Book Review: The Idea of India by Sunil Khilnani

I’m currently mid way through the The Idea of Indiaby Sunil Khilnani, and I thought I’d do a review before finishing the book because I don’t think I will find anything that will change my mind later on, and it’s taking longer than usual for me to finish this book, and sometimes if I wait too long I just end up not writing about the topic.

I picked up this book mainly because of its title. I love the ring of the phrase “Idea of India”, and have often heard other people refer to it as well.

My expectation from the book was that it will weave a narrative that describes and defines what India stands for, and the things which people identify with, and stories about how a country can have the richest men in the world and at the same time have no electricity for a large part of its population.

Halfway through; that expectation has not been met.

I have not come across any such narrative so far, but rather the book has focused on the history of modern India, and spoken about things from Nehru’s economic leanings, Indira Gandhi’s emergency, economic liberalization, and other such things.

I find these things fascinating, and there are several sections that throw new light on things that you’ve heard or studied before. Let’s look at a passage from the book to see what I mean.

The bright arc of the West’s history illuminated for Nehru a silhouette of India’s future economic possibilities. It encouraged him to believe that an independent India could follow three ends simultaneously: industrialization directed by the state, constitutional democracy, and economic and social redistribution. This project was rather distant from Soviet practice, and much closer to post-war European social democracy.

While I’m sure a lot of people have read and heard about our mixed economy, usually there isn’t much digging into why things came to be that way, and what other alternatives were explored, what was the rationale, the goals etc.

Further ahead, the book states that America gave India quite a lot of aid after independence and they wanted India to develop consumer based industries that yielded returns fairly quickly. India, on the other hand was more interested in developing heavy industries and becoming self reliant, but of course these type of industries had high gestation periods. The USSR was willing to extend this know – how to India, and extend its sphere of influence, and that’s how the closer ties between the two came to be.

As far as I can remember, I’ve never heard or a read such a comparison elsewhere, so these were good things for me to learn, and understand the context of our current situation a little better.

Of course, I recognize that some of the things stated here are inferences drawn by Mr. Khilnani, and will not be accepted by other people in the know.

When you’re discussing history, you will get to see it through the lens of the writer; I don’t think there is any factual history at all. Everything is laced with the writer’s view of the world.

If you’re interested in Indian history post Independence, and are comfortable in the knowledge that this is one of many possible perspectives then I recommend this book.

However, I don’t think this book will satisfy readers who are really looking for an idea of India.

It’s not a heavy book, but it’s not light reading either, so I wouldn’t expect most people to coast through it, but if you’re interested in the topic, then the The Idea of India makes for good reading.

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