A Nation Comes of Age - Washington Post - August 3, 1997

Review by Stephen W. Coll

This has been a summer of spirited literary reflection in the West on the state of India, prompted by the 50th anniversary of its independence, which began at the famous midnight of Aug. 15, 1947. First came Granta, which produced an entire issue of India meditations this spring. Then arrived the New Yorker's special issue in June, an enormously interesting and creative collection of (largely expatriate) Indian memoirs and fiction. Conferences built around the anniversary have been convened in Washington, New York and London; scholarly papers have been duly written and collected; and a stunning exhibition of an ancient Indian manuscript, the Padshahnama, has been mounted in Washington in commemoration. All this, and the main parades and celebrations in New Delhi are still to come, beginning later this week.

If there is a common current in the West's remembrance, it lies in the continual and sometimes exhausting debate over whether boisterous, democratic India is best seen, in political-economic terms, as a glass half-empty or half-full. "Now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially," declared Jawaharlal Nehru, India's independence leader and first prime minister, at the moment of the break from Britain. Hardly anyone in America or Europe would argue that since then, India has achieved its potential wholly or in full measure. The question is: how substantially?

"India: From Midnight to the Millennium" is an exceptionally well-reasoned and thorough reply from what, in India, would be regarded as the Westernized liberal camp. It comes from Shashi Tharoor, an accomplished expatriate Indian novelist and essayist of the neo-Salman Rushdie school. Tharoor earns his living as a senior United Nations official in New York, but travels back and forth to India, where he was brought up and attended college.

Blending memoir, essay and empirical argument, Tharoor carefully reviews the core questions about India's unfinished experiment in self-governance -- the durability of its constitutional democracy, its persistent struggles over caste, the rise of Hindu extremist politics, and the recent and historic attempt to catch up to Asia's economic tigers through adoption of free-market reforms.

His book argues forcefully, but without naivete, that democracy is essential to India's progress; that caste discrimination is fading and can be conquered; that politicians who distort Hinduism as a tool of nationalism and "majority politics" should be rejected; and that Nehru's bloated socialist economic model must give way to free trade and entrepreneurialism. Above all, given the enormous challenges of India's ethnic, religious and linguistic polyglot, Tharoor insists, "Only an all-inclusive pluralism will guarantee the survival and success of the Indian nation."

He dwells at length on an issue much discussed among development specialists today in Africa, Asia and the former Soviet Union: Can an impoverished, multiethnic country struggling to find sustainable prosperity really afford multiparty democracy, with all its noise and strains and competing, selfish interest groups? Tharoor replies the way nearly all contemporary Indians would: Such a democracy is the only practical choice because, in a country so diverse, it provides the only means by which competing claims for power and resources can be peacefully and continually renegotiated.

You might think that after 50 years, India would have outgrown this question, being now in possession of a constitutional democracy at least as long-lived and efficient as those in, say, France and Italy. But the recent rise of Hindu nationalism and Islamic extremist politics raise genuine doubts about India's constitutional future. And in any event, as Tharoor usefully reminds us, it was not so long ago that India briefly convinced itself that it could develop faster with an authoritarian model.

In 1975, rattled by opponents and at the height of her imperiousness, Indira Gandhi postponed elections, jailed activists, censored the press, and effectively broke with constitutional traditions. When she made the arrogant error of putting her Emergency to a national referendum two years later (and, more arrogant still, allowed a more or less honest vote to occur), India rose up and threw her out of office. For Tharoor, coming of age at the time, "the Emergency became the defining experience of my political consciousness," a statement that applies to many of his generation. With great effectiveness, he exhumes and reviews in his book many of the oily apologies and rationalizati