India in the last decade has been witness to a political churn, that has been accompanied by a loud and an energetic questioning of what we as a nation and a society stand for.
What is it that makes India and what does India stand for? The debates can be raging on social media and the electoral outcomes indicate that the debates are not just restricted to social media war rooms but are being waged on the streets too.
Harsh Gupta and Rajeev Mantri’s new book- A New Idea of India, comes across as an earnest attempt at answering the two questions.
Gupta and Mantri, start off their answers by placing the modern Indian state as an inheritor of an ancient civilizations and not a construct that the British left behind in 1947.
“India, that is Bharat” the authors claim, has roots in acceptance of pluralism that comes from a tradition of skepticism.
India has been an amalgam where diversity has thrived without a central controlling authority.
An Indian is one who retains the agency of questioning anything and anyone and this agency when extended to everyone is one of the ingredients for what makes up for India.
The Indian state should find its moors in this civilizational legacy and build a modern Indian state where primacy of individual rights is supreme.
This definition of India puts them on the opposite side of those who believe that India is an entity brought together for, and to be kept together by, a strong state that should strive to accommodate its religious and cultural diversity.
A state that acknowledges groups and subordinates the rights of the individuals to the rights of those groups.
The authors frame both these points of views, and then drive home the point how the latter view, one that evolved under and was nurtured by each succeeding government of the republic, has been detrimental to India’s economic growth and how the whole idea of making a community belong to a nation, instead of making individuals belong to a nation, has only led to deepening of fissures.
Since the republic has been mostly run Congress and the dynasty, Nehru and his clan end up with most of the blame.
The authors go on to present in detail how economic policy making that encourages government control, rent seeking and ignores markets have left India impoverished and how civil laws that are aimed at accommodating religious identities have led to resentment and are a recipe for social conflict.
The book does not merely enumerate what is wrong and who should be held responsible for it, the authors go on to present a way forward.
The solutions lie in building robust state capacity that allows for markets to efficiently operate and doing away with sectarian laws to enable social cohesion.
They claim that the Narendra Modi government has used the last six years to lay down the path on these lines. Be it laws the allow for efficient working of markets- IBC and GST, to improving last mile delivery via the JAM trinity and restructuring of the administrative frame work.
It is their opinion that although much needs to be done, the NDA 2 government is on its way to reshaping India, an India that will be economically strong and will be rooted in modern liberal values that are similar to ancient Indian wisdom.
As a long time, reader of Harsh and Rajeev’s newspaper columns, time for a disclosure: I have known Harsh personally for a few years now – I more often than not find myself on the same page as Harsh in our world views, the lucid writing and substantiations with facts and figures is not surprising.
The writing, even when covering philosophical foundation of their arguments is plain and simple.
I did find the book harsh on Nehru.
Nehru alas is now a figure in this country who is either worshipped or held responsible for everything that is wrong with present day India.
We analyze his legacy with benefits of hindsight. Nehru like all humans operated in the realms of his bounded rationality.
We must also not forget, specially those of us who repose all their faith in wisdom of the electorate, that Nehru was democratically elected.
Who is to say he did not represent how Indians wanted to see India as much as Indians of today want India to be shaped by Narendra Modi?
Similarly, the writers go easy on Modi, the litany of laws that they think are sectarian in nature, whose eradication they think is key to building social cohesion, they don’t ask why Mr. Modi has not done anything about them.
If Mr. Modi with all the political capital that he enjoys, can not come around to changing those laws, who is to say that he himself does not believe in them and as a democratically elected leader, his thinking represents our thinking.
As to his economic legacy, we will have to wait and see, in so far, his big calls have been a mixed bag.
The inflation targeting framework and fiscal conservatism have been disastrous for the economy in the short term, while we await to see the positive impact of the reforms that writers mention.
The book though is a much-needed addition to the discourse.
For those stuck in social media driven echo chambers, it will either be a worthy peep into what the other side thinks or a provide arguments to elaborate on one’s own world view.
It is a must read for those trying to make sense of this young and vibrant country, for the points that the writers make will, in the humble opinion of this reviewer, shape the future course of this country.