The Politics of Dr Singh

Preface April 25 2009:  This article of mine has become a victim of bowdlerization on the Internet by someone who seems to support Dr Singh’s political adversaries.  I should say, therefore, as I have said before that  there is nothing personal in my critical assessment of Dr Singh’s economics and politics.  To the contrary, he has been in decades past a friend or at least a colleague of my father’s, and in the autumn of 1973 visited our then-home in Paris at the request of my father to advise me, then aged 18, before I embarked on my undergraduate studies at the London School of Economics.   My assessments in recent years like “The Politics of Dr Singh” or “Assessing Manmohan” etc need to be seen along with my “Assessing Vajpayee: Hindutva True and False”, “The Hypocrisy of the CPI-M”, “Against Quackery”, “Our Dismal Politics”, “Political Paralysis” etc.   (Also “Mistaken Macroeconomics”, June 2009). Nothing personal is intended in any of these; the purpose at hand has been to contribute to a full and vigorous discussion of the public interest in India.



Postscript 2 Sep 2013: See especially Did Jagdish Bhagwati “originate”, “pioneer”, “intellectually father” India’s 1991 economic reform?  Did Manmohan Singh? Or did I, through my encounter with Rajiv Gandhi, just as Siddhartha Shankar Ray told Manmohan & his aides in Sep 1993 in Washington?  Judge the evidence for yourself.  And why has Amartya Sen misdescribed his work? India’s right path forward today remains what I said in my 3 Dec 2012 Delhi lecture!

also from 2014:







Subroto Roy


First published in The Sunday Statesman Editorial Page Special Article, May 21 2006




Manmohan Singh matriculated during Partition, and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in economics from Punjab University in 1952 and 1954. He then went to Cambridge to read for the BA over two years. The pro-communist Joan Robinson and Nicholas Kaldor were dominant influences in Cambridge economics at the time. Mark Tully reports Dr Singh saying in 2005 he fell under their influence. “At university I first became conscious of the creative role of politics in shaping human affairs, and I owe that mostly to my teachers Joan Robinson and Nicholas Kaldor. Joan Robinson was a brilliant teacher, but she also sought to awaken the inner conscience of her students in a manner that very few others were able to achieve. She questioned me a great deal and made me think the unthinkable. She propounded the left wing interpretation of Keynes, maintaining that the state has to play more of a role if you really want to combine development with social equity. Kaldor influenced me even more; I found him pragmatic, scintillating, stimulating. Joan Robinson was a great admirer of what was going on in China, but Kaldor used the Keynesian analysis to demonstrate that capitalism could be made to work.”



Now, in fact, what was going on in China at that time was the notorious catastrophe caused by Mao Zedong known initially as the “Little Leap Forward” (with a Stalin-like collectivization of agriculture) and then as the “Great Leap Forward”. Mao later apologised to China’s people for his ignorance of microeconomic principles, admitting he “had not realised coal and steel do not move of their own accord but have to be transported”. If what Robinson was extolling to young Indians at Cambridge like Amartya Sen and Manmohan Singh in the mid 1950s was Mao’s China, it was manifest error.



As for Kaldor, the Canadian economist Harry Johnson independently reported that “being a man who rolls with the times fairly fast”, Kaldor “decided early on that capitalism actually was working. So for him the problem was, given that it works, it cannot possibly work because the theory of it is right. It must work for some quite unsuspected reason which only people as intelligent as himself can see.” Like Robinson, Kaldor made a handful of fine contributions to economic theory. But in policy-making he exemplified the worst leftist intellectual vanity and “technocratic” arrogance.



Returning to India, Manmohan Singh was required to spend three years at Chandigarh. In 1960, he left for Nuffield College to work for an Oxford DPhil on the subject of Indian exports. He returned to Chandigarh as required by government rules for another three years, and in 1966 left again until 1969, this time as a bureaucrat at the new UNCTAD in New York run by Raul Prebisch. A book deriving from his doctoral thesis was published by Clarendon Press in 1964.



In 1969, Dr Singh returned to India becoming Professor of International Trade at the Delhi School of Economics. A technical survey of mainstream Indian economic thinking done by his colleagues Jagdish Bhagwati and Sukhamoy Chakravarty published in the American Economic Review of 1969, made footnote references to his book in context of planning and protectionism, but not in the main discussion of Indian exports which at the time had to do with exchange-rate overvaluation.



