The making of modern India

Print edition : December 06, 2019

MARCH 19, 1972: Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi of India and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman of Bangladesh signing the treaty of friendship, cooperation and peace in Dhaka. Photo: THE HINDU Archives

October 19, 1954: Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai receiving Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in Beijing. Photo: THE HINDU archives

Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, after he was questioned by the Special Investigating Team probing the 2002 Gujarat riots, in Gandhinagar on March 27, 2010. Photo: PTI

The book offers a rich insight into the political, economic and foreign policy blunders and successes of successive Prime Ministers of India.

I READ The Promise of India almost non-stop as the style is lucid and the argument solid, almost always based on a teutonically thorough research. The author, Jaimini Bhagwati, is eminently qualified to take on this ambitious, and almost impossible, task having served as India’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, Ambassador to the European Union, apart from holding sensitive posts in the Department of Atomic Energy and the Ministry of Finance. Until recently, he held the RBI chair at the Indian Council for Research in International Economic Relations.

Bhagwati did his master’s degree in physics, followed by another master’s degree and then a doctorate in finance, but his learning sits lightly on him and his style is uncluttered. He has inserted a few brilliant cartoons by R.K. Laxman to drive home the point he wants to make.

In the prologue, we are told why the author wrote the book. “All things considered, there has been a tendency towards maintaining a conspiracy of silence about blatantly inappropriate PM-level decisions which had hugely negative consequences for the country.”

Bhagwati refuses to succumb to despondency in the autumn of his life and quotes Dylan Thomas: “Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rage at close of day….” Bhagwati has in mind millennials as he takes the reader through the first 72 years of independent India.

Prime Ministers & their competence

The book is sensibly structured. The Prime Ministers are given scores for three Cs—Character, Competence and Charisma “in that order of importance”. The reader will agree to giving the highest importance to character. After all, Hitler and Mussolini excelled in charisma, and Hitler showed competence in organising the Holocaust.

To give the reader a foretaste, Jawaharlal Nehru scores high in character and charisma and rather low in competence. Indira Gandhi scores high in charisma and in competence in matters that suited her agenda; her character was “flawed”. Readers interested in knowing how the other Prime Ministers have fared are advised to read the book.

This reviewer agrees with most of the author’s narration and judgment. Therefore, in the interest of a free and frank discussion, I shall focus on a few matters where a reader might have questions to raise.

Bhagwati is not exactly right when he says (page 1) that Nehru “had no experience of administering a small office, let alone overseeing the management of India’s development while maintaining internal security in the country and guarding against external threats”. Nehru was the chairman of the Allahabad Municipal Board (1923-25). Obviously, no Indian in 1947 could have had the experience of “overseeing the management of India’s development while maintaining internal security in the country and guarding against external threats”.

Since the book is also meant for millennials, it is heartening that the author’s account of the “Kashmir Saga” is objective and lucid. The Nawab of Junagadh, a Hindu-majority princedom, had acceded to Pakistan in a manner as legally correct as was Maharaja Hari Singh’s treaty of accession with India. But India arranged for a referendum and overturned the accession of Junagadh. Hence, Nehru’s concurrence to Lord Mountbatten’s suggestion to hold a referendum in Kashmir was the right decision.

Coming to the question of surface connectivity between India and Afghanistan (page 38), the author finds fault with Nehru for not raising this matter with Pakistan. Would Pakistan have agreed if India had demanded it, say, at the time of the signing of the Indus Waters Treaty in 1960? The author has a point in raising this question, but the answer is not clear.

Korean war & Nehru’s concerns

Under the section “Missed Opportunities” (page 40), the author says that Nehru’s concerns about the United States’ role in the Korean War “could have been tempered”. In short, he argues that Nehru should have avoided criticising Washington or should have moderated his criticism. This reviewer begs to differ. Nehru told Harry Truman to agree to a ceasefire and to talk to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which the U.S. had unwisely refused to recognise.

Older readers will recall that India’s Ambassador K.M. Panikkar was summoned to a midnight meeting with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai (October 3, 1950) when General Douglas MacArthur crossed or was about to cross the 38th Parallel dividing the two Koreas. India was asked to warn the U.S. that while the PRC might tolerate the presence of South Korean troops beyond the 38th Parallel, the presence of American troops would compel China to send the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Nehru transmitted the message, repeating his advice to talk to China, to Truman, who contemptuously ignored it and permitted Gen. MacArthur to march north. The PLA came in and MacArthur was pushed back, and the ensuing stalemate saw the beginning of the Panmunjom talks for a ceasefire in July 1951. About three years after Nehru transmitted the warning, and more than five million deaths, mostly of Koreans but including over 40,000 Americans, the ceasefire was agreed on the 38th Parallel.

