Sumantra Bose in his book, Transforming India, looks at a different aspect of the country, which is contrary to what McKinsey had done in Reimagining India, which was more of corporate Indias views on new India. The latter focused more on economy, technology and social issues, with a bit of political commentary. It was based on personal impressions. But in Transforming India, Bose looks at the worlds largest democracy in a dispassionate manner. A large part of it is factual and historical, with no judgments being overtly passed. Therefore, if Indira Gandhi ruled with an iron hand and used the Emergency to thwart democracy, it has been narrated without emotion.
The first part of the book takes us through the political route, elaborating on political parties and their performance. The year 1989 was probably the turning point when the first government with alliances came in and there was a change in the style of governance. The Congress was dominant otherwise and while the communist parties ruled since the 1960s and 1970s in Bengal, and the DMK parties dominated in Tamil Nadu, the first sign of regionalism in the architecture of politics in India came when NT Rama Rao and his Telugu Desam Party assumed power. Today, several regional parties dominate in Jammu and Kashmir, UP, Bihar, Maharashtra and so on. This makes governments less stable, but there are counter-checks all along the way. The only Achilles heel for our democracy has been J&K, where there is still alienation to a large extent. To this, we can also add the north-eastern states, which have faced similar distance due to negligence. But, fortunately, while there have been insurgencies in some states, it has not reached the same proportions as in Kashmir.
The author traces the history of Kashmir and how conditions deteriorated mainly due to the machinations of Indira Gandhi, who wanted to oust Sheikh Abdullah. In fact, Bose does analyse the way in which the Congress functioned, and, in a way, shows that several divisions in the country were motivated politically by Indira Gandhi (Punjab) and Rajiv Gandhi (religion). Indira brought in Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who became a monster. Rajiv tried to woo Hindu voters by opening the doors of Babri Masjid and then made amends by placating Muslims by going against the Shah Bano judgment. Things, however, backfired in Sri Lanka, with the ghost returning to haunt him.
While there is focus on the Congress, as it has been the dominant power over the years, there is also a prejudice shown in representing Narendra Modi when talking of the Godhra riotstypical of views expressed by English writers. Therefore, while he pins the blame on Modi even though no court has convicted him so far, he still uses the term allegedly when referring to the train that was burnt by Muslims, which was the starting point of the supposed retaliation. But, one assumes authors have their own biases and interpretations, and hence can never be completely objective when describing events in history.
While most of these moves that were invoked by rulers, though Machiavellian, can still be taken to be a part of realpolitik, two chapters do set the reader thinking. The true strength of our democracy gets questioned when we look at Bengal and the rise of Maoism. Bengal has been discussed in detail and Bose starts the chapter with Singur, where the Tata Nano car project was strongly opposed. We normally get to read about how the TMC is anti-industry and why Modi should be applauded for welcoming the Tatas. But when one reads about what went on behind the scenes, where the poor were brutally displaced with the covert support of the CPI(M), there could be another strong view here. The conflict between the capitalist and farmer was never as glaring as in this case. This also explains why Mamata Banerjee strikes the right chord when she stands up for them.
It is the same when Bose talks of the rise of Maoism or the Naxalbari movement, which began in the 1960s. While it started as an ideological movement trying to ape the then-famous Mao model of China, it got transformed in the second stage to a movement that provided respect to the downtroddenespecially castes that were treated in the most inhuman manner. A movement that provides shelter and respectable living cannot be debunked as being a meaningless one. The rising support for this movement was partly on account of the failure of the state to provide the same solution to the downtrodden.
Transforming India leaves the reader thinking hard about the way our democracy is running. The concept of coalition politics is here to stay and we will have to work around it to make it work smoothly. The fissures that are stratifying society have to be tackled, probably not by force, which would only exacerbate animosity, but through reconciliation and integration. Equality and development are the obvious paths to follow and that is what we should aim at accomplishing.
Madan Sabnavis is chief economist, CARE Ratings