Few journalists in the world have had the chance to view India's birth and growth better than James W. Michaels. After serving in the US Army in the second world war, the veteran set up the New Delhi bureau of the news agency UPI or the United Press International in the last months of the Raj. And, in 1948, beat the competition by several minutes to the biggest story of his life: the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, which is ranked among the 100 greatest news reports of all time. As editor of Forbes for close on 40 years, Michaels visited and reported on the subcontinent several times. Here he speaks of India, Indians and Indianness.
Massive riots to start off, rampant poverty, the father of the nation dead not long after. Did you have any hopes whatsoever for India when you left?
I don't want to exaggerate but I think most of us who were observing it then thought the country would break up, and that parts of it might revert to some kind of totalitarian rule. But out of that has developed a functioning democracy, a country that has had good economic growth—#though not as good as one would have liked—and it takes its place among the leading nations of the world. So that's not bad, considering the inauspicious beginnings. And India made many false starts, of course.
Would you elaborate on any of these?
Well, Nehru, though we loved him and admired him at the time, was probably the worst disaster to ever hit India, at least in economic terms. (In India Unbound, by Gurcharan Das), it's said that Nehru was basically a Brahmin snob, and he did not like business people. Instead of the government getting out of the way and letting the market allocate business resources, the government did it. And the result was an incredible waste of resources. The way to fight poverty is not by chopping the pie in smaller pieces but figuring out how to make a bigger pie.
Did you expect the Kashmir problem to last this long?
I was one of the first reporters to get on the scene, so I saw that from the beginning. This must have been the fall of 1947, when the fighting broke out. The Pakistani army simply brought thousands of these Afridi and other tribesmen down. So they crossed into Kashmir. And these morons went crazy. They looted this Christian convent and raped the nuns and went home. If these tribesmen had not looted and gone home, they probably would've taken Srinagar, taken the airport, and the Indians would not have been able to do anything about it. It was that close. I wrote the story, and the Pakistanis denied it, and the Indian representative—then must have been Krishna Menon—read my dispatch in the United Nations.
Do you see anything moving forward?
I've told this to Indian friends, though they don't like it: India should get the hell out, just do what we did in Vietnam. It's a terrible drain on India. The Kashmiris would be much better off under India, economically, but they don't seem to want to. So to hell with 'em. Let them stew in their own juice.
Mahatma Gandhi's economic ideal of swadeshi has in recent years been seen as quaint and outdated, and his politics as overly passive. Do you think Gandhi has any real legacy in today's India?
Of course, his economics was all nonsense. But the point is that Gandhi was able to speak the language of these illiterate people with his symbols of a spinning wheel and village self-sufficiency and use of religious imagery.It made him a great leader for that time. And India became independent. I suppose you could say he is redundant, but as a symbol—through the means of reaching the masses of the people and also as a reformer of Hinduism—he did a great deal for...what are they now called?...the Dalits. We live in a world that is full of euphemisms. First they were Untouchables, then they were Harijans, and now they're Dalits.
Between the overpriced American fast food chains, the neon and the techno music in restaurants, don't you find any aspect of India's liberalisation unsettling? Really, is this Indian?
I don't like that but I don't like it here either, these aspects. Is it Indian? No...it's not. It's kind of a worldwide pop culture that seems to be able to cut across cultures. I spent quite a bit of time last year in China. It's the same thing. The young people are wearing blue jeans and American T-shirts and listening to that rock music. So it's all over the world.
There's something about Indians that I find very interesting. I know so many Indians who are so westernised in every surface sense of the word, yet part of them remains Indian. There seems to be an ability to hold both concepts in the mind at the same time. Something about Hinduism, I guess, can absorb so much without being transformed by it.
As a journalist, would you see the Emergency as India's coming of age?
I happened to be there at the time, and I was there the night Indira lost the election. I was in Delhi (after the Emergency). In the beginning I thought she was doing the right thing because they were trying to bring her government down with this illegal strike. Mr George Fernandes, I remember, was behind all this. She came down with a very strong hand and she invoked what the British called the Defence of India Act. And knowing something about how volatile India was, when she did that I thought she did the right thing. Because they were trying to create chaos to bring her down. Fernandes was the boss of the railroad union and he was in the Opposition, of course, so they declared a strike and brought India to a standstill, and she ordered them back to work. And food doesn't move, people don't eat if the railroads don't move in India. And so she declared an Emergency. And I wrote a letter to the NY Times, which they published, defending her. But then she started to make some mistakes. Instead of using that just to deal with the trouble-makers, she then imposed censorship and she tried to extend the Emergency. And of course her supporters said Sanjay put her up to that. And then they did this sterilisation stuff. So they went too far. And in the next election they defeated her and she lost her seat.
I talked to so many people and they said the same thing: "We like Mrs Gandhi but she went too far." And sure enough, they returned her to power two years later.
In the sense that Indians would not accept autocracy, they would not accept the kind of thing that you have in Pakistan or some of these other countries. Somehow, that sense of freedom and democracy was too strong in India. So in a sense, yeah, India did come of age in that period. There could have been civil war, there could have been all kinds of problems. And yet, the country remained pretty stable. They had orderly elections.
They turned her right out of office. And she was back in two years, but chastened. In a way that was a turning point, a crisis point, in Indian democracy.
Do you ever ask yourself 'What if?' when it comes to India?
The only 'What if?' I often play with is the Partition. In a very big sense, Partition wasn't necessary. I can't tell an Indian from a Pakistani. Can you? But if they had not made a Pakistan, you would've had to accept a weaker Central government. The price would've been a great deal of regional autonomy for eastern Bengal and Sindh. So that might've strengthened these fissiparous tendencies. But Partition was a terrible tragedy. It could've been avoided. Jinnah sensed that Mountbatten's orders were to get this thing over with quickly, and he just kept raising the ante to the point where even his own followers didn't think he was going to get Pakistan.
The other 'What if?' is what would've happened if Nehru hadn't been affected with this socialism. Rajagopalachari didn't want the government to get involved (with the economy), he thought the American model was right for India. And Sardar Patel also did not want all this socialism. But south India got marginalised in the early days. So Nehru did whatever he wanted.
(During his 38-year tenure as Forbes editor, James W. Michaels edited some 1,000 issues, surely a large number for any editor. About him, Richard Behar, formerly with the Forbes himself, said in a New York Times article: "It was always said Michaels could edit the Lord's prayer down to six words, and nobody would miss anything." Amen to that.)