The war would have dragged on had not India’s V.K. Krishna Menon worked out a formula on the repatriation of prisoners of war. India chaired the Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission. The author leaves out all this. Incidentally, the author, who succeeded Krishna Menon as High Commissioner in London decades later, could have given the reader a less unbalanced account of Menon’s work by mentioning his diplomatic achievements in Korea and elsewhere instead of focussing attention only on some negative aspects of his personality.

There is a rather laconic, and hence misleading, reference to the U.S. offer (page 42) to make India a permanent member of the Security Council. There is a growing cottage industry spreading misinformation in this regard. The author could have made it clear that the so-called offer the U.S. made in August 1950 was meant to deprive China of its permanent seat. Nehru rightly declined to take the offer seriously. The U.S., no doubt, would have demanded a heavy quid pro quo. India had been urging the U.S. to admit China into the U.N. and there was no way it could have taken China’s seat.

Talking about the visit of Zhou in 1954, and the signing of the agreement on Tibet in the same year, the author says (page 51): “At around this time India suggested to the West that China should be accepted as member of the U.N. The concessions with regard to Tibet and the friendly gesture of advocating membership of the U.N. should have been significant enough to extract a mutually satisfactory recognition of India’s entire border with China” (emphasis added throughout).

It was the French philosopher Blaise Pascal who speculated that had Cleopatra’s nose been shorter the whole face of the earth, meaning world history, would have been different. Let us note that Pascal did not say what specific course history would have taken. Bhagwati has surpassed Pascal.

In 1956, the Dalai Lama came to India and did not want to return to Tibet. Nehru advised him to go back to Tibet. The author quotes Gyalo Thondup, the younger brother of the Dalai Lama, to find fault with Nehru for that advice.

“According to Thondup, about a hundred thousand were killed by the Chinese army and many thousands fled to India as refugees. [Note: the reference is to 1959 when the Dalai Lama fled Tibet.] This Tibetan suffering may have been less if Nehru had allowed the Dalai Lama to stay on in India in 1956” (page 53). If an author quotes another without comment, it means that he is in agreement.

Diligent account of 1962 war

Coming to the 1962 war, the author has given a reasonably diligent account. But his speculation that Nehru had the option of asking the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev “to defuse the situation before the war broke out is not realistic. Mao [Zedong] had decided to ‘teach a lesson’ to Nehru way back in 1959 when the latter did not send the Dalai Lama back to Tibet. Mao was set on having a war and he had cleverly calculated that the 1962 October Cuban Missile Crisis that started on 16th October was a heaven-sent opportunity to start a war. Mao got assurance from Washington that there would be no military move against the PRC over Taiwan. He contacted Khrushchev, told a lie about an impending attack from India, and asked for ‘brotherly support’.”

We are told (page 63) that Nehru could have promoted the activities of not-for-profit Western bodies such as the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations more actively. This comment is intriguing. The Ford Foundation came on Nehru’s invitation, and the India International Centre, set up in 1962, benefited from its financial support. It is even more intriguing when the reader finds out that there is no mention of the treatment of the same foundation by Narendra Modi in 2015 when the U.S. had to use diplomatic pressure to prevent its expulsion from India.

This reviewer finds it difficult to agree with the low score given to Nehru for “Competence”. Nehru laid the foundation for a secular, modern India and resisted successfully those who wanted a Hindu version of Pakistan. That project to Pakistanise India is gathering strength now and the growing resistance to that project draws inspiration from Nehru.

The chapter on Indira Gandhi starts with an apt quotation from the 13th century Persian poet Sa’di: Were the King to eat a single apple without paying for it, his staff will uproot the whole tree. The author has invariably started each chapter with an appropriate quotation from his wide-ranging reading.

In the section titled “Foreign Policy-Ups and Downs”, he argues that India’s civil servants and political leaders, though well-read are “thin-skinned” and their “personal outrage at being belittled during conversations” with the Western interlocutors coloured their judgment about government-to-government relations. “This was particularly true in the case of India’s relations with the U.S. during the IG [Indira Gandhi] years.” The reader might be rather intrigued as to what the author wishes to convey.

