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The State of The Nation by Fali S. Nariman

The State of The NationThe State of The Nation by Fali S. Nariman

My Rating★★★★★

This book was an Independence day gift to myself and it has turned out to be a good choice. In Nariman’s exploration and assessment of various issues based on constitutional tenets, the ‘state of the nation’ seems healthy only when these issues collide with the courts of law. Men seem good, reason seems triumphant and government officials and leaders seem to be the arbitrary children that they actually are, but all without feeling that this is cause for a tragic gloom – because the parent is around to discipline them. We need the courts to overreach, Nariman seems to be saying in all earnestness (with his characteristically profligate smattering of exclamation marks in the text).

It has to be admitted that there is a genuine (almost perverse) pleasure in seeing leaders who are consistently acknowledged to be the scourge of modern India being put in their place, being given a public reassessment of their sense of importance. This is what Nariman provides (drawing heavily on his 60 odd years of experience at the bar) through his numerous anecdotes and mini case-studies – this is also what the courts Vs government drama provides to the common man. It allows us to generate a healthy skepticism of the government and moves us away from the ‘mai-baap’ mentality. The highest courts play a vital role in this.

While the Govt might see this as an erosion of credibility, and resent this incursion and ‘overreach’ Nariman seems to say that this is exactly what the doctor (constitution) ordered in the first place: what a good governance really requires are institutions that have full cognizance of their own fragility and of their own failures.

Thus the majority of the book enumerates the state of the nation using the Constitution as a yardstick and seems to imply that as long as we have wise men in the courts acting as zealous watchdogs of the Constitution, democracy is safe and if not progress, at least regress is effectively checked.

So while saying in not as many words that the state of the nation is bad but could have been much worse if not for the courts, Nariman has the conscientiousness to also examine his beloved judiciary itself. And to his credit, he does a remarkable objective and unbiased take on it. The last chapter is almost ominous, and almost certainly deliberately exaggerated. The spirit of the chapter is that if the nation, Constitution and democracy is being guarded by the judiciary, we need to ask every now and then the clichéd question: ‘who will watch the watchmen’. And we need to be very very aware of the real and present dangers.

But in the end, I have not let the brooding last chapter detract from the overriding confidence that the book asks of me towards the judiciary and by proxy to the nation and its ‘state’. Every section in this book begins with one of the political cartoons of the legendary ‘common man’ (from the series of iconic sketches by Laxman who used to express the ‘state of the nation’ more powerfully than what many serious journos ever managed – a role that the amul ads now seem to be valiantly trying to fill) that illustrates poignantly some of the issues that Nariman wants to address in it. The last chapter did not have one, presumably because he could not find one. In the end, that lack of a cartoon was the most telling thing for me.

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Posted by on August 16, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts


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Makers of Modern India by Ramachandra Guha

Makers of Modern India

Makers of Modern India by Ramachandra Guha

My Rating★★★☆☆

To make the Indian experience more central to global debates is one aim of this book. Another, and perhaps greater aim, is to make Indians more aware of the richness and relevance of their modern political tradition.

After such bold claims, I was disappointed to find that the book is in fact an anthology of Indian political writing. I strongly feel a commentary would have been better to meet the professed aims of the book and could have been made more impact-full with short relevant extracts

The questionable set chosen as “Makers of Modern India” include nineteen famous and not-so-famous names:
Rammohan Roy (Part I); Syed Ahmad Khan, Jotirao Phule, Tarabai Shinde, Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Bal Gangadhar Tilak (Part II); M.K. Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, B.R. Ambedkar, M.A. Jinnah, E.V. Ramaswami and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay (Part III); Jawaharlal Nehru, M.S. Golwalkar, C. Rajagopalachari, Rammanohar Lohia, Jayaprakash Narayan and Verrier Elwin (Part IV); and Hamid Dalwai (Part V).

As a contemporary alternative to Argumentative Indian, I am not sure it succeeds – except by showing that a connected tradition built on boldness, challenge, contest and contrast existed in the vast correspondences that contemporary Indian thinkers were capable of producing. Guha illustrates this in a way by showing a connected series of thoughts evolving by bouncing around between the set of characters above, original thoughts arising and then being furiously debated and progressing in dramatic point-counter-point fashion (mostly Gandhian ideas of course, but still…) towards action and sometimes even more dramatic reaction in the crucible of Indian Democracy.

The essentially disputatious nature of this tradition is manifest throughout this book. The pity is that very little of this intellectual ‘tradition’ was meant for mass consumption or was based on a focused and sustained attempt at analyzing and evolving systems of thought but seem to be individual contributions to individual problems – a method that has always plagued Indian political thought and has probably resulted in the poverty of thought post-independence.

That sort of integration is probably what is needed before India can submit the results of her social and democratic experiment to the world and from it evolve a new conception of democracy relevant to a more diverse world than that existed when democracy was originally conceived. Guha has taken a first step in this direction and I sincerely hope a more synthetic attempt will follow one day.

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Posted by on May 5, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books


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Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire

Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an EmpireIndian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire by Alex von Tunzelmann

My Rating★★★★☆

Tunzelmann has concocted a very readable and balanced history of the last days of Empire. Tunzelmann avoids demonizing any sect, individual or nation and shows the circuitous routes through which every decision was squeezed out, many tragedies averted and many more inadvertently precipitated.

He shows the human frailties and noble aspirations of all of the major participants and does not shirk away from exploring the controversial bullheadedness of Gandhi or from going into great detail about the relationship between Nehru and the Mountbattens, especially the amorous ones.

This was perhaps the best handled of all the topics by Tunzelmann – he weaves an almost spiritual love story between Nehru and Edwina that borders on the outrageous but always forces the reader to forgive two extraordinarily humane characters who happened to need each other a bit too much. Even Jinnah and Patel (and Churchill – if only he had met Nehru or Gandhi in person a bit earlier than when he did!) who are often slotted as extremists show their emotional sides and it does feel like Tunzelmann gives them their due – enough blame but also enough praise.

Tunzelmann does dwell too much on the Mountbattens – almost to the extend that the reader might well start imagining that they were the Empire that the book is meant to talk about and their “secrets” were the “Secret” that the subtitle of the book boasts about. If that is the case, the book does indeed uncover some welcome secrets about the end of “Empire”.

But, from a political and historic standpoint, there were not many secrets that Tunzelmann brings to the fore. He does throw light on some of the most-discussed events such as the drawing of the Kashmir boundary lines, the allocation of Punjab districts, the annexation of Hyderabad etc and how all of these were such intensely personal decisions – different people at the helm might have resulted in drastically different outcomes – they were less politically motivated than emotionally driven.

For these insights, Indian Summer was a thoroughly readable and unbiased book and well worth reading to understand the inscrutable and amazing human actors that populated one of the most dramatic events of the century.

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Posted by on February 3, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books


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