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Modern India sees itself as a great success story.

Slumdog Millionaire may have been made by the British director Danny Boyle but in selling a film about India to the West without a single Western character the film advertised a new, confident India, a confidence that extends to other cultural, economic and even sporting fields, as the success of the Indian Premier League in cricket shows.

Not only does India not look for hand-outs from the West, even the global downturn has not stopped growth, it has merely slowed it down, and as Indians are quick to point out no Indian bank has been bailed out by the government — many of them are offering interest rates of over 10 per cent to depositors.

But all this cannot hide a profound and very worrying problem for India. The world’s largest democracy has a dreadfully fractured polity which is not going to improve after the elections. The democracy show is brilliant: 700 million people go to the polls for the country’s 15th general election since independence in 1947, but the Indian political class cannot construct a narrative that blends in with the rest of the world’s democracies, particularly on issues such as terrorism. For all its aspirations to world power status, and a permanent seat on the Security Council, politically it remains locked in the most curious of odd couple relationships with its troubled neighbour Pakistan.

In the weeks after the terrorist attacks on Mumbai, the country’s 9/11 or 7/7, it seemed the one positive impact of the trauma would be that India would finally break free from its unwanted Siamese twin. But this looks increasingly doubtful with India ever more worried that President Obama’s policy will lead to the old western demand that any solution for terrorism must involve India settling with Pakistan over the long-standing dispute on Kashmir.

You would expect the election to see much debate on such issues and India’s role in the world but there has been none. Instead the campaign has merely exposed the fractures of the Indian political class, with numerous and bewildering caste, religious, communal and other subgroups all doing deals at local levels. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance may have completed its five-year term of office but it is not only not fighting the election united but many of its allies, including Cabinet ministers, who run strong regional parties, are opposing the Congress at local levels. Some of them make no secret of the fact that they aspire to be Prime Minister and all of them are aware, as the Times of India put it, “opportunistic post-poll equations will be more important than the pre-poll pitch of the parties”.

The level of the pre-poll pitch is so juvenile that for weeks the debate has centred around whether the word “weak” is abusive. When the opposition BJP leader L.K.Advani accused the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of being weak, Singh and his colleagues reacted by calling it an abusive term that insulted the office of the Prime Minister and the country. The opposition leader in turn reacted by claiming he was “hurt” by attacks on his record and for good measure did not attend an all-party dinner in honour of the departing speaker of the Indian parliament.

So why is India increasingly confident on the world’s cultural stage but its political class so inept?

One answer is the Indian cultural renaissance has been the work of individual Indians, a reflection of the rise of the Indian middle classes, while the political failure reflects the inadequacies of India’s grossly underachieving politicians: Indians are attaining success despite the government, not because of it.

To be fair, the Indian political class has not been helped by the convoluted historical inheritance the new state received at its birth.

Hard as it is to believe, back in the 1940s the prospects of the survival of India were not rated highly. The Raj experts confidently predicted that while Pakistan would not only survive and prosper, India would soon be Balkanised. The main problem was felt to be the Hindu religion.

In contrast Pakistan’s Islamic theology was seen as such an advantage that it was forecast to become the vibrant Muslim state that would form a bulwark against Russian communism, its virile Muslim culture necessary to protect the weak Hindus and their horrid caste system from falling prey to the communists.

Nobody expressed this view more forcefully than Lieut-General Sir Francis Tucker, who as G.O.C Eastern Command had been in charge of large parts of the country and was an old India hand. His memoirs, While Memory Serves, published in 1950, the year India became a republic, reflected the view of many of the departing British that the creation of Pakistan was desirable:

“There was much … to be said for the introduction of a new Muslim power supported by the science of Britain. If such a power could be produced … then it has some chance of halting the infiltration of Russia towards the Persian Gulf … Hindu India was entering its most difficult phase of its whole existence. Its religion, which is to a great extent superstition and formalism, is breaking down. If the precedents of history mean anything … then we may well expect, in the material world of today that a material philosophy such as Communism will fill the void left by the Hindu religion. It seemed to some of us very necessary to place Islam between Russian Communism and Hindustan.”