After Indira Gandhi’s March 1971 election victory, Dr Singh came to the attention of Parameshwar Narain Haksar, who launched his career in bureaucracy after inviting him to write a political paper “What to do with the victory”. Haksar had been an Allahabad lawyer married into the Sapru family. In London as a student he was a protégé of R. Palme Dutt and Krishna Menon, and openly pro-USSR. He was close to the Nehrus, and Jawaharlal placed him in the new Foreign Service. He was four years older than Indira and later knew her husband Feroze Gandhi who died in 1960. By May 1967 Haksar was Indira’s adviser, and became “probably the most influential and powerful person in the Government” until 1974, when there was a conflict with her younger son. But Haksar’s influence continued well into the 1990s. His deeds include nationalization of India’s banks, the Congress split and creation of the Congress(I), and politicisation of the bureaucracy including the intelligence services. High quality independent civil servants became politically committed pro-USSR bureaucrats instead. Professionalism ended and the “courtier culture” and “durbar” politics began.



Haksar and T. N. Kaul were key figures negotiating the August 1971 “Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation” with the USSR, which was to run 25 years except the USSR collapsed before then. Indira had hosted Richard Nixon two years previously, and the Nixon-Kissinger attempt to get close to Zhou En Lai’s China using Pakistan’s Z. A. Bhutto and Yahya Khan (coinciding with Pakistan’s civil war) were undoubtedly factors contributing to India’s Soviet alliance.



As Haksar’s protégé, Dr Singh’s rise in the economic bureaucracy was meteoric. By 1972 he was Chief Economic Adviser and by 1976 Secretary in the Finance Ministry. The newly published history of the Reserve Bank shows him conveying the Ministry’s dictates to the RBI. In 1980-1982 he was at the Planning Commission, and in 1982-1985 he was Reserve Bank Governor (when Pranab Mukherjee was Finance Minister), followed by becoming Planning Commission head, until taking his final post before retirement heading the “South-South Commission” invented by Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, from August 1987 until November 1990 in Geneva.



Dr Singh joined Chandrashekhar’s Government on 10 December 1990, when Rajiv Gandhi was Leader of the Opposition yet supporting Chandrashekhar “from the outside”, and left when new elections were announced in March 1991. The first time his name arose in context of contemporary post-Indira Congress Party politics was on 22 March 1991 when M K Rasgotra challenged the present author to answer how Manmohan Singh would respond to proposals being drafted for a planned economic liberalisation of India by the Congress Party authorised by Rajiv since September 1990 (viz., “Memos to Rajiv” The Statesman 31 July-2 August 1991 republished here as “Three Memoranda to Rajiv Gandhi”; “The Dream Team: A Critique” The Statesman 6-8 January 2006 also republished here; see also “Rajiv Gandhi and the Origins of India’s 1991 Economic Reform” published elsewhere here, and in abbreviated form in Freedom First, October 2001).



Rajiv was assassinated on 21 May 1991, resulting in Narasimha Rao (who had been ill and due to retire) becoming PM in June 1991. Dr Singh told Tully: “On the day (Rao) was formulating his cabinet, he sent his Principal Secretary to me saying, `The PM would like you to become the Minister of Finance’. I didn’t take it seriously. He eventually tracked me down the next morning, rather angry, and demanded that I get dressed up and come to Rashtrapati Bhavan for the swearing in. So that’s how I started in politics”. In the same conversation, however, Dr Singh also said he learnt of “the creative role of politics” from Robinson, and hence he must have realised he actually became politically committed when he began to be mentored by Haksar — Indira Gandhi’s most powerful pro-communist bureaucrat. Before 1991, Dr Singh may be fairly described as a statist anti-liberal who travelled comfortably along with the tides of the pro-USSR New Delhi political and academic establishment, following every rule in the bureaucratic book and being obedient in face of arbitrary exercise of political and economic power. There is no evidence whatsoever of him having been a liberal economist before 1991, nor indeed of having originated any liberal economic idea afterwards. The Congress Party itself in May 2002 passed a resolution saying the ideas of India’s liberalisation had originated with neither him nor Narasimha Rao.



