On India's Rise, A More Measured View

Ramachandra Guha in Hong Kong on Mar. 12, 2010. (Asia Society Hong Kong Center)
Ramachandra Guha in Hong Kong on Mar. 12, 2010. (Asia Society Hong Kong Center)

HONG KONG, March 12, 2010 - As part of the 2010 Man Hong Kong International Literary Festival, author, historian, and intellectual Ramachandra Guha discussed the past, present, and future of India with Asian Editor of TIME International Zoher Abdoolcarim.

Author of the international bestseller India After Gandhi, Guha is cynical about India's becoming a superpower at a time when all eyes are on that country and China. "Because we are so interesting and so diverse, and so unique as a political experiment, it's never going to conquer the world, our journey is always going to be a rocky ride," he told listeners. In Guha's opinion, wounds in India—namely, ground rules of access, political conflicts caused by inequality, by caste, language, and religious divides—have to be healed first; Indians have to think of themselves as a nation before they can begin to think about taking on the world.

The historian cited poor leadership as the primary roadblock to India's rise to stardom, explaining that "We don't need a magic-bullet solution of one leader, we need many leaders, there are some very fine state chief ministers." As an entire generation of new leaders takes office, he continued, India has to seriously think about de-forming its chief political parties to allow for good leadership to emerge. Further, with multiple sources of leadership emerging from lower levels of society, Guha doesn't believe that India has to wait for another crisis or another Gandhi to motivate the younger generation to address its indecisive governance.

When asked whether Mahatma Gandhi had failed to build the new India that he truly wanted, Guha answered that at that time mobilizing a nation in the making against a foreign colonizer was easier than building a viable nation-state out of so many diverse elements. India could have easily divided by castes, religions, and geography; it did not do so, Guha argued, on account of Gandhi's visionary understanding.

According to Guha, Gandhi's other gift was that he could make leaders out of followers. "His notion of a village economy was romantic, and I think he was sensible enough to recognize that most Indians didn't want it. Which is why he chose Nehru as his successor." Gandhi didn't fail, in Guha's view, but some aspects of his thought are  no longer relevant today and should be reevaluated. 

Never having visited China, Guha didn't feel that he was in a position to comment on India's relations with it. Personally, he said, he viewed China and India as two close friends who'd had a falling out, and were in the process of patching things up to resume a normal relationship. As for Pakistan, Guha noted sympathetically that it was dealt a "very bad deck of cards" by history. Civil wars not only left it burdened with refugees, but Western countries also turned a blind eye to the growing fundamentalism in Pakistani society.

While Guha believes the Indian army is too smart to enter into politics, he reiterated his view from India After Gandhi that "so long as Pakistan exists, there will be Hindu fundamentalism in India. If the political leadership is determined and resolute, Hindu fundamentalism will be marginally recessive—if it gets weak, it will rise again."

Since Guha wrote his book, however, India's political landscape has changed enough that he now believes that even if Pakistan were to become Islamic fundamentalist, the society at large in India has decided against Hindu fundamentalism, as the middle class in particular sees that Hindu fundamentalism destroys economic opportunities.

Reported by Winsome Tam, Asia Society Hong Kong Center