Just to underline how wretched Tucker felt Hinduism was, his first appendix of 17 pages was a diatribe against Hinduism entitled “The Iron Curtain”, borrowing Churchill’s famous description of communism.

Tucker was hardly alone among Raj officials. By then it was almost a Raj orthodoxy to believe that Hinduism, if not an evil force, was a spent, worthless one. Islam on the other hand was a religion the West could understand and with whose political leaders it could do business.

Rudyard Kipling, the great intellectual guru of the Raj, had long made clear his fondness for Muslims and his distrust of Hindus. He considered the Muslim more trustworthy and Islam’s monotheistic religion easier to understand. He was appalled by the Ramayana and Mahabharata, the two great Hindu classics, and repulsed by the jumble of Hindu beliefs. Kipling went on to claim that he had never met an Englishman who hated Islam and its people — “Where there are Muslims there is a comprehensive civilisation”.

The British had seized power in the subcontinent mainly from Muslim rulers and the crushing of the 1857 revolt had finally killed off the last chance of a revival of Mughal power. But, by the beginning of the 20th century, the Muslims had become the allies of the Raj as it struggled to quell the agitation for freedom led by India’s Congress party, The Raj encouraged the formation of the Muslim League, even endorsed ideas of Muslim leaders that democracy and one-man-one-vote were alien concepts for Asians, a view which remained popular with many Raj officials until the end of British rule. When, in 1906, Muslim leaders presented a memorial to the Viceroy along those lines, The Times thundered that it was “the only piece of original political thought which has emanated from modern times”.

For all the efforts of the Congress to promote its secular credentials and advertise its Muslim leaders, the Raj always portrayed the Congress as a Hindu party. True, the Congress was mostly made up of Hindus but since India was overwhelmingly Hindu this was hardly surprising. The Raj just could not believe that a party that was largely Hindus could be truly secular.

Such was the hatred for the Hindus, particularly Brahmins, that the Raj could not be shaken from this fixation even when the Congress party fashioned political victories in diehard Muslim provinces, the most remarkable of which was in the North-West Frontier Province. Today, this area is such a battleground between the Taliban, al-Qaeda and the West that in parts of the province Sharia law is being adopted.

In the 1930s a secular Muslim movement had grown up there, led by Ghaffar Khan and his brother Khan Sahib. They joined the Congress party and won successive election victories from 1937 onwards, defeating traditional Muslim parties. Even a decade later with Pakistan about to be created, Ghaffar Khan’s followers remained determined to resist the idea of establishing a confessional state based on the idea of religion. After the creation of Pakistan Ghaffar Khan spent eight years in Pakistani jails. Such was the influence of Mahatma Gandhi that Khan, through his Red Shirt movement, even got his fellow Pusthuns to respond to Raj and feudal violence with non-violence, earning him the title Frontier Gandhi.

The Raj pictured these secular Muslims as dupes of the wily Hindus. The only consolation for Sir Olaf Caroe, considered the supreme Raj expert on the Pusthuns, was that they would soon come to their senses, “It is hard to see how the Pathan [Pusthun] tradition could reconcile itself for long to Hindu leadership, by so many regarded as smooth-faced, pharisaical and double-dealing … How then could he [the Pathan] have associated himself with a party under Indian, even Brahmin, inspiration …”

What would the West now not give for such secular Muslims holding power in the North West Frontier, even if under the spell of the smooth-faced double-dealing pharisaical Brahmins?

Then such caricatures of Hindus was not uncommon, and often a part of English novels like Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop for instance, but it was major politicians like Churchill who added the deadly political twist. While in his speeches in the 1930s Churchill argued vehemently against Indian independence, his fire was directed mainly at the Hindus. He found time to praise the Muslims, whose valour and virility he much admired.

By the time the war was coming to an end Churchill had such hatred for the Hindus that he told his Private Secretary John Colville that he wanted the entire Hindu race exterminated. Colville’s The Fringes of Power records the chilling words uttered by Churchill in February 1945, just after his return from his fateful conference with Stalin in Yalta, “The PM said the Hindus were a foul race ‘protected by their mere pullulation from the doom that is due’ and he wished Bert Harris (Bomber Harris) could send some of his surplus bombers to destroy them.”