Indeed, the 1970s and 1980s saw onset of the worst macroeconomic policies with ruination and politicisation of India’s banking system, origins of the Rs 30 trillion (Rs 30 lakh crore) public debt we have today, and the start of exponential money supply growth and inflation. Along with Pranab Mukherjee, Dr Singh, as the exemplary Haksarian bureaucrat, must accept responsibility for having presided over much of that. If they are to do anything positive for India now, it has to be first of all to undo such grave macroeconomic damage. This would inevitably mean unravelling the post-Indira New Delhi structure of power and privilege by halting deficit finance and corruption, and enforcing clean accounting and audit methods in all government organisations and institutions. Even the BJP’s Vajpayee and Advani lacked courage and understanding to begin to know how to do this, allowing themselves to be nicely co-opted by the system instead. Rajiv might have done things in a second term; but his widow and her coalition government led by Dr Singh, who exemplified India’s political economy of the 1970s and 1980s, appear clueless as to the macroeconomic facts, and more likely to enhance rather than reverse unhealthy fiscal and monetary trends.


A Philosophical Conversation between Prof. Sen & Dr Roy

A Philosophical Conversation between Professor Sen & Dr Roy

First published in The Sunday Statesman, “8th Day”, May 14 2006



ROY: …The philosophers Renford Bambrough and John Wisdom would have been with you at Cambridge….

SEN: Wisdom I knew better; he was at my College; but you know my philosophy was not an important thing at the time. Among the philosophers there, it was C. D. Broad with whom I chatted more. But Wisdom I knew, and he mainly tried to encourage me to ride horses with him, which I didn’t.

ROY: You went to Cambridge in …

SEN: I went to Cambridge in 1953.

ROY: So Wittgenstein had just died…

SEN: Wittgenstein had died.

ROY: Only just in 1952 (sic).

SEN: But I knew a lot about the conversations between Wittgenstein and Sraffa because Sraffa was alive; I did a paper on that by the way.

ROY: Well that’s what I was going to ask, there is no trace of your work on Wittgenstein and the Wittgensteinians.

SEN: I don’t know why. My paper was published in the Journal of Economic Literature a couple of years ago. Now mind you it’s not a conclusion, just an interpretation, what was the role of Gramsci in the works of Sraffa and Wittgenstein, what is it that Sraffa actually did in intermediating between them.

ROY: In your book Identity and Violence, I was curious to find you call yourself a “dabbler” in Philosophy yet at the same time you are an eminent Professor of Philosophy at Harvard for decades. The question that arose was, were you being modest, and if so, truly or falsely?

SEN (laughs): I think if you make a statement which you suspect might have been made out of modesty and then I said it was because of modesty I think I would have eliminated the motivation for the statement as you identify it. I am not going to answer the question as to what I think.

ROY: But surely you are not a “dabbler” in Philosophy?

SEN: I am interested in Philosophy is what I meant, and whether I am a dabbler or whether I’ve succeeded in making some contribution is for others to judge. But not for me to judge.

ROY: Okay.

SEN: As for me, the right description is that I am a dabbler in Philosophy. But then that diagnostic is… mine, and I won’t go to war with others if someone disputes that. But it’s not for me to dispute it.

ROY: Would you, for example in reference to our discussion about Wittgenstein, say that you have contributed to Philosophy in and of itself regardless of Economics?

SEN: Most of my work on Philosophy has got nothing to do with Economics. It is primarily on Ethics, to some extent on Epistemology. And these are not “economic” subjects. I have never written on the “Philosophy of Economics” at all.

ROY: How about Ontology? I mean the question “What there is” would be…..

SEN: I am less concerned with Ontology or with Metaphysics than some people are. I respect the subject but I have not been involved.

ROY: You have not been involved?

SEN: Well, I have read a lot but I haven’t worked on it. I have worked on Ethics and Political Philosophy and I have worked on Epistemology and I have worked a little bit on Mathematical Logic. Those are the three main areas in which I have worked.

ROY: Why I say that is because, if the three main philosophical questions are summarised as “What is there?” (or “Who am I?”), “What is true?”, “What should I do?”, then the question “Who am I?” is very much a part of your concern with identity and a universal question generally, while “Is this true?” is relevant to Epistemology and “What should I do?” is obviously Ethics. Morton White summarised philosophy in those three questions. It seems to me you have in this book had to look at…

SEN: At all three of them.

ROY: Well, some Ontology at least.

