Shashi Tharoor, a U.N. diplomat and novelist, introduces his new book, India: From Midnight to the Millennium, as "not a survey of modern Indian history, though it touches upon many of the principal events of the last five decades....It is a subjective account."
A highly engaging subjective account it is, making great use of the author's well-honed novelistic techniques. One of the best chapters, "Scheduled Castes, Unscheduled Change" narrates the story of his childhood's forbidden friend, Charlis, an untouchable boy in rural Kerala, who rises to become an I.A.S. officer. Charlis makes it, thanks to the "world's first and most rigorous affirmative-action program." India's affirmative-action laws reserve a minimum of 49.5 percent of federal government jobs for the previously disadvantaged or backward classes. Tharoor notes that opponents, now, often complain about reverse discrimination: "You can't go forward unless you are a Backward."
Like many other observers, Tharoor sees "bureaucratic corruption and criminalization of politics as two of the most widespread problems facing India." Bureaucratic corruption is largely a result of "the permit-license-quota Raj" ushered in by Nehruvian socialism. Nehru was not personally corrupt, but his legacy of socialism has recently come under increasing attack. Tharoor cites as "the most dangerous phenomenon of independent India's political life, the criminalization of politics, for many a lawbreaker has found it useful to become a lawmaker." In the current government (United Front), one of the first appointees, Taslimuddin, minister of state, had 18 criminal cases pending against him. The current defense minister, it is widely believed, won his seat by pandering to the Muslims and the students who wanted to be freed of laws restricting their cheating opportunities on exams! According to Harkishen Singh Surjeet, himself a member of Parliament, out of the 535 members of the Parliament in 1996, as many as a 100 have criminal records. (It is encouraging to read in this week's news an announcement by Dr. M.S. Gill, chief of the Election Commission, that in the next election no candidates with criminal records will be allowed to stand for elective offices.)
"As with so much else, the rot set in under Indira Gandhi," notes Tharoor. Agreeing with other political analysts like Arun Shourie, Kuldip Nayar, and Khushwant Singh , Tharoor places the full blame for the Punjab crisis on Indira Gandhi herself for having "primed [it] for narrow partisan purposes." She "encouraged (and reportedly even initially financed) the extremist fanaticism" in the Punjab.
Rajiv Gandhi's corruption "was common knowledge: Galli-galli mein shor hai/Rajiv Gandhi chor hai 'Hear it said in every nook, Rajiv Gandhi is a crook.' " Moreover, Rajiv Gandhi's efforts to buy Muslim votes by appeasement in the famous Shah Banu alimony case laid bare the Nehruvian pseudo-secularism of the Congress party. As the opposing Bharatiya Janata Party has rightly charged, the Congress Party "had long disbursed government grants to Mullahs while at the same time denying any assistance to impoverished Hindu priests." Tharoor urges rejection of "the pseudo-secularism that has made the state hostage to the most obscurantist religious figures among the minorities."
Democracy in India has a long history. Tharoor cites Dr. B. R. Ambedkar: "Indian democracy was as old as its ancient village republics. India had political assemblies with elaborate parliamentary rules of procedures at a time when most of the rest of the world suffered under despotism or anarchy." Tharoor asks: 'This democratic system, India lost. Will she lose it a second time?"
Like several other prominent political analysts, Tharoor suggests decentralization as a possible safeguard. Actually, in the early years of independent India, Clement Attlee proposed the U.S. presidential system as a model. Unfortunately, Nehru, ironically, rejected it -- out of his anglophilic delusion that the "British system was the only real one for democracies." Attlee noted: "I had the feeling that they [Nehru and his followers] thought I was offering them margarine instead of butter." Nehru's misplaced anglophilia is fully corroborated in Stanley Wolpert's recent biography Nehru: A Tryst with Destiny, which reveals Nehru confiding in John Kenneth Galbraith, the American ambassador: "Galbraith, I am the last Englishman to rule India."
Writing about the early history of India, Tharoor does not take into account the recent work of scholars like S.R. Rao, Subhash Kak, David Frawley, Natwar Jha, and Navaratna Rajaram, and Sita Ram Goel, which has discredited the Aryan invasion myth. Their work has