Books: Accidental India
Author: Shankkar Aiyar
Publisher: Aleph Publishing Company
After 27 years of covering Indian politics and economic affairs, journalist Shankkar Aiyar decided that, rather than edit a national weekly magazine, he wanted to write a book. So he took a sabbatical and wrote Accidental India: A History Of The Nation’s Passage Through Crisis And Change, making good use of his journalistic experience as well as academic training. Analysing seven crises that took place between 1947 and the present, Accidental India reveals how development in India has largely been a result of problems taking on terrible proportions. Crisply written, engaging and thoroughly researched, the book analyses the past and introduces readers to the enablers who worked behind the scenes to keep India from tipping into disaster. Aiyar spoke to Deepanjana Pal about writing Accidental India.
Were you worried at any point that
Accidental India would feel too dry or academic to the reader?
Accidental India is receiving enormous word-of-mouth support not only among academics but also working professionals, journalism students and, interestingly, young politicians in several states. The arguments are backed by multiple validations of the premise and the analysis is cross-referenced. Which means that I did have to ensure no reader gets bogged down in any one of the seven crises in the book. After all, this is an in-depth study of the political and economic history of modern India from 1947 to date.
There are a number of lesser-known and non-feted names that emerge as heroes in Accidental India.
The real heroes of India are mostly the largely unsung ones. Every game changer has arrived amidst institutional failure and individual courage. Accidental India is as much a tribute to the courage of these individuals who ensured India was not left in a lurch by its politics. If this means busting many myths, leaving politicians red-faced, so be it.
For instance, Accidental India proves that the dismantling of the licence raj was compelled by circumstance and propelled by crisis. It is commonly – and incorrectly – believed that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is the architect of reforms. The truth is India was forced to pledge its gold reserves, approach the IMF for a bailout and the blueprint of reforms was based on the 25 conditions stipulated by the lenders. And it was Prime Minister Narasimha Rao who bit the bullet.
In your opinion, which regime has been most beneficial to India?
There have been leaders in every decade who have been enablers. For me, the two prime ministers who stand tall — despite their regimes, I might add — are Lal Bahadur Shastri and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, because of their intuitive comprehension of the complexities of the political economy. Shastri resurrected national pride and put food security on par with national security. Vajpayee connected Bharat with India through roads and telecom connectivity.
One of the arcs that emerges in your book is a sharpening disconnect
between politicians and the public.
Let’s look at the evolution of politics – from a mission at the dawn of Independence to a profession in the ’70s, to family-owned businesses today. Political parties no longer feel the need to represent national opinion or interests as it is much more profitable — electorally — to represent sectional interests that deliver votes. There is no dearth of solutions, but there is a systemic paralysis. And when every problem has to wait till it is an unavoidable crisis, it is but natural for people to start losing faith in institutions.
Meanwhile there is a deepening law and order crisis as misguided victims and villains take the law into their own hands. It’s interesting to me as an observer of politico-economic history —but disturbing as an Indian — that our country’s leaders have brought us to what is clearly frightening for our younger generation of citizens – this age of enormous civil fear and social unrest.
One of the solutions you suggest in the epilogue is empowering local self-government. Is this a good idea considering the mismanagement at the state level by numerous chief ministers and at local levels the regressive ideologies of bodies like the khap panchayat?
For effective democracy, power must be decentralised, shared with elected bodies in the pyramid of governance. Policy-making must have the participation of the people. A one-size-fits-all approach is what has derailed the process development. The reins of power must be with elected bodies accountable to the people. The khap panchayats and similar outfits hijack individual rights with muscle power and represent the failure of the rule of law fuelled by politically-funded electoral enterprises set up by almost every party. These bodies are being and must be kept in check by the democratic citizenry.
It is important for people to recognise that democracy is a 24x7 system where they have obligations too, not just rights. There is a price to be paid for democracy.
Is there a silver lining, because it seems like it’s all going to hell?
In India, it does seem that things must get worse for them to get better. The crux is located in the nature of politics and the practice of democracy. The problem is Indians are overinvested in promises and underinvested in performance. We need to make governments transparent and political parties accountable. I am optimistic that this will happen. India has defied odds at every turn of history.