SEN: But you know I agree with your diagnostic that the second question “What I regard myself to be, is that true?”, is a question of Epistemology, because that’s the context in which “Is it true?” comes in. The second is primarily an epistemological question. The third is, as you said, primarily an ethical question, though I do believe that the dichotomy between Epistemology and Ethics is hard to make. On that subject I would agree with Hilary Putnam’s last book, namely when he speaks of “the collapse of the fact-value dichotomy” which is sometimes misunderstood and described as the collapse of the fact-value distinction, which is not what Hilary Putnam is denying, he’s arguing that the dichotomy is very hard to sustain, because the linkages are so strong, that pursuit of one is always taking you into the other. But the first question you are taking to be an ontological question, “Who am I?”, and at one level you can treat it as that, but there is a less profound aspect of “Who am I?”, namely what would be the right way of describing me, to myself and to others, and that has a deep relationship with the second question. If the separation or dichotomy between the second and third raises some philosophical questions of significance, the dichotomy between the first and second would too. So “Who am I?” can be interpreted at a profound ontological level but it could also be interpreted at a level which is primarily fairly straightforward Epistemology. And it is at that level that I am taking that question to be. Namely: Am I a member of many different groups? Do I see myself as members of many different groups? If I do not see myself as members of many different groups, am I making a mistake in not seeing that I belong to many different groups? Is it the case that implicitly I often pursue things which are dependant on my seeing myself as being members of other groups than those which I explicitly acknowledge? These are the central issues of the “Who am I?” question in this book.

ROY: Well you haven’t used the word “identity” here but when you speak in your book of people having a choice of different identities, you are plainly not referring to multiple identities in the sense of the psychologist; are you not merely saying that everyone has different aspects or dimensions to his or her life, and is required to play different roles at different times in different contexts? Or is there something beyond that statement in your notion of “choice of identities”?

SEN: What I mean by “multiple identities” is, at one level, the most trivial, common but, at another level, most profoundly important recognition that we belong to many different groups: I’m an Indian citizen, I’m a British or American resident, I’m a Bengali, the poetry I like is Bengali poetry, I’m a man, I’m an economist, I belong to all these groups. Nothing complicated about that, and the multiple identity issues of the psychologist that you’re referring to indicate a certain level of complexity of humanity, and sometimes even of pathology perhaps, but that’s not what I am concerned with here, it’s just a common fact that there are many different groups to which any person belongs. And it’s on that extraordinarily simple fact that I am trying to construct a fairly strong, fairly extensive set of reasonings, because that forces us to see the importance of our own choice, our own decisions in deciding on how should I see myself, how would it be correct to see myself given the problems I am facing today, and given the priorities that I will have to examine.

ROY: But if we don’t use the word “groups” just for a minute, then we are not too far wrong to just say that everyone has different aspects or dimensions to their lives, so one dimension could be nationality, one dimension sexuality, one dimension one’s intellectual upbringing, then any person, any character in a novel would have different dimensions….

SEN: The difficulty with that, Subroto, is that in the same aspect we may have more than one…

ROY: Dimension?

SEN: Well dimension tries to capture in a Cartesian space a rather more complex reality, and you know I don’t think this is a metric space we are looking at, so dimensionality is not a natural thought in this context. One thing I am very worried about is when something which is very simple appears to people as being either profoundly right or profoundly mistaken. I’ll try to claim that it is right and it is not very profound but that it is not very profound does not mean people don’t miss it and end up making mistakes. In terms of the aspects of my life which concern my enjoying poetry, there may be many different groups to which I belong, one of them is that I can appreciate Bengali poetry in a way that I will not be able to appreciate poetry in some language which I speak only very little, like Italian poetry for example. But on the other hand, in addition to that, in the same aspect of my appreciating poetry, there may be the fact that I am not as steeped into historical romance which also figures in poetry or patriotic poetry and these are all again classifications which puts me in some group, in the company of some and not in the company of others, and therefore an aspect does not quite capture with the precision the group classification that I was referring to does capture.

ROY: Well, groups we can quarrel about perhaps because groups may not be well- defined…

SEN: Don’t go away Subroto but that does not make any difference, because many groups are not well-defined but they are still extremely important…

ROY: Of course there are overlapping groups…

SEN: Not only overlapping, but you know that is a different subject on the role of ambiguity, that is a very central issue in Epistemology, and the fact of the matter is that there are many things for which there are ambiguities about border which are nevertheless extremely important as part of our identity. Where India begins and China ends or where China begins and India ends may not be clear, but the distinction between being an Indian and being Chinese is very important, so I think that this border dispute gets much greater attention in the social sciences than it actually deserves.

ROY: Well, one of the most profoundly difficult and yet universally common dilemmas in the modern world has to do with women having to choose between identities outside and inside the home. Does your theory of identity apply to that problem, and if so, how?

