INDIA. The second most populous country in the world. It has a history stretching back to thousands of years, with enormous diversity in culture, language and ethnicity -- not to mention caste and religion. On its unpaved lanes, bullock carts jostle for room with the latest four-wheel drives while motorists maneuver their vehicles to avoid cows enjoying their siesta on the nation’s major roads and highways. The country that boasts an excellent InfoTech industry also houses the largest slum in the world. This diversity in language, religion, climate, topography and economic development is so extraordinary and unparalleled that Churchill’s remark, “India is merely a geographical expression. It is no more a single country than the equator,” seems very apt.
While the Indian civilization is one of the oldest in the world, dating back thousands of years, the modern Indian republic is relatively young, having existed for a little more than half a century. The complexities of the blending of the old with the new that have produced an India of immense contradictions and diversity is what Shashi Tharoor’s India from Midnight to the Millennium is about. When this book was published in 1997, fifty years had passed since the clock struck midnight on 15th August 1947, the day India became independent. Five decades of independence was time indeed for some introspection.
As Tharoor wonders whether we as a nation have achieved the goal that we set for ourselves, the answer is not difficult to guess. There is abject poverty, illiteracy, rampant corruption, rundown healthcare systems, political turmoil -- the list goes on. Yet there is cause to rejoice, too. Democracy has taken firm root in Indian soil. making it possible to preserve the pluralist identity of this large country. True, there have been setbacks, such as separatist movements in Punjab, Kashmir, and the North East, and criminalization and corruption in the political system. In Tharoor’s own words “the most dangerous phenomenon of independent India's political life, is the criminalization of politics, for many a lawbreaker has found it useful to become a lawmaker”. Moreover, democracy, with its emphasis on consensus and mandate, has also made it difficult for the government to take tough decisions on any front, whether it is the economic reforms initiated a decade ago or the population control program to curtail Indian burgeoning numbers. Yet, as the author points out, there is no alternative, as democracy alone can preserve the pluralism of India’s people, a people who have no single common thread of language, caste, creed, costume or custom to unite them. I wish to add here that the ballot box has also been a great tool to fight that scourge of Hindu religion, casteism. Though an affirmative-action program has been in force since 1950 to reserve jobs and opportunities for people of lower castes, a 3000-year institution cannot be wished away overnight. Universal adult franchise has brought about unimaginable changes in a society steeped in caste hierarchy. A year ago, Uttar Pradesh, the largest state of India, elected as its chief minister a poor woman from a low Hindu caste, an event that might not have occurred fifty years ago. This in itself is cause enough for cheering the Indian democracy.
The book is a comprehensive analysis of all walks of India life, post-1947. However, Tharoor’s main focus has been political events, including the Emergency years, Mrs. Gandhi’s election debacle, rise of the right-wing Hindutva brigade, and the economic reforms. With a lucid and lively style he discusses India’s transition from a socialist economy to a free market and expresses satisfaction at the Indian leadership’s realization that “economic interdependence is not incompatible with political independence.”
The text is interspersed with lively and humorous anecdotes of Tharoor’s own childhood and youth that lends a charming touch to the book. Superbly written and analyzed, this book offers an excellent insight into a huge country and its diverse people. If one were to look for one common word to describe them, that word could only be: Indian.