Book Reviews

India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy by Ramachandra Guha

Ecco, USA; Macmillan, UK

book cover

Although the sheer size of this book appears daunting, India After Gandhi is a remarkably engaging read. Ramachandra Guha, noted Indian journalist and historian, has set himself the high task of writing a narrative history of post-partition modern India. He begins with a prologue that outlines his strategy and exposes the terrain of his analysis. The prologue, aptly enough, is titled "Unnatural Nation." Guha’s book attempts to answer the mystifying question of why there is an India at all given its complex social and political diversity.

The book covers over six decades of post-partition Indian history, narrating as it were, the story of its modern nationhood—a story which Guha asserts is "above all [one] of social conflicts" that have risen over issues of caste, language, religion, class and gender. Despite these conflicts, modern India has remained united and has, for the most part, been a functioning democracy. Having established this template of the kind of conflicts that have arisen in India’s past in his prologue, Guha then goes on in the rest of the book to chronologically narrate the events that unfolded over the past sixty years beginning with the immediate post-partition aftermath, the years of growth and nurture under Nehru’s leadership, the eventual shakedown of the central authority of the Indian National Congress, and the rise of populism. Guha then covers the more recent past through the lenses of what he titles "rights," "riots," "rulers," "riches" and "people’s entertainment." The epilogue of the book is a meditation on why India has survived and is a convincing testament to its particular uniqueness as a modern non-western democracy.

For all its size and density, India After Gandhi is an accessible account of modern Indian history. Guha’s voice is balanced, calm and assured; the view of the book, although panoramic, is not lacking in the kind of detail that makes history compelling. Personalities such as Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Ghandi, Jayaprakash Narayan, Angami Phizo, and Sheikh Abdullah come through in the telling in ways that are even-handed and that contribute to the overall focus of the book, which is India’s remarkable journey as the world’s most populous democracy. That the book is "well researched" is more than a given; in fact, it is magnificently researched and the results coherently presented. The numerous facts and statistics that could easily bog down a book like this are only sparingly used; Guha’s synthesis of the research material into his story is for the most part seamless. In India After Gandhi, Guha has given readers an extraordinary and lasting account of modern India that is a rich resource for all.

Reviewed by Sally Ito