SEN: I think the choice is never between identities, the choice is the importance that you attach to different identities all of which may be real. The fact of the matter is that a woman may be a member of a family, a woman is also a member of a gender, namely being a woman, a woman may also have commitment to her profession, may have commitment to a politics…

ROY: Does your theory help her in any way, specifically?

SEN: The theory is not a do-it-yourself method of constructing an identity. It is an attempt to clarify what are the questions that anyone who is thinking about identity has to sort out. It is the identification of questions with which the book is concerned, and as such, insofar as the woman is concerned… indeed the language that you use Subroto, that what you have to choose between identities, I would then say that what I am trying to argue is that’s not the right issue, because all these would remain identities of mine but the relative importance that I attach to the different identities is the subject in which I have to make a choice, and that’s the role of the theory…

ROY: They are all different aspects of the same woman.

SEN: Yes indeed. If not explicitly then implicitly, but that is part of the recognition that we need, it is not a question that by giving importance to one of those compared with the others you’re denying the other identities. To say that something is more important than another in the present context is not a denial that the other is also an identity. So I think the issue of relative importance has to be distinguished from the existence or non-existence of these different identities.

ROY: Well, you’ve wished to say much about Muslims in this book….

SEN: That’s not entirely right. I would say that I do say something about the Muslims in this book….

ROY: … yet one gets the impression that you have not read The Quran. Is that an accurate impression?

SEN: No, it’s not.

ROY: You have read The Quran?

SEN: Yes.

ROY: In English, presumably?

SEN: In Bengali to be exact. Not in Arabic, you probably have read it in Arabic.

ROY (laughs): No, just in English. Is it possible to understand a Muslim’s beliefs until and unless one sees the world from his/her perspective? I had to read The Quran to see if I could understand — attempt to understand — the point of view of Muslims. Does one need to read The Quran in order to see their perspective?

SEN: Well it depends on how much expertise you want to acquire. That is, if you have to understand what the Quranic beliefs are, to which Muslims as a group – believing Muslims, who identify themselves as believing and practising Muslims – as opposed to Muslims by ancestry and therefore Muslims in a denominational sense, yes indeed, if you want to pursue what practising and believing Muslims practise and believe then you would have to read The Quran. But a lot of people would identify themselves as Muslim who do not follow these practises or for that matter beliefs, but who would still identify themselves as Muslims because in the sense of a community they belong to that. I mean even Mohammad Ali Jinnah did not follow many of the standard Muslim practises, that did not make him a non-Muslim because a “Muslim” can be defined in more than one way. One is to define somebody who is a believing and practising Muslim, the other is somebody who sees himself as a Muslim and belongs to that community, and in the context of the world in which he lives that identity has some importance which it clearly had in the case of Mohammad Ali Jinnah.

ROY: Well, Muslims like Jews and Christians believe the Universe had a deliberate Creation; Hindus and Buddhists may not quite agree with that. Muslims will further believe that the Creator spoke once and only once definitively through one man, namely Muhammad in the 7th Century in Arabia. Would you not agree that no person can deny that and still be a Muslim?

SEN: I think you’re getting it wrong Subroto. It said Muhammad was the last prophet, it does not deny that there existed earlier prophets. Therefore it’s not the case as you said that God spoke alone and uniquely and only once.

ROY: Definitively?

SEN: No, no, Muslims believe that it was definitely spoken at each stage — as a follow up, like Christians misunderstood what message the prophet called Jesus was carrying and they deified Jesus, there was a need for turning a page, that’s the understanding; it’s not the case that’s what Muslims believe, that is not the Quranic view at all, that God spoke only once to Muhammad, that’s not the Quranic belief

ROY: True, true enough..

SEN: But you said that Subroto!

ROY: What I meant was “definitively”, the word “definitively” meaning that…
SEN: Definitively they would say that at each stage there was a memory, and the memory and the understanding got corrupted over time and that’s why they were also so wild about idolatry for example

ROY: Well the Ahmadiyas, for example, are considered non-believers by many Muslims because they claim that there …

SEN: That also brings out the point I was making, that Ahmadiyas see themselves as Muslim….

ROY: Indeed.

SEN: …and in terms of one of the definitions of Muslim that I am giving you, namely as a person who sees himself as a Muslim, or herself as a Muslim, and regards that identity to be important is a Muslim according to that definition; another one would apply a test which is what many of the more strict Sunnis and Shias do, namely, that whether they accept Muhammad as the last prophet, and insofar as Ahmadiyas don’t accept that, then they would say then you are not Muslim…

ROY: Well they do actually…

SEN: Well they do, but in terms…I think what I am telling you is that in terms of the Shia-Sunni orthodox critique they say that in effect they don’t accept that, that is the charge against them, but those who believe that would say that on that ground Ahmadiyas are not Muslim. So I think there is a distinction in the different ways that Muslims can be characterised….

