Despite the limitations, the immediacy of politics and economics needs contemporary times to be examined and, therefore, books need to be churned out.
Writing on contemporary history is a difficult task, because the author has mostly lived through the period and generally carries some bias and prejudices either with regard to the people concerned or the events that occurred. Many times, the source material is also not complete due to several documents not being in the public domain, so reliability is on newspaper reports, anecdotal information and hearsay. It is precisely for these reasons that when eminent historian Eric Hobsbawm, who specialised in the history of the 19th century, wrote The Age of Extremes, the short history of the 20th century, he was candid enough to acknowledge, “Nobody can write the history of the 20th century like that of any other era, if only because nobody can write about his or her lifetime as one can (and must) write about a period known only from outside, at second or third-hand, from sources of the period or the works of later historians.”
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Despite the limitations, the immediacy of politics and economics needs contemporary times to be examined and, therefore, books need to be churned out. It is best to read such works with the cautionary advice of American historian John Noble Wilford: “All works of history are interim reports. What people did in the past is not preserved in amber…immutable through the ages. Each generation looks back and drawing from its own experience, presumes to find patterns that illuminate both past and present.”
Jaimini Bhagwati’s book, which examines the period from Jawaharlal Nehru to the current times under Narendra Modi, should be read while keeping in mind such cautionary warnings. The book is not novel in the sense that there are a plethora of works on post-independence India. However, what distinguishes his work from others is that he was a former Indian Foreign Service officer and also a trained economist. In the capacity of an IFS officer, Bhagwati did have a view from inside the government for the period in which he served it, and as an economist his mastery over detailing the economic transition and policies certainly has an edge over other such comparable works.
However, Bhagwati’s style of writing is very text-bookish. He has chosen the old way of writing history — compartmentalising events under the heads of various rulers. Even the analysis reads like a refresher guide for a college exam. Of course, achieving a compelling narrative is not everyone’s forte.
Having said that, Bhagwati’s work is largely objective and any balanced reader would find his account under various prime ministers neither gushing, hagiographic, or bitterly critical. The real test lies in dealing with Nehru and Modi. Most liberal writers overly gush about Nehru and are bitterly critical about Modi. Thankfully Bhagwati does not suffer from any such lacunae. He has assessed all PMs on three Cs – character, competence, and charisma. And in writing his work he has accepted his limitations by invoking the principle of master historian EH Carr, that all writings about the past are impacted by the choices of what to include and what interpretation to give to the so-called recorded facts. In short, there’s no such thing as a historical fact, it is the historian who chooses what to include and how to include.
His assessment of Nehru is quite objective. Contrary to the belief that Nehru chose the wrong economic model for the country, Bhagwati shows through facts that the model of socialism or mixed economy was the dominant theme at that time, with the majority of economists of the time also endorsing it. On this point, I recall having interviewed veteran bureaucrat Dharam Vira — principal secretary to Nehru and a cabinet secretary during Shastri — early in my journalistic career. Dharam Vira echoed Bhagwati’s views that Nehru’s choice of economic model was fine but needed to change with time, and this time was ripe during Shastri and Indira Gandhi’s reign. Unfortunately, Shastri died prematurely and Indira took a left turn to consolidate her political career.
On Nehru’s China policy, Bhagwati is rightly unforgiving. His overall assessment of Nehru’s legacy on 3 Cs is thus: He had character and charisma in abundance. It is in competence that he may be faulted in some measure on foreign policy and national security matters.
On Indira and Rajiv, the book has facts and analysis that do not differ much from other works by prominent authors; only that Bhagwati has much more details to offer on foreign policy and economy. Perhaps on Rajiv he could have omitted his totally unwarranted analysis relating to anti-Sikh riots. He writes, “Rajiv Gandhi was reported to have commented on November 19, 1984, that the earth shakes when a big tree falls. It is not clear that RG meant to justify violence against Sikhs as an understandable expression of public anger caused by his mother’s assassination.” He also writes, “RG took office the same day his mother was killed. It is possible he was too grief stricken to think of public order, and it was also the responsibility of the home minister and officials to take prompt action.” On Modi, Bhagwati has mostly enumerated facts that cannot be disputed. In balance, a fine book for reference work relating to the periods of various prime ministers, especially economic and foreign policies.