” and it was the handiwork of the haute elite, and not of the subalterns, with the masses playing “the role of a Greek chorus.” At the end of it, the author says, Jinnah, “the bad boy,” was “sent off with a moth-eaten state,” while the Congress got “what it wanted, but continued to complain that they were robbed of their cherished dream of a united India.”

It is argued that politics during the Nehru years was driven by the objective of upholding national unity and it was sought to be achieved by working on a ‘golden triangle’ of sorts, with a revolutionary political commitment to parliamentary democracy, a conservative avoidance of social reforms, and a reformist economic policy based on planning and state initiative for economic development, forming the three sides.

On Emergency

Desai, who is largely critical of Indira Gandhi and her imperious ways, calls the Emergency as an expression of hubris and a defiance of “all norms of constitutionality and decency,” a regime in which Sanjay Gandhi “built his own version of gangster rule.” On the other hand, Rajiv Gandhi is credited with a change of vision about India’s economy. His “lasting legacy,” says the author, is that India has been jolted “out of the Fabian socialist/East European state capitalist cul-de-sac.”

In his touch-down to the contemporary experiments and changes, Desai surveys India’s transformation under economic liberalisation and the challenges of competing nationalisms. He believes that India of today has to break free from the shackles of history that made it define its nationhood as a unitary narrative of either secular or Hindutva stripe. India is indeed a “multi-national polity” that has proved itself over the past six decades and has the strength to celebrate plurality and freedom.

The book makes felicitous reading, even while prodding the reader to question the received notions of history and politics. History has use for the counterfactual, but the author’s penchant for it sometimes clogs the narration. He rejects both nationalistic romance and Leftist superstitions to remind India of its amnesiac debt to liberal (Labour) Britain, thereby heralding the return of a self-righteous colonial narrative. But overcoming one kind of amnesia may be an invitation to another, as freedom from one history could as well be surrender to another.

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