Addendum to *Modern World History, 2006*

From Facebook:

Subroto Roy adds to his 2006 essay *Modern World History* as follows:

“Throughout the 19th Century and spilling into the 20th, from the rise of Napoleon to the start of WWI, first France and then Britain were in rapid ascendancy in the world – only to decline (into near nothingness in case of France) in WWII before recovering to return to the rank of respectable powers in the second half of the 20thC. The 20th C saw rise of Germany, Japan, Communist Russia & the USA to world supremacy; Germany and Japan then vanquished themselves into near nothingness by wars they created, and Russia too, perhaps less so, by the (Leninist-Stalinist) ideology it had adopted as a cost of progress; the victor in each case was the USA and its allies Britain and France. At the close of the 20th C, the USA was unquestionably predominant in the world – only to receive a sudden and near-blinding blow in the eye by way of the 9/11 attacks from which it has taken a decade to recover. China, India and the Muslim world remain, in the main, defensive powers, not seeking foreign dominions themselves so much as seeking to prevent further foreign domination as they have suffered in the past – in this China, both Communist and Non-Communist, may be more successful than the others. Israel and Iran are indeed the new kids on the block and their unruly conflict does indeed portend the gravest risk to world tranquility in the 21st Century. Martin Buber’s statement suggesting Israel should seek to be an Asian and not a European power “pursuing the settlement effort in Palestine in agreement, nay, alliance with the peoples of the East, so as to erect with them together a great federative structure, which might learn and receive from the West whatever positive aims and means might be learnt and received from it, without, however, succumbing to the influence of its inner disarray and aimlessness”, holds an important key.

Revisionist Flattery of Indira Gandhi

Inder Malhotra’s Indira Gandhi : A Review Article
by Subroto Roy
First published in The Statesman May 7 2006,

Indira Priyadarshini Nehru was fortunate to have been a handsome woman born to an eminent and indulgent father and grandfather. Despite her lack of higher education or significant worldly wisdom or experience, she acquired enough of an aura of being born to rule that she became Congress Party President in 1959 at age 41, and India’s most dramatic Prime Minister from 1966-1977 and again from 1980-1984 when she was assassinated. She was lucky too that the Zoroastrian man she married did not have one of the many long and colourful surnames Indian Zoroastrians can have, but coincidentally shared the same surname as modern India’s founder. Hence arose the iconic name and personage known as Indira Gandhi.

“The evil that men do lives after them, the good is often interred with their bones”, said Shakespeare. Indira Gandhi’s one and paramount good deed as India’s leader and indeed as a world leader of her time was to have fought a war that was so rare in international law for having been unambiguously just. And she fought it flawlessly. The cause had been thrust upon her by an evil enemy’s behaviour against his own people, an enemy supported by the world’s strongest military power with pretensions to global leadership. Victims of the enemy’s wickedness were scores of millions of utterly defenceless, penniless human beings. Indira Gandhi did everything right. She practised patient but firm diplomacy on the world’s stage to avert war if it was at all possible to do. She chose her military generals well and took their professional judgement seriously as to when to go to war and how to win it. Finally, in victory she was magnanimous to the enemy that had been defeated. Children’s history-books in India should remember her as the stateswoman who freed a fraternal nation from tyranny, at great expense to our own people. As a war-leader, Indira Gandhi displayed extraordinary bravery, courage and good sense.

Unfortunately, this was the only arena in which these virtues of hers came to be expressed. India’s serious history-books, beyond those written for or read by children, need to record that her sheer ignorance of the fundamentals of domestic statecraft as well as her caprice, arrogance and hubris caused permanent harm to India’s polity in innumerable dimensions from which we have yet long to recover. On advice first of her childhood acquaintance, the proto-communist P. N. Haksar, and later of her ruffian unprincipled younger son Sanjay, she single-handedly destroyed India’s nascent parliamentary traditions, federalism, the Rule of Law, and its most important political party; the integrity of the civil services, judiciary, police, intelligence services and other public institutions; as well as monetary and fiscal prudence Beside this, she and her younger son Sanjay contributed to destroying communal harmony and political stability in the Punjab, while she and later her older son Rajiv contributed to do the same in Kashmir. She exulted in the personality cult, courtier culture and durbar politics of her father and grandfather.

