India is 50 years old as an independent nation this weekend, and, of course, it has for thousands of years been one of the great expressions of human civilization. But India is unlike any other country. It is a place made and unmade by British imperialism and populated by every racial type on the globe, people who speak 17 major languages and 22,000 dialects and engage in some of the most ferocious sectarian fighting -- Hindus against Muslims, Sikhs against both -- going on anywhere in the world these days.
Shashi Tharoor, a novelist who is also a senior official at the United Nations living in New York, uses the half-centennial to examine the question of what is India, what makes it a country? In ''India: From Midnight to the Millennium,'' Mr. Tharoor is a thoughtful and well-informed observer, one who demonstrates the balance of insiderness and outsiderness that has often made for the best writing about India. (V. S. Naipaul, who grew up in Trinidad, is another very good example.)
Mr. Tharoor, who was born in London but grew up in Bombay and Calcutta, writes a series of essays focusing on different aspects of his two major concerns: India's terrible poverty and the rise of sectarian feeling powerful enough to threaten the common sense of nationhood. He writes elegantly and often colorfully, and when he blends his political interests with his personal experience, his portrait is especially vivid.
But he also writes at times too much as a politician himself. He takes positions, but they are often tinged with a bromidic quality, as if he were a candidate for office striving not to offend anybody while building a broad base of support for his views. Perhaps consistent with that, his ''India'' goes rather more deeply into local politics and politicians than most Americans would want. His 75-page chapter, ''Better Fed Than Free,'' in which he reflects on the debate between the advocates of unrestrained democracy and those of authoritarian rule in a poverty-stricken country, is a rambling and repetitive exercise.
In it, Mr. Tharoor covers the various excuses and justifications that have been made for authoritarianism -- especially during the emergency declared by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1975; acknowledges that the ''bargaining, compromise and consensus-building'' needed in a democracy make authoritarian government seem efficient by comparison; discusses India's intellectuals as ''torn between the pull of an ancient tradition and the attractions of the modern world'' and quotes everybody from Woodrow Wilson to a Congress Party president, D. K. Borooah. In the end, Mr. Tharoor opts for democracy over authoritarianism, but one feels, aside from the fact that the subject is a bit old, that he could have come to that not surprising conclusion in a crisper, shorter and less dutiful essay.
Still, Mr. Tharoor makes no apologies for India's shortcomings, including those that stem from the mistakes made by the Indians themselves. While he clearly admires Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first Prime Minister and the founder of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty (Indira was his daughter), he blames Nehru's soggy socialist ideology for much of India's economic backwardness today. ''For most of the five decades since independence, India has pursued an economic policy of subsidizing unproductivity, regulating stagnation and distributing poverty,'' Mr. Tharoor writes. ''We called this socialism.''
In 1986, he points out by way of example, the Steel Authority of India ''paid 247,000 people to produce some 6 million tons of finished steel, whereas 10,000 South Korean workers employed by the Pohan Steel Company produced 14 million tons that same year.'' He is correspondingly supportive of the economic reforms begun in the early 1990's by former Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao, which in Mr. Tharoor's opinion are the best hope for Indian prosperity in the half-century of self-rule.
Among Mr. Tharoor's most compelling passages are those that deal with India's descent, after centuries of relative harmony, into sectarian violence. As always, he is at his best when he links his own experience -- in this instance, his beliefs in the nature of Hinduism -- with his country's political experience. He repudiates the fundamentalist Hinduism that brought about the destruction of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya in 1992, which in turn led to the most horrific religious bloodletting in many years. Indeed, in Mr. Tharoor's vision, Hinduism cannot be fundamentalist because it is a religion without dogma, enriched by the beliefs of others.
n explaining the rise of sectarianism, Mr. Tharoor does not hesitate to place the blame on Hindu fanaticism, even if that fanaticism has been provoked by what he calls ''other chauvinisms,'' Muslim and Sikh. ''The rage of the Hindu mobs is the rage of those who feel themselves supplanted in this competitio