Utpal Borpujari

January 11, 2010

Meghnad Desai and his idea of India

Lord Meghnad Desai is a man of many talents. Proof of that lies in the over books the noted economist – he is a professor emeritus with the London School of Economics where he taught from 1965 to 2003 – has written on subjects ranging from economy, politics, society, religion and cinema, apart from fiction. The Vadodara-born Desai is a member of the British Labour Party who was awarded the Bharatiya Pravasi Puraskar in 2004 and the Padma Bhushan in 2008. Desai’s latest book is a voluminous treatise on the idea of India, in which he tries to analyse what makes India, India. In doing so, he has gone through the history of India in the last 500 years, seeking to give answers to contradictions that define the world’s largest democracy. The book, The Rediscovery of India (Allen Lane, Penguin), reflects Desai’s thought process as an observer of socio-politics of the country. Here, the author talks to Deccan Herald’s Utpal Borpujari on why he thought it was necessary to write this book:

Is this a reinterpretation of Nehru’s Discovery of India?

This is not a critique or a reworking of Nehru’s book. Let’s put it this way –this is my discovery of India, though that would be too arrogant to say that. I began to think very early on that India was different from what I was being taught it was. And I began to form the idea that maybe we should really look at India from the provincial angle than this top angle. It’s definitely not Nehruvianism that made India, India. That worked in the pre-Independence time but it was a whole different India being constructed after Independence. Some of the quarrels in recent times have been about these outdated stories about what makes India, India. The South is neglected in these stories, the North-East is not even a part of it. This is the Delhi Sultanate story, and it’s tiresome. It was a story invented for the British, not for us.

Is it also a comparison between what you were told India would be when you were young and what India became later?

Absolutely. When I was very young, growing up in Bombay, the whole air was about India would have modernity, would be scientific, progressive, socialist all that. I could see that all that Nehruavian thing was just a façade. The real India that emerged was highly religious, and I think Nehruvians were worried about religion being by itself anti-secular, and they just could not get into terms with the fact that somehow they became afraid of religion, especially Hindu religion. I have lived in societies that are both religious and secular, in both the US and the UK. When the society is secular, the state may be religious or vice versa. What matters is not religion, what matters is how citizens are treated. Secondly, I have to admit that I had never thought that India would be so prosperous as it is today. I had to give all kinds of excuses to foreigners on why India was not prospering, and I had begun to think that I would be very critical of the whole Planning mechanism. But the economic liberalisation has been a real smart shift, which Indira Gandhi could have done, but did not do as she got entangled with her political games.

You have just last 50 years outside India. Was it easier for you to observe these changes in India more objectively because you were outside?

I think so, because I could be distant without losing my roots and also could have clear thinking. I presume that in India it is very difficult to be an independent academic. Sooner or latter you have to declare which party you adhere to. Political patronisation is very, very important here. I am not saying political patronisation corrupts people, but it should not influence your thinking. I have lived for 50 years in societies where I did not have to flatter anybody. I was able to cultivate independence in behaviour and thinking.

But you have been associated with the Labour Party in the UK. Did that not influence your thinking?

That has in a sense that British Labour Party’s vision of India is quite flawed. But being in politics, it has thought me how things work in politics – how you cannot be impatient, how you cannot be a radical, how you have to take people along. In India too, it is no longer that you say something and everyone will follow. Even with Nehru, in some matters people did not support him and tied him down. Also, there is another thing about India – there is a large degree of amnesia, people have forgotten who the real leaders were.

Do you think the word “secular: has been a misused in India?

I think it has hollowed out now. The good guys, the progressive, nice people think that they have to be “secular” because they think the alternative to it is darkness, fundamentalism. These people were very clever, so they came up with very sophisticated words about of why Indian secularism is so different. My view is that let’s stop all that. Don’t accept this dichotomy, this duality. First of all, you should look at it as a matter of citizen’s rights, rather than a group’s rights – secularism is all about groups. I don’t want my rights to be satisified because of a group, I want it to be satisfied because I am me. I want my rights to be satisfied not because I am a Muslim or a Hindu or an OBC, but because I am an individual. That particular idea I could develop only because I was abroad. Had I been here, I would have given a more Vedantic definition of secularism. For the politicians in India, secularism means Muslim vote, and nothing else. You can be a casteist party and whatever, but you are secular if you have Muslim votes with you. This is also a very much North Indian thing again. It’s not that I am against tolerance, but there are other ways of getting good values, without getting into this secularism bandwagon.

A large part of India is also witnessing Maoist upheavals. Is it a sign of the failure of the political system, because fruits of development have not reached large parts of the country?

There are two things involved in it. Fruits of development are always uneven. The idea that development would be balanced is a textbook notion. Development does not happen because of the government’s right programme, it happens because people seeks opportunities and seize them. It also depends of geography, ecological references – whether you live in an arid land area or not. The government to a certain extent make it happen. I think Indian developmental vision believes too much on the government’s ability to shape it. But the more significant failure is that the tribal population of India, which is really disparate, has not really had as much politicization as say backward castes and dalits have. Indian politics was modified by Dalit-OBC action. The tribals have not been able to do the same thing. The main issue in Naxalism is common property which was nationalized, and this is supposed to be development. People did not realize that it was anti-development. The very weak political leadership among the tribals added to the trouble. No political party, neither the Communist parties nor Congress, has cultivated any tribal leadership to the extent one would have liked. In the mid 1970s, there was a movement called Lokayan, which expressed dissatisfaction with governance. Indira Gandhi did not give importance to that. Now that’s coming back. The important thing is that it requires reversing what the previous generation thought was development. Depriving people of common property is not a developmental thing, but both the capitalist and socialist models of development are against common property.

(An abridged version was published in Deccan Herald, www.deccanherald.com, www.deccanheraldepaper.com, 10-01-2010)




  1. Delhi Sultanate.. the British saw themselves as successor government of the Mongols so they glorified them, even accepting that the 7 storey Taj Mahal an old Hindu Temple Palace Complex which did even contain the corpse of the Queen was built by the Mongols.. how could Cunningham concede that we Hindus built something so grand that it is we Hindus who should be ruling the Brits… not vice versa

    Comment by karam c. ramrakha — January 22, 2010 @ 10:33 am | Reply

  2. It is sheer numbers, its complex units and cells which pervade every part of the population in every corner of India which keeps India as one united and not disparate force

    Comment by karam c. ramrakha — January 22, 2010 @ 10:37 am | Reply

  3. why we relate to British Labour Party because it was Clement Atlee which conceded freedom to India.. Churchil sniffed at us and said (I hope I am not wrong) What is India .. it is just geography.. yes we Indians relate to Labour Party the world over.. Long live Socialism

    Comment by karam c. ramrakha — January 22, 2010 @ 10:40 am | Reply

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