Book>> India After Gandhi: The History of the World's Largest Democracy by Ramachandra Guha Picador Macmillan Delhi, 2007
Ramachandra Guha's panoptic 'history' of contemporary India-- India After Gandhi: The History of the World's Largest Demo-cracy --invites other adjectives; compendious is one, magisterial isn't.
At the outset, Guha makes the point, in some ways justified, that the arbitrary way history has been categorized as an academic discipline in the Indian context has given rise to an equally arbitrary chronological construct of what the subject matter of the discipline must be. Thus, 1947 remains the arbitrary watershed: the arena of history predates that year, after which sociology, political science and other disciplines take over. The point is well taken, especially with the caveat that some studies do exist in the area even if they can be "counted on the fingers of one hand--or, if one is more open-minded, two". But it is not a particularly original point that the gaps in the historiography of Indian democracy after the transfer of power are awesome. The point, however, is how far Guha succeeds in filling them.
Let me begin, in a manner of speaking, in rewind mode. The fundamental weakness of Guha's book is that it hardly has an analytical or explanatory framework--which is not to say that it has no flashes of analytical and explanatory insights. It reads more like a straightforward chronicle, albeit written in a compelling style. The problem is that a lot of the story has already been told, at least abundantly till the turn of the century, which means that, in the absence of an explanatory framework, Guha has done little by way of filling a presumed gap, panoptic though his scope may be. The strength of Guha's narrative--which makes for good entertainment, which is fair enough--derives from the anecdotal feel to it and the attention to detail. In this, Guha's book, at best, fills one need--the need to provide an entertaining and detailed chronicle for, if I may say so, what in journalese is designated 'generation next', including those engaged in various forms of engagement with the public domain that require a knowledge of the basics Guha gives--say journalists--as also interested, curious non-specialists.
The absence of a framework, which makes Guha's story incomprehensible as a coherent narrative, is palpable.
For instance, though Guha's narrative is heavily state-centric, nowhere does Guha offer a notion of what constitutes a state or state-ness, just as he refuses to engage with the dialectic of society and state or nation and state. Given that this history is largely about the construction of the state and the political processes that surround and feed into it, this surely must be a fundamental flaw.
Guha's book actually comes into its own in the last section--after the fall of the Rajiv Gandhi government--which deals with the most immediately contemporary of times. Guha marks the shift in standpoint with the caveat that at this point "the book moves from 'history' to what may be called 'historically informed journalism'". The shift in gears is welcome. The treatment of agrarian change and its manifestation in the social and state sphere is refreshingly insightful while dealing with both the rise of other backward castes and dalit assertiveness; the logic of coalition government; and the causes and implications of liberalisation. Narrative, context and analysis finally come together.