April 02, 2020
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Programmed To Survive

That the nation persists is what has lent the India story such gravitas: an idea that’s taken strong root. But will the march of history leave us behind?

Programmed To Survive
Programmed To Survive

Why India? Why, of all post-colonial nations, is India the country that gets taken most seriously by the very powers it once struggled against? Whether it is corporate Britain wooing Indian money by throwing Bollywood bling parties at London’s Claridge’s Hotel or European luxury houses like Hermes launching special sari lines for India’s glamorati or US President Obama choosing the Indian prime minister as the guest of honour for his first state banquet—the world wants a piece of India. Not since nineteenth-century America has an ex-colony moved so fast into prominence on the world stage.

Plenty of people have answers that purport to explain this phenomenon—India’s scale, its software and smartness, its strategic location. But I think the real answer is at once more subtle and more obvious. It has to do with the fact that India is still here—that, unlike many new states created after the end of the age of European empire, it has not self-destructed. What if India’s current prominence has more to do with what it has avoided, steered around, than with what it has done?

When I wrote The Idea of India in ’97, I wanted to show that the founding idea of India is anchored as much in resisting certain powerful seductions—the temptations of a clear, singular definition of nationhood, of the apparent neatness of authoritarian politics, of the clarities of a statist or pure market economy, of unambiguous alliances with other states—as it was in realising declaratory visions.


History moves fast these days—faster that it did when nineteenth-century America began its climb to world power, faster than when Gandhi and Nehru brought India to independence in the mid-twentieth century, and faster still than in the years since I wrote The Idea of India. In India, what were once gradual changes—the upswing of economic growth, the movement of Indians from the countryside to the city, the sabotage of the old hierarchies of the social order, the renegotiation of India’s place and status in the world—now turn at dizzying pace.

Such historical fast-tracking has taken India to a point where it is now possible to envisage a real change in the chronic conditions of deprivation and injustice that have so long entrapped most Indians. Actually altering those conditions for the better will, however, require a run of political judgement and action as momentous as that accomplished by India’s founders in the mid-twentieth century, when that remarkable generation broke India free from an authoritarian, oppressive past and set it forth in pursuit of liberty and democracy.

The grand tasks of the years ahead are daunting: managing the largest-ever rural-to-urban transition under democratic conditions; developing the human capital and sustaining the ecological and energy resources needed for participatory economic growth; contending with powerful competitor states and containing a volatile neighbourhood; defining what sort of power we wish to be in the world. It is an agenda that would test any society at the best of times. But in India’s case, these tasks will have to be achieved under severe constraints of time and choice.

Ours is a society of swiftly inflating expectations, where old deference crumbles before youthful impatience. And internationally, India must navigate a fluid arena: one where global power is rearranging itself in as yet undefined ways, where capital is restless, and where new, unforeseen threats and risks are facts of life. India will have only a sliver of time, a matter of years, in which to seize its chances. After all, the faster history moves, the more likely one is to get left behind.

Political imagination, judgement, action—the capacities that birthed India—seem to have deserted us when we need them.

The policy choices we make over the coming decade—about education, about environmental resources, about social and fiscal responsibility, about foreign affairs—will propel us down tracks that will be difficult to renounce or even revise in years to come. The aptness of those choices will depend not on India’s entrepreneurial brilliance or technological prowess, or the cheapness of its labour, but on politics. Yet, at this historical moment when emergent possibilities and new problems are crowding in, the transformative momentum of India’s politics seems to have dissipated.

Although the nation’s founders saw political freedom as their great goal, decades on, what that freedom has delivered measures up poorly for many. For India’s business leaders eager to compete with China, for the middle classes fed up by corruption, for radicalisant intellectuals, for desperate citizens who’ve taken up arms against the state, democracy in India is a story of deflating illusions, of obstacles and oppression. Democratic politics itself is seen as impeding the decisive action needed to expand economic possibilities.

It is a troubling irony: political imagination, judgement and action—the capacities that brought India into being—seem to have deserted both the air-conditioned hallways of power as well as the dusty streets of protest, just when it needs them. The distinctive source of modern India’s legitimacy has, to many, become an agent of the country’s ills.

India’s democratic discontent echoes a wider disaffection. Across the globe, democratic politics is in distress and disrepair. It is being challenged in its homelands, from the US to Europe to Japan, while in Russia and China, it stands summarily dismissed. As citizens grow ever more contemptuous of their leaders, leaders readily return the compliment—complaining that they are hamstrung by the short-sighted, unrealistic demands of their citizenry. Just a couple of decades after democracy was proclaimed as the universal future—the riddle of human history solved—it seems fragile, ineffectual, contingent.

In India, the impatience with democracy is perhaps not unreasonable, given how quickly we have moved in such a short time, and how much further we wish to get. But one way to understand the possibilities that democracy alone can underwrite is to remember the context that existed in India at the time that I wrote The Idea of India.

Where progress is metronomic Construction work in progess for the Bangalore Metro. (Photograph by Nilotpal Baruah)


I was motivated, then, by a different kind of concern about India’s democracy: a kind of majoritarianism, it seemed, might threaten our foundational commitment to diversity and pluralism.

In the mid-’90s, India had emerged from a deep economic crisis, only to be ensnared in battles over identity. What sort of a nation were we? Which groups or cultures had the right to claim special privileges? Religion, caste, region: all were vigorously advanced as answers.

