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India article for the brave – the adverse effects of Nehru’s rule

London Review of Books has this massive essay about India after Nehru that might take a while to finish but is worth it to understand this complex country. India is often portrayed as this crazy, enchanting place which is the world’s largest democracy. Articles like this help clear up why exactly India is so full of problems and isn’t exactly a shining beacon of democracy and third world greatness. The essay is not full of exotic or sunshiney stuff, but bleak, blunt commentary on modern India. The writer also sheds some light on Jawaharlal Nehru, or more accurately rakes him over the coals.

Nehru was India’s first leader and is considered a giant among 20th century statesmen. The dapper Cambridge-educated Nehru, father of Indira and grandfather of Rajiv, is admired for leading India as a democracy through its rocky, violent beginning after Partition that led to Pakistan, and being a leader of the third world, especially the nonaligned movement that refused to ally with the US-led Western nations or the Soviet bloc.

Nehru is also known for having been deeply affected by the China-India border war when China pushed into India and gained control of a piece of land called Aksai Chin. The sources I’ve read before about this paint China as the aggressor, and Nehru as the idealist who was so stunned by this that he died soon after (one and a half years later in 1964). This article points to the ambiguity of the MacMahon Line, which the British drew up in 1914 to mark India’s border with China, and which China never agreed to; and also that India itself had pushed forward beyond the border. Furthermore, while China is often criticized for moving into Tibet and absorbing it in the 1950s, Nehru was ruling the disputed state of Kashmir with an iron fist, fiercely indignant that Kashmir would be part of India, regardless of what its people wanted. Up to this day, Kashmir is still full of tension and violence. The very far eastern part of India, the one that’s connected to the rest of India by only a thin piece of land, is awash in separatist movements and violence, though this is hardly covered by Western media.

The bulk of this article casts blame on Nehru and even Mahatma Gandhi for several of India’s current problems, including the Kashmir insurgency, India’s religious problems, and caste. Many of us have heard of the caste system in India, where people are born into castes which classifies them for life. It’s an antiquated concept that goes against modern ideals, but in India, the writer asserts, caste is still very important in Indian society, in fact “caste, not class, is what counts most in popular life”. It not only prevents the masses from really banding together to challenge the government, but it’s hardly touched upon by the media or academia.

Not surprisingly, a direct comparison with China is made with India coming out the worse:

“In India cultivable land is 40 per cent more abundant than in China, but on average agricultural yields are 50 per cent lower. The population is younger and growing faster than in China, but the demographic dividend is not being cashed: for ten million new entrants to the labour force each year, just five million jobs are being created. The greatest economic success of the past twenty years has been achieved in IT, where firms of global impact have emerged. But its employment effect is nugatory: less than 2 per of the labour force. Even in high-technology industries, average labour productivity appears to be little more than a third of Chinese levels.”

The writer also gives a provocative stance on the legitimacy of India’s political system compared to China:

“Comparing India and China from another angle, one of the most lucid political minds of the subcontinent, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, has observed that in the People’s Republic, where there is no democracy, communist rule is based on output legitimacy: it is accepted by the masses for the material benefits it takes great care to deliver them, however unequally. Whereas in India, democracy allows just the opposite – an input legitimacy from the holding of free elections, that thereby excuses the political class from distributing more than confetti to the masses who have elected them.”

There are two other India articles from this same author on Mahatma Gandhi and Partition, which are just as long and probably as provocative. I haven’t read them yet but will do soon.

In spite of all this, I still find India to be a deeply fascinating country, with all its issues and charms, that I would like to visit.

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