Book Review: India: From Midnight to Millennium and Beyond

Jerry Moses [Student of M.A (IR), South Asian University, India]

Book: India: From Midnight to Millennium and Beyond

Author: Shashi Tharoor

Given the rising interest in India in the nature of its democracy, in its pluralism, its soft power and its complex cultural construct, Shashi Tharoor’s book provides a grand narrative on India, it is a book that doesn’t seek to answer all questions neither does it provide an in depth analysis, it provides however a glimpse into the realities of life in India. The author throws a caveat at the beginning of the book mentioning that he writes it as an Indian who has spent most of his life abroad, as an observer. The period of time that is covered in the book spans close to 60 years of independent India. The book has no focused area of analysis; it covers just about anything right from Politics, Economy, Culture, Language, Religion, Diaspora, Caste, Issues and Challenges. His writing involves personal anecdotes, quotes, newspaper reports, reflections on scholarly work and portions of this book are drawn from the columns that he had contributed earlier. He tries to cover a vast canvas that it India and the book is easy to read and comprehend.

Shashi begins by opening up about his idea of India, a vision that was shared by his father “an India for Indians”. In his attempt to define India and her people he points out to the sheer diversity in thought, opinion and culture. Shashi recognizes the aspects of soft power in the globalized world, he acknowledges the presence of Mac Donald’s and MTV in popular culture, While he also presents Bollywood and Indian Television as fine examples of soft power spreading its wings to the Arab and African countries. This to him is much better way of engagement than conventional speak between governments. Speaking about a development model for India, he talks about the state of Kerala which is known for its high HDI Indices. As a child who grew up in a metropolis, Tharoor made annual trips to his native, he notes with great detail a young boy by the name “Charlis” who was of a lower caste. With each visit he observes a change in the attitude of his family in treating the young man, partly because of the reform measures that were put in place by the government and partly because of the dedication and hard work of the young lad who goes on to be a well respected IAS officer.

The Emergency period is a major theme in this book. As student in the US at that time, he found it important to legitimize the need for emergency and tried to convey a message on those lines, a conviction that would latter shatter when faced with a censored press. He openly criticises the congress party during the period, this includes the leadership under Indira Gandhi and even people who assumed power like Sanjay Gandhi. He examines in great detail the different strands of debate that center around justifying the need for emergency, he debunks each of them.

The Indian Diaspora is of considerable interest to Dr. Tharoor, he is an authority on the subject given his wide ranging interaction with the community. He is critical of radical organisations like the VHP marrying their activities outside India with the liberal traditions of Hinduism only to raise funding while indulging in acute practices of bigotry within it. He classifies Non Resident Indians into two groups, ones that “Never Relinquished India” and others who are “Not Really Indian” He considers himself to be a part of the former and is very vocal opponent of the latter. He picks on the Indians who have defamed India by resorting to generalizations, who have sought comfort in alien lands by reflecting on the misery that was India according to them.

Shashi’s narrative of the political scene points out to one recurrent pattern, that time and time again politicians play the dirty game of playing various cards, cards on the lines of religion, caste, region, language and so on, only so that they could appease sections of their community and therefore win votes. This habit of taking sides according to him has robbed India of many opportunities to make a difference. He also points out to the lack of a cohesive vision and collective responsibility when dealing with issues of national interest.

With regard to the economy he points out to the mistake of following socialism, the years of license raj that created inroads for massive corruption and the lack of vision partly influenced by the fear of a capitalistic society taking shape of the foreign rule. While giving an example of the early days of telecom he points out to the sheer banality of the attitude of the government towards their responsibility to provide for the demand. Instead, the government of that time sought to take pride in the long list of people on the waiting list and felt the need to dismiss any complaints saying that they were a disservice to their endeavor  The attitude coupled with the Hindu rate of growth created a vacuum of missed opportunities. The process of rebuilding the economy under the leadership of the P.V Narashimha Rao and Dr. Manmohan singh changed the face of India and provided hope to the millions in despair.

Shashi calls himself a proud Hindu, according to him it is the only religion that does not call itself to be the only true religion, this is very different from the Judean  Christian and Islamic belief system that claim to have the only true path. He ascribes to a form of Hinduism propagated by Swami Vivekananda, one that is all accommodating and accepting. The essence of the faith for him lies in the fact that individuals are free to practice their Hinduism. It thus is not a monolith of a religion. This understanding is far different according to him from those who call themselves the protectors of the Hindu faith and indulge in acts of violence.

It is only in the last ten pages that he provides certain prescriptions to dealing with the challenges of India, one is greater decentralization and the other is a switch to the Presidential system. He thinks of the parliamentary system as a system that has encouraged people with muscle and money power to take on the role of politicians; he thus prefers a presidential system where people can directly vote for their leader, a system where grass root work plays a vital role. He blames the British for the model that we now follow while not uncovering why it is successful in their country.

The book thus presents the flavors of the socio-political and economic scene of modern India, For anyone who is well read about India this book might just be one that is re articulating things the Shashi way but for those who are not introduced to India and are interested to study some of the issues that the nation had and has been grappling with, this is the perfect book to start off with.

P.S.  A big ‘thank you’ to Sankalp Gurjar (SAU President Scholar) for gifting me this wonderful book for my Birth Day!

This book review has also been published in the author’s own blog:


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