Many pertinent questions about the personal and political life of Indira Gandhi have remained to be answered by any serious modern biographer. Her relationships with her husband and his rival for her time and affections, her father, remain in darkness, as does, after their deaths, her relationship between 1967- 1974 with Haksar, her key adviser. Her capacity and her failures as a mother to two very different sons also remain unclear. Her own lack of education was transmitted to them and neither succeeded at what he studied to be, though at least Rajiv became a gentleman. Her father had been an indifferent husband to Kamala and she an indifferent wife to Feroze — the most important thing her sons may have done with their lives was to have married women she did not choose for them, and then to have become well-loved spouses themselves. As mother-in-law, her petulant bullying of the young Sikh widow of Sanjay, mother of an infant child at the time, remains to be contrasted with her apparent warmth and generosity towards her Italian-born elder daughter-in-law. All such questions would be ones of feminine gossip or TV-soap operas in case of any ordinary woman but assume political significance for Indians because of the inordinate impact she, her father, her sons and their widows have had on India’s modern history. Why all of India’s national-level politics have acquired a gossipy joint-family tone about them is because she projected onto them no high and universally known political principles whatsoever, but merely her own personal experiences and desire for popularity.

The book at hand provides almost no new fact or insight on any relevant extant personal or political question about Indira Gandhi at all. The one exception has to do with a brief discussion of her relationship with Lal Bahadur Shastri which reveals her naked ambition most clearly, though the author is too ingratiating to wish to draw such a conclusion himself. He meekly deflects blame for her faults onto exogenous random shocks like monsoon failures, the rise in petroleum prices or other uncontrollable international events, or the ill-will of others. The most fawning apologists and cultists are quoted with approval: Sanjay was merely “inept”, the Emergency was brought on by its victims and not such a bad thing really, the Shah Commission resembled “a Chinese people’s court”, Maneka was a “rebellious chit of a girl”, etc. Two decades later, we must expect the greatest detachment and calm objectivity in any serious treatment of this complex stateswoman’s life. What we have instead received — at a time when Rajiv’s widow is in power in Delhi and Haksar’s protégé is her PM, while The Mitrokhin Archives II are published — is a clear attempt at revisionist flattery, complete with Indira’s face smiling at us at the start of every chapter and old propaganda photos from the PIB. This is deeply unfortunate coming from the National Book Trust. Indeed, neither she nor her father deserve further inquiry and reflection today more than do their respective spouses, Feroze Gandhi and Kamala Nehru, both of whom died prematurely.

Modern World History


by Subroto Roy

First published in The Sunday Statesman, Editorial Page Special Article May 7 2006

MUCH as we in India might like to think we were the central focus of Britain’s national life in the 19th and 20th Centuries, we were not. India’s matters were handled mostly by a senior cabinet minister to whom the governor-general or viceroy reported. Though possession and control of India gave the British a sense of mission, self-importance and grandeur, and events in India (mostly bad ones) could hog the newspapers for a few days, it was never the case that India dominated Britain’s political consciousness or national agenda for any length of time. British prime ministers and diplomatists, from Pitt through Canning, Palmerston, Peel, Gladstone, Granville, Disraeli and Salisbury, mostly had other concerns of foreign policy, mostly in Europe and also in the Americas, Africa, and the Near and Far East. India was peripheral to their vision except as a place to be held against any encroachment.

A French historian used to begin lectures on British history saying “Messieurs, l’Angleterre est une ile.” (“Gentlemen, Britain is an island.”) The period of unambiguous British dominance of world diplomacy began with Pitt’s response to the French Revolution, and unambiguously ended in 1917 when Britain and France could have lost the war to Germany if America had not intervened. Since then, America has taken over Britain’s role in world diplomacy, though Lloyd George and Churchill, to a smaller extent Harold Wilson, and finally Thatcher, were respected British voices in world circles. Thatcher’s successor Major failed by seeming immature, while his successor Blair has failed by being immature to the point of being branded America’s “poodle”, making Britain’s loss of prestige complete.

Between Pitt and Flanders though, Britain’s dominance of world affairs and the process of defining the parameters of international conduct was clear. It was an era in which nations fought using ships, cannon, cavalry and infantry. The machine-gun, airpower and  automobile had been hardly invented. Yet it is amazing how many technological inventions and innovations occurred during that era, many in Britain and the new America, vastly improving the welfare of masses of people: the steam-engine, the cotton gin, railways, electricity, telecommunications, systems of public hygiene etc. The age of American dominance has been one of petroleum, airpower, guided missiles and nuclear energy, as well as of penicillin and modern medicine.

