An attempt to analyse India’s constant failures since colonisation misses the larger picture
A file photo of workers at a steel factory in Khopoli, Maharashtra. Instead of going long back in history, the book would have fared better if the authors had just analysed post-independence economic policies and political developments to examine our current problems (Bloomberg)
India was a great nation once with a strong economy and a vibrant polity, boasting of great achievements in almost every field of learning. How, when, and why did we lose that greatness, and why have we never been able to recover our past glory? This is a very broad, complex question and is difficult to answer.
Meeta Rajivlochan, a bureaucrat currently serving as member-secretary of National Commission for Women, and M Rajivlochan, professor of history, Panjab University, attempt some answers with their expansive book examining historical reasons and offering a future blueprint for success.
How did India lose its greatness is a question which leads to several answers, depending on which class of writers one reads. If it is Marxist historians and scholars, the ancient period was evolutionary, the medieval period was of great achievement when a composite culture bloomed with high GDP, but everything was destroyed by the British. Post-independence, we did not fully become a socialist state and currently we are following neo-liberal economic policies almost as a stooge of the US, which is the cause of most of our problems.
If one reads nationalist scholars with rightward leanings, the ancient period was of great learning where the country excelled in everything, but due to disunity among the Hindus and weakening of the martial spirit, we fell prey to invasions, first by Muslims and then the British. The Muslim period was a dark period and the British, apart from exploiting us economically, also pulled us away from our roots, thus we forgot our ancient heritage. We failed to prosper post-independence also because we aped the western models, forgetting our Hindu way of life.
Both the versions are full of holes and the authors could have delved into these aspects and examined the historical causes in great detail, which would have made the book a great work of history. However, that is not the case.
For examining our current problems, there was no need to go very long back in history. An analysis of just post-independence economic policies and political developments, or rather compulsions, would have been enough. If the authors would have done this, it could have been a fine work on public policy. They haven’t done this either.
The book begins by examining why we lost to the East India Company, a subject already rich in historical literature and analysis. The authors haven’t added anything new here nor have they been able to draw from the rich works already available. Their simple contention is that the British traders knew how to keep information and use it productively for business and had state support in every form. Quite in contrast, Indian businessmen were not good at information keeping and analysing it to further their business, plus the state also never helped in propagation of business, remaining content in just getting its revenue share. It gives details of how our traders and even rulers connived with the British and French for their benefits, as our state did nothing.
While it is true that not only business but even other forms of governance were very different in, say, Britain and France in 18th century and India, but to reduce it to a very micro phenomenon of some information keeping and seeing it as a cause of decline is like saying that coronavirus has afflicted us today because of a loss in our moral character.
The fact is that 17th century onward the western world saw developments in fields of society, politics and economics, which was a break from the past and it finally led to the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century which changed the entire landscape. The formation of nation-states and empires led to a kind of imperialism, with nations looking for colonies to secure their raw materials. India around this time under the Mughals may have been building great monuments, but was totally cut off from the world and was oblivious of global developments. There was no concept of a nation-state here and, therefore, to put it simply, the coming of the East India Company was a clash between a modern civilisation and a medieval one in which the former was bound to win. However, the authors have failed to analyse such broad global and local trends.
Even if the authors failed in rich historical analysis, they could have made up for it in the post-independence analysis of our missing the bus with regards to economic development. However, instead of analysing our wrong economic policies under Nehru and more so under Indira Gandhi, the liberalisation of economic policies but failure to go full steam because of political reasons, the book picks up some silos from the realms of management, science, education, etc, and tries to link it with our earlier failure in information keeping. The entire stress is on something called information management and how the key to success lies in improving it.
The solutions, offered for India to become great once again, read like a complete laundry list which has been put forth in typical bureaucratic style. From education to economy, taxation to trade, almost everything has been bunched together to prescribe the way forward. The list reads like reports by some chamber of commerce or a consulting firm.
All in all, a disappointing book which lacks content, direction, and narrative. It does justice neither to history nor to public policy.
Book Details: Making India Great Again: Learning From Our History by Meeta & Rajivlochan Manohar Publishers Rs 1,495, Pp 299