But while Attlee, who came to power within months, did not share Churchill’s Hindu-phobia and there were historic ties between Labour and Congress, Attlee’s government accepted the British policy of seeing Pakistan as a viable Muslim state vital to Britain’s global interests.

Although by early 1947 British policymakers realised they had to withdraw from the subcontinent, they still wanted a military presence in the region. The policy framed by the British chiefs of staff was intended to ensure that retreat from India would not mean Britain losing the century-long Great Game with Russia. It also aimed to protect the sea routes to the Middle East oil wells and project Britain as a friend of Islam in the Muslim world. The Attlee government endorsed this with Ernest Bevin, the Foreign Secretary, telling a Labour party conference in 1947 a week after it was announced that the subcontinent would be partitioned that this “would help to consolidate Britain in the Middle East”.

The British strategy was shaped by the fact that, while Pakistan wanted to remain in the Commonwealth, the Indians did not. In any event by the end of the war what little love there had been between the Raj and the Congress party had long evaporated. Although the Congress had started the war in a sort of partnership with the British, a series of miscalculations saw it end the war in the wilderness.

True, the pre-war Congress-British Raj partnership was very limited and only at the provincial level. It did not cover the central government or even the whole of India, a third of which was not even part of British India but consisted of hundreds of states ruled by Indian princes. The British relationship with the Congress party was like a father allowing his stepson to come to his inheritance at some unspecified date in the distant future, although many British officials could not conceive of a time when this brown stepson would ever prove capable of managing the estate.

Race was central to Raj thinking and, at that stage, the only self-governing dominions of the empire were the white dominions of Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada. Indeed in 1943, just before he left India, the Viceroy Lord Linlithgow forecast that it would take Indians at least 50 years to learn parliamentary democracy. And, even then he felt it would require much tutoring from British and other Europeans. However, he thought the arrival of air conditioning in India might come to the rescue, estimating that some six million Britons would be able to settle in India and, without the heat to worry about, might be encouraged to take up the massive job of bringing up the Indians.

The wartime argument by the Congress was on the face of it irrefutable. If the British had gone to war to protect the freedom of the Poles, then how could they deny the Indians their freedom? Promise us our freedom at the end of the war and we will join the fight, said Jawaharlal Nehru, the Congress leader. The British reaction was that this was blackmail at a time of greatest peril – and this made Congress decide to resume its non-violent campaign to force the British to concede independence. It proved disastrous.

The Congress leaders spent much of the war inside British jails and their absence was brilliantly exploited by the party’s great enemy, Mohammed Ali Jinnah. September 1939 had seen him in the wilderness with the Congress party in charge of the bulk of British India’s provinces. By August 1945 Jinnah was the undisputed leader of the subcontinent’s Muslims and the war made the creation of Pakistan inevitable, the political adoption of the idea having coming only several months after the start of the war.

Independent India might have retrieved this situation had the Indians cosied up to the superpower that replaced the British: the Americans. The Indians copied much from the way the 13 American colonies had gone about becoming a republic — much to the anguish of Churchill and Attlee, who urged India to allow the King to remain head of an independent India. But, despite this American inspiration, many in India and particularly Nehru failed to hit it off with the Americans. On a personal level Nehru found the Americans just impossible. As he wrote to a colleague at the start of the Korean war: “I must say that the Americans, for all their great achievements, impress me less and less, so far as their human quality is concerned. They are apt to be more hysterical as a people than almost any others except perhaps the Bengalis. The Russians follow wrong courses often enough but they remain calm and collected about it and do not show excitement.” This latent anti-Americanism still colours India’s attitude.

Modern India owes much to Nehru and his vision. Nehru’s planted the seeds of democracy so well that when in the 1970s his daughter Indira imposed emergency rule — the closest India has come to a dictatorship — it was ended not by tanks rolling down the streets of Delhi but through the ballot box. That election and many others since have shown that ordinary Indians, many of them poor and illiterate, queue for hours in the baking heat to cast their ballots. The Indian poor value their vote as Dev Patel, the lead actor of Slumdog Millionaire, found out when he visited Dharavi, Asia’s biggest slum. Indeed they vote in larger numbers than the rich who feel their money can buy them influence, an interesting contrast to the West where it is the well-off who vote in larger numbers.