These answers seemed bent on blurring, even dissolving, the idea of India—the constitutive idea of this “unnatural nation”. It was that idea that I sought to recover, in hopes of showing how it had made India and kept it going. Part of the burden of my argument was that India’s politics was proliferating a variety of ideas about India, some in contradiction and collision with one another. The Indian idea had itself become a proudly plural one—a measure as good as any of the original idea’s success. And amidst that plurality were, perhaps inevitably, some conceptions that sought to singularise India’s many religious and cultural identities and make it a narrower place.

Today, in many parts of the country, those battles seem to have played themselves out—so much blood under the bridge, or down the Sabarmati, as it were. The conventional view is that India’s economic surge has stilled those fights over identity. And although there is some truth in that explanation, it is too partial a perception. It does not address, for instance, why one of India’s most developed and fast-growing states, the calendar girl of big business—Gujarat—is also the purveyor of India’s most chauvinistic and poisonous politics.

It is the capacity of India’s democracy to articulate and incite its diversity that has saved it from civil conflict.

In fact, what has at least for an interval calmed such politics has been the workings, however rickety, of democratic politics. It is the capacity of India’s representative democracy to articulate, and even to incite, India’s diversity, to give voice to differing interests and ideas of self, rather than merely to aggregate supposed common identities, that has saved India from the civil conflict and auto-destruction typical of so many states. Many of those states have been in fact smaller and less diverse than India. Consider for a start, the ragged history of India’s regional neighbours. The desire to impose a common identity has broken them down.

What has protected India from such outcomes is not any innate Indian virtue or cultural uniqueness. Rather, it is the outcome of a political invention, the intricate architecture of constitutional democracy established by its founders. That constitutional democracy has prevented monolithic outcomes in India. It has stalled zealots in their tracks, penned demagogues to their corrals and taken the wind out of populist sails—just as it has also frustrated and slowed more positive or desirable outcomes. But that is the crucial, under-recognised value of such a system: its capacity not to achieve the good, but to prevent the worse.


Democracy’s singular, rather astonishing achievement has been to keep India united as a political space. And now that space has become a vast market whose strength lies in its internal diversity and dynamism. It is that vast market, of considerable attraction to international capital, that is today one of India’s greatest comparative advantages—and one that makes India a potential engine of the global economy.

In the years ahead, whether the old battles over identity stay becalmed will to a large extent depend on the capacity of India’s political system to sustain and spread the country’s new growth. Rising disparities in income, wealth and opportunity are a global fact, but they can be particularly acute in growing economies. For twenty-first century India, as economic growth spreads unevenly over the productive landscape, the big questions will turn onto the disequalising effects of economic transformation. This isn’t a question that any society, democratic or despotic, has been able to solve, let alone any rapidly growing society—and certainly not China.

The project of devising workable alternatives to market capitalism has animated much of the politics and history of the past two centuries. But that project did not on the whole fare impressively. The collapse of revolutionary dreams symbolised by the events of 1989 and immediately after has been followed by slow punctures in the wheels of Western social democracy. And yet, the lived conditions that gave rise to such political hopes—revolutionary or reformist—remain as intense and painful as ever, not least in the world’s two major growth economies, China and India. Part of what it must mean, therefore, for states like India and China to take their place as major world powers must rest on their ability to invent better alternative models of market capitalism.

For India, developing such alternatives must be a priority in coming years. It is imperative for India’s economic future that the global disaffection with market capitalism does not take wider hold in the country. We shall need, somehow, to strike a balance between, on the one hand, redistributive social policies and regulation and, on the other hand, the need to keep the economy open, markets functioning, and incentives alive.

Trained goods A new autorickshaw gets rolled out at a storage facility in Gujarat. (Photograph by Reuters, From Outlook, February 06, 2012)

Most people in India remain hopeful that their turn will come. Yet as I write this, thousands of protesters have taken to the streets and squares of the world’s financial centres, from NY and London to Frankfurt and Hong Kong, hoping to change the skewed order of global capitalism. Such dissidence is a reminder that the tolerance for disparities, for inequality, can shift sharp and sudden.

In India’s case, just as six decades and more of democracy have broken down age-old structures of deference and released a new defiant energy, so too years of rapid but uneven growth may, before we are quite ready to acknowledge it, dismantle the intricate self-deceptions that have so far kept India’s grotesque disparities protected from mass protest. As the Indian political classes exercise their populist instincts, corporate India, heady with new opulence, lately comports itself like a well-plumed sitting duck. Without renewed political imagination and judgement, the disaffection and alienation of those who are being left out or actively dispossessed by rapid growth could change the course of our history.

Can India’s democracy rise up to the task of rectifying this sorry state of affairs—accommodate the dispossessed and channel discontent into political forms? Most importantly, can India’s democracy be rescued from its current function as an acclamatory mechanism to instal new leaders? Is it possible to turn that democracy into something that makes political responsibility more legible, and also enables those who hold power to invest in the country’s long future?

In the twentieth century, India was a striking example of post-colonial reinvention. We might now, in the new century, turn our thoughts to practising a more effective democracy and a more inclusive market capitalism—in contrast to China, where wealth amasses and democracy remains a bad coin.

The transformational opportunities that India confronts today have their origins in the life and story that unfolds in my book, The Idea of India. As India moves forward in coming years, ever more forgetful of its history, those origins and that story will matter more than ever. For, even when nations pride themselves on their freedom from the past, it is often in fact their beginnings—their founding spirit and imagination—that remain, in very altered worlds, their greatest resource.

(This essay is the new Introduction to the fifth edition of The Idea of India, published as a Popular Penguin on January 20. Professor Sunil Khilnani is Avantha Chair and Director, King’s India Institute, London)

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