- India’s Cold-Eyed Introspection
“In dealing with the affairs of India,” Jawaharlal Nehru is supposed to have said, “one must be full of sentiment, but never be sentimental.” Indian expatriate authors including V.S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, and Rohinton Mistry have turned Nehru’s advice into art, exploring India’s shortcomings through genres ranging from travel narrative to magical or Dickensian realism. Each of their works has also been imbued with sentiment for India, even if the feeling finds expression only in their recurrent return to the subject. Now, the golden jubilee of Indian independence has called forth a fresh crop of expatriate works. Among the most compelling are Gita Mehta’s Snakes and Ladders, Sunil Khilnani’s The Idea of India, and Shashi Tharoor’s India: From Midnight to Millennium. Readers with an interest in Indian society and politics will find much in these splendid works to savor and ponder.
What is more surprising is that Nehru’s advice has also been heeded by the Lok Sabha (House of the People), the lower chamber of India’s Parliament. In its report on Fifty Years of Indian Parliamentary Democracy, the Lok Sabha Secretariat has produced an empathetic yet unsentimental evaluation of the country’s political and economic life. It is difficult to imagine the government of any other country, no matter how democratic, offering such a frank and even dour assessment of itself on an occasion as traditionally celebratory as a fiftieth anniversary. The very act of issuing such a report testifies to India’s [End Page 166] pained self-awareness and lack of complacency, both of which may be sources of the country’s strength.
This is not to say that the report is without flaws. Couched in prose as dry as the red dust of a Delhi summer, it has none of the grace that adorns other literary commemorations of the fiftieth anniversary of independence. Readers expecting a coherent argument about India’s polity will be disappointed, for what is offered instead is a “stock taking of five decades of our successes and failures,” as former Lok Sabha speaker P.A. Sangma puts it in the foreword. Policy prescriptions are sprinkled unevenly. For example, the document suggests several steps to promote the growth of agriculture, but concludes its condemnation of the declining female-to-male population ratio with no policy response and the understatement that “behind these figures there is a sordid societal picture” (p. 94). The report glosses over some other touchy topics, including the 1975–77 period of emergency rule, and omits important ones such as human rights.
Yet the document’s strengths—in particular, its empirical approach—are substantial and welcome. Too many writers on India, whether expatriates or not, have dwelt on the country’s mystique at the expense of depicting its reality. The thought seems to be that India is so complex, contradictory, strange, and generally enchanted that it cannot be pinned down. Perhaps the sole exception is population, which observers seem to regard as the only relevant number in India’s national life.
The report contains a wealth of charts, graphs, and tables on matters ranging from malnutrition to pollution levels in major cities. Specialists will find it a rich source of data and an indispensable reference. A second strength of the report is the way in which it breaks down key statistics such as poverty rates and infrastructure availability, showing how certain conditions affect some parts of India more than others. This method not only helps to highlight India’s diversity, but also expresses a commitment to eradicating the glaring inequities that exist.
A final strength of the report is that it homes in on facets of India’s condition that are sometimes overlooked. For example, the economic reforms initiated in 1991 have brought considerable attention to trade, industrial, and financial issues, but less to the state of agriculture. Despite the much-touted “Green Revolution” of the late 1960s and the achievement of food self-sufficiency, the pace of growth in agriculture has been in decline since the...