While dealing with Indo-U.S. relations in the context of events leading to the dismemberment of Pakistan, the author says (page 94): “ IG’s calculated patience in letting East Pakistan get widespread media coverage in the West made it difficult for the U.S. to provide material support to Pakistan.” The reader will find it difficult to agree that the U.S. found it difficult to give “material support” to Pakistan, given the solid diplomatic support Pakistan got in the U.N. Security Council, and the military supplies that continued as pointed out by M. Rasgotra in his book A Life in Diplomacy, not to mention the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise sent to intimidate Indira Gandhi while Indian troops were in East Pakistan.

The author is right in treating the Simla Agreement as a missed opportunity and his analysis is sharp. The treatment of the 1975 Emergency is adequate, but no fresh light is thrown.

But, the discussion on the 1974 PNE (Peaceful Nuclear Explosion) is illuminating. Following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. showed reluctance to oppose Pakistan’s project to make nuclear weapons. Hence, India should have accelerated its own project in the 1980s. The counter argument is that India’s economy was weak and vulnerable. The author poses a pertinent question: Why did Indira Gandhi fail to initiate economic reforms in the 1970s? His answer is that she was too much under the influence of the Left.

The author gives Indira Gandhi a high score for charisma, much less for competence and lower for character. The low score for Indira Gandhi’s competence is debatable. The dismemberment of Pakistan required some competence.

The chapter on Rajiv Gandhi starts with a quotation from Euripides: The brash unbridled tongue, the lawless folly of fools, will end in pain. The author rightly starts with the assassination of Indira Gandhi and expresses his moral outrage over the mindless attacks on Sikhs in the aftermath. In 1980, according to the World Bank, China got $560 billion by way of foreign direct investment (FDI). The author asks why Rajiv Gandhi did not start the necessary reforms to attract the needed FDI. A valid question.

The section on foreign policy is titled “Dangerous Posturing, Blunders, and Successes”. We are told about the Bofors deal and the disastrous military intervention in Sri Lanka. But not a word about the successful and timely military intervention in the Maldives in 1988.

We move on to Modi. The treatment of the 2002 Gujarat riots, when more than a thousand people were killed as the state looked on, leaves much to be desired. Bhagwati makes the mistake of referring to the orchestrated violence directed against a community as “a blemished record on the law and order front”.

The author attaches too much significance to the Supreme Court judgment, which did not find any evidence to implicate Modi. He could have referred to the findings of the Concerned Citizens Tribunal headed by Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, and included two other eminent judges, Justice P.B. Sawant and Justice Hosbet Suresh. The Tribunal concluded, on the basis of 2,094 statements from victims and other credible evidence, that Modi failed signally in his duty as Chief Minister. It is well known that the Supreme Court’s Special Investigation Team was headed by a Tamil Nadu cadre police officer who was asked by Chief Minister Jayalalithaa to save Modi and that he was later rewarded with a diplomatic appointment. It has been said, truly, that world history is the world court of justice.

On demonetisation, the author points out that it caused a loss of 1 per cent of the gross domestic product in 2017. However, the reader is not told that it was a decision taken by a “kitchen cabinet” and that too without application of mind about its immediate impact on the lives of the poor. Imagine a doctor who, finding that there is something wrong with the blood of his patient, drains out 86 per cent of it and replenishes it over months. Will the patient survive?

The author is unsure how to grade Modi on character, but he gives him high scores for the other two Cs without explaining why Modi scores high on competence.

Modi does have charisma, although the recent Assembly elections in Maharashtra and Haryana show that his charisma might have peaked. As the reader watches the mess in Kashmir stemming from a miscalculated move to “integrate” the State into India, she might find it difficult to give Modi a high score for competence. The reader will recall that Modi as Chief Minister had opposed the goods and services tax, a clear instance of taking a partisan line as opposed to a national line.

Bhagwati completed the book much before the disastrous decision on Kashmir taken in August. We might expect a revised estimate on Modi’s three Cs in the next edition.

This reviewer recommends this book to the general public, millennials and all serious students of post-1947 India. It is rich in insights and has a valuable collection of statistical tables. The reader will definitely ask for more from the author.

K.P. Fabian is the author of Diplomacy: Indian Style.