But if domestically Nehru constructed an Indian nation from the patchwork quilt the British had left, and which they were convinced would prove beyond the Indians, it is his foreign policy legacy that is proving a heavy burden for the Indian state. Unlike domestic politics where Nehru was aided, and also challenged by other political leaders some of them of almost equal stature, in foreign affairs Nehru was allowed a completely free hand. During his 17 years in power Nehru also doubled up as the Indian Foreign Minister and personally interviewed those who wanted to work in the Indian Foreign service.

Most Indian leaders had little interest in or understanding of “abroad”. This was a toy they were content to allow Jawaharlal to play with and about the only person he consulted was Lord Mountbatten, Britain’s last Viceroy, with whose wife Nehru had an affair.

The problem for the Indians now is that 45 years after Nehru’s death they cannot untangle the web Nehru spun, nor have they made much attempt to do so. Indian politicians still articulate the holier than thou “we are non-aligned, we work for peace” words of Nehru. In her Republic Day speech this year the Indian President felt it necessary to remind the world that India’s foreign policy was one unbroken chain back to Nehru, “The conduct of our foreign policy since Independence has been to promote peace and development.”

The result has been that India has failed to react to changing situations, let alone build on the limited foreign successes it has had, most notably the one won by Indian armed forces in 1971. Then the Indian military inflicted a crushing defeat on Pakistan and liberated Bangladesh. The victory should have ended the idea of Pakistan: it proved that, contrary to the myth spun during the creation of Pakistan, religion by itself could not paper over divisions based on culture, race, language. The Muslim west Pakistani army had carried out near genocidal attacks on its own largely Muslim Bengali population in the east, forcing millions to flee to India and many other Bengali Muslims to take up arms against the Pakistani army.

The victory also exposed the myth that the West always supports the goodies. During the conflict the Nixon administration sent the Seventh Fleet to the Bay of Bengal to deter the Indians. As Henry Kissinger put it, the Americans could not desert their postman — the Americans having used the Pakistani military dictator Yahya Khan to open contacts with China. Mrs Gandhi had to seek the support of the Soviet Union before launching her armed forces, perhaps the only time the evil empire emerged as a supporter of freedom.

But the Indians failed to use this victory to stamp themselves as the regional superpower. The result is that India now finds itself surrounded by hostile nations.

Pakistan recovered from being broken in half, matched India’s nuclear ambitions, revived the Kashmir issue and, despite long periods of military rule, got even closer to America.

Bangladesh is far from a grateful ally, with illegal immigrants from that country changing the demographics of India’s north east, and Bangladesh has also spawned anti-Indian terrorist groups.

Nepal, the only official Hindu state in the world which Nehru did much to open up, is now controlled by Maoists who look to China and have little love for India. Indian prestige in Sri Lanka has never really recovered from the time Nehru’s grandson Rajiv Gandhi, then India’s Prime Minister, was slapped by a Sri Lankan soldier as he examined a guard of honour at Colombo airport.

In 1991, forced by the IMF to look at economic realities, India discarded many of the statist economic policies of Nehru, so helping to usher in growth.

9/11 should have forced a similar examination of its foreign policy but even the limited steps in that direction, such as coming to a nuclear agreement with the United States, were so fraught they nearly brought down the government of Manmohan Singh.

The irony is that, at a personal level, the Indian attitude to America has changed dramatically since Nehru described them as a hysterical people. Large numbers of Indians have settled there and the contradiction is well summed up by India’s greatest film director Shyam Benegal, a member of the Rajya Sabha, India’s Upper House: “As far as America is concerned our attitude is: go away America but take us with you.”

This election, coming so soon after the Mumbai attacks, should have been the occasion for India’s politicians to debate how the country interacts with the world Obama is shaping. But there seems no desire to debate such issues and the dispiriting conclusion must be that whatever the outcome of the elections India will continue to be a country where its individual citizens may win glory but the failure of its politicians mean the nation state will struggle to have a walk-on part in world affairs.

An edited version of this article appeared in the New Statesman on April 27 2009.

© Mihir Bose

      

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