It was during the period 1791-1991, between the French Revolution and the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, that world diplomacy created the system of “Western” nation-states, from Canning’s recognition of Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia etc to the emergence of the European Union. There is today peace in Europe and it has become unthinkable there will be war between e.g. France and Germany except on a soccer pitch. Even the unstable Balkans have stabilised. The transition from British to American dominance occurred during and because of the 1914-1918 World War, yet that war’s causes had nothing to do with America and hence America’s rise has been somewhat fortuitous. The War superficially had to do with those unstable Balkans in the summer of 1914 and the system of alliances developed over the previous 100 years; beneath was the economic rise of the new Germany.

Austro-Hungary went to war against Serbia, causing Germany its ally into war with Russia, Serbia’s ally. Belgium’s neutrality was guaranteed through British diplomacy by the Treaty of London in 1839 signed by Austria, France, Britain, Russia and Prussia. This “scrap of paper” Germany tore up to invade Belgium on 4 August 1914, because it was easier to attack France through Belgium than directly as most French generals had expected. Though Germany had no dispute with France, France was Russia’s ally, and the Germans had long-feared fighting on two fronts against larger but more slowly mobilising forces. Violation of Belgian neutrality caused Britain into war with Germany. So all Europe was at war from which it would fail to extricate itself without American intervention. This arrived in 1917 though it too had been provoked by German submarines sinking American ships in the Atlantic. The actual impact of American forces entering the battlefields was small, and it was after the Armistice, when the issue arose of reparations by Germany to everyone and repayments by Britain and France to America, that America’s role became dominant. New York took over from London as the world’s financial capital.

Woodrow Wilson longed to impose a system of transparent international relations on the Europeans who had been used to secret deals and intrigues. He failed, especially when America’s Senate vetoed America’s own entry into the League of Nations. America became isolationist, wishing to have nothing more to do with European wars ~ and remains to this day indifferent towards the League’s successor. But the War also saw Lenin’s Bolsheviks grab power after Russia extricated itself from fighting Germany by the peace of Brest-Litovsk. And the Armistice saw the French desire to humiliate and destroy German power for ever, which in turn sowed the seeds for Hitler’s rise. And the War also had led to the British making the Balfour Declaration that a Jewish “National Home” would arise in Palestine in amity and cooperation with the Arabs. The evolution of these three events dominated the remainder of the 20th Century ~along with the rise and defeat of an imperialist Japan, the rise of communist China, and later, the defeat of both France and America in Vietnam.

Hitler invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, and Britain and France declared war on Germany on 3 September. The next day in faraway India, the British in a panic started to place Jinnah on an equal footing as Gandhi ~ astounding Jinnah himself as much as anyone since his few supporters had lost the 1937 elections badly, especially in the provinces that today constitute the country he wished for. After the defeat and occupation of Germany and Japan, America’s economic supremacy was unquestionable. Utterly exhausted from war, the British had no choice but to leave India’s angry peoples to their own fates, and retreated to their fortified island again ~ though as brown and black immigration increased with the end of Empire, many pale-skinned natives boarded ships for Canada, Australia and New Zealand.  America came to have much respect for its junior British ally during the fight against Hitler and later in the political battle against the USSR. It was Thatcher who (after battling Argentina in the South Atlantic) led Reagan to make peace with Gorbachov. With the end of Soviet communism, Germany would be unified again. All across Christendom there was peace for the first time ever, and a militarily powerful nuclear-armed Israel had been created too in the old Palestine. In this new period of world history, the Security Council’s permanent members are the modern version of the “Great Powers” of the 19th Century. The American-led and British-supported destruction of Baathist Iraq, and threatened destruction of Khomeinist Iran mark the final end of the League of Nations’ ethos which had arisen from the condemnation of aggression. In Osama bin Laden’s quaint idiom, there seems a battle of “Crusaders” and “Zionists” against Muslim believers. Certainly Muslim believers (which means most Muslims as there are relatively few agnostics and atheists among them) think that it is obvious that the Universe was created, and that its Creator finally and definitively spoke through one human being in 7th Century Arabia. Many people from North Africa to the Philippines are not often able to conceive how things might have been otherwise. The new era of history will undoubtedly see all kinds of conversations take place about this rather subtle question.