Arun Bhatnagar’s recent book on India is an interesting read. Interesting in that in straddles the worlds of history and current affairs for over the past century. The book uses history to explain current affairs in a manner similar to M.J. Akbar’s famous book from the 1980s, India, The Siege Within: Challenges to a Nation’s Unity. And so it brings us from the early days of the politics behind the demand for Partition, with the founding of the All India Muslim League in 1906, to Doklam, Kashmir, demonetisation, right till the current moment.

As a recently-retired bureaucrat, the author has used his proximity to the governance process to deconstruct the various problems India faces and related failures in decision-making. This book examines India’s history from two strands—the run-up to and lingering effects of Partition and the growth of Hindu politics. In the hands of a historian this would not have worked—too large a canvas and too simplistic a set of explanations. But the author’s narrative works, throws in a description of the personalities involved, the cadres of the various bureaucrats involved, and does bring us crashing to the current moment, where history is being made and India’s rulers feel they can easily mould this country to their views. The siren call of eternal power pushes back the repeated lessons from history. It is India that moulds…

The author regrets the many mistakes the Congress, Gandhi, and Nehru made, which led to Partition, including the abrupt calling off of Chauri Chaura, the betrayal of Subhas Bose (and others not favoured by Gandhi and Nehru), the exclusion of the League in UP after the election of 1937, the resignation of the Congress ministries in 1939, the launch of the Quit India movement in 1942, the Congress repudiation of the Desai-Liaquat Ali Pact of 1945, and so on. This is well-trodden ground.

The author has given the passed-over contributions of Ambedkar, Savarkar, Syama Prasad Mookerjee, JP, Acharya Narendra Dev, Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, Malviya, Tandon, Morarji Desai, Shastri, and Sardar Patel, their due. Subsequently, he discusses in great detail the weaknesses of the Congress leadership after Independence, but this is no surprise, given the antecedents he has described. The deviousness of the Kamraj Plan to ensure Nehru stayed in his post, but decimated his potential competitors in the states, is a classic, besides the usual long list: Nehru’s handling of Kashmir, the venality of Krishna Menon, the atrocious misreading of China, the astounding number of kinsmen Nehru appointed as diplomats, and so on. Indira Gandhi’s treatment of General Bhagat because of his role in the Henderson Brooks report was new to me. As was Sardar Patel’s assertion that the interest from the funds received from Madhya Bharat were sufficient to cover the Privy Purses for all time to come.

While the author has a somewhat sympathetic view of the evolution of Hindu politics and the sacrifices of the early leaders (largely Hindutva politics now, but the read reminds us it was not always so: there was the Hindu Mahasabha, the Swatantra experiment, the rightist clique in the Congress, the BJS), the author has not shied away in discussing the limitations of the current government and its larger-than-life leader. The reliance on a highly-centralised bureaucracy in the Prime Minister’s Office, the lack of project-level success with Swachh Bharat, motivated appointments of less-than-suitable persons for public posts, no change in patronage postings after retirement for bureaucrats, sporadic foreign policy initiatives with little follow-up, lack of job creation, no interest in learning from professionals like Raghuram Rajan, deteriorating relations with neighbouring countries, no progress on Lok Pal, and so on.

Equally creditable is his criticism of the Vajpayee years, with their cronyism, mishandling of the Kandahar hijacking, failure of the military standoff in 2002, and the overall dubious role of Brijesh Mishra, among others. He rightly compares the corruption and nepotism of the Vajpayee government with that of the more recent Manmohan Singh government (notable examples he cites are the appointment of the current CAG, still going strong, and the botched role of the CAG in the affairs of Prasar Bharti after the CWG scandal).

Given these criticisms, I get the feeling the appreciation for the evolution of Hindu politics is less ideological than simply because they were underdogs.

The author’s family antecedents are not material to this read and could have been underplayed or dealt with in another book. The author is also cast in the standard mould of the statist bureaucracy, bemoaning poverty and declining standards, without sharing detailed learnings and insights on how to reverse these. Witness, “we also need a society based on honesty, equity, and justice”, “genuine wealth creation can happen only when resources are equitably distributed”. Leaving these anodyne aphorisms aside, the book is a good read even for an informed reader by a well-informed, well-read, and well-intentioned member of the establishment. A subsequent edition would benefit from more detailed chapter headings and sub-headings, and an improved index (no reference to Prof. Raghu Vira), so this can be useful to less informed readers as well.

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