Nussbaum's The Clash Within Reviewed

Great Expectations
Ramachandra Guha
Financial Times (London, England)
April 7, 2007

In February 1967, India was due to hold a general election. Days before the country went to the polls, The Times ran a series of articles under the title "India's Disintegrating Democracy". Indians, wrote the newspaper's New Delhi correspondent, would soon vote in "the fourth - and surely last - general election". For "famine is threatening, the administration is strained and universally believed to be corrupt, the government and the governing party have lost public confidence and belief in themselves as well." The reporter could discern the "already fraying fabric of the nation itself", the states were "already beginning to act like sub-nations". Rule by men in uniform beckoned - in any case, "the great experiment of developing India within a democratic framework has failed."

What is striking about this judgment is not how wrong it appears in hindsight, but how representative it was at the time. In the 1960s, a flurry of books and articles predicted that India would become a military dictatorship, or descend into civil war, or be subject to mass famine - or perhaps all of the above. The American journalist Selig Harrison wrote a book called India: the Most Dangerous Decades, which warned that there were "seemingly irresistible compulsions of totalitarian experiments of one sort or another in the nature of the Indian nation". The Crisis of India was the title of a book by a South African visitor, Ronald Segal - this found the country on "the economic precipice", with "the ground... crumbling beneath her". India reminded the writer at times of Weimar Germany, at other times of Guomindang China.

Like those other ill-fated societies, here too democracy would be replaced, sooner or later, either by "Communism on the left" or by "militant communalism on the right". Then two Americans, the agronomist William Paddock and his diplomat brother Paul, published a book that claimed that "today, India is the first of the hungry nations to stand at the brink of famine and disaster."

The articles and books now being printed in the west about India sing an altogether different tune. In December 2003, BusinessWeek published a cover story entitled "The Rise of India"; six months later Newsweek celebrated, also on its cover, what it called "Asia's Other Powerhouse", "a good place to do business", where "the individual is king". Then, in 2005, books by two influential New York-based pundits put the seal on this new image of India. Thomas Friedman, in The World is Flat, spoke of how a "country of snake charmers, poor people, and Mother Teresa" had been "recalibrated" - it was now also "a country of brainy people and computer wizards". Jeffrey Sachs, in The End of Poverty, spoke of how "the return of China and India to global economic prominence" would "reshape global politics and society" in the 21st century.

Those older anticipations of India's descent into anarchy were premature - how credible are these newer salutations of India's ascent into greatness? Three new books by western writers help us get closer to an answer. The authors all have close connections to India. A professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago, Martha C. Nussbaum has collaborated in the past with the economist Amartya Sen - she calls his country her "second home". Mira Kamdar is a writer and academic based in New York, but her father's family lives in Mumbai, a town she has known from childhood. The Australian journalist Christopher Kremmer is married to an Indian, whom he met while serving as a foreign correspondent in New Delhi.

These books all touch on the antiquity of Indian civilisation, the social reforms initiated by Mahatma Gandhi, and the gentler sider of Hinduism (as distinct from the ugly fundamentalism now rampant). However, they essentially deal with the past decade-and-a-half of Indian history. All see in contemporary India some answers to the world's problems. Nussbaum says in her preface that the country has "much to offer to other nations, in Europe and North America, who are waging their own struggle against the struggle to live with others". Kremmer says in his preface that if democracy "can work in a developing country as populous and diverse as India, it can work anywhere". Kamdar believes that "no other country matters more to the future of our planet than India."

Nussbaum's main concern in The Clash Within is the threat posed to Indian democracy by the rise of the Hindu right. She presents a case study of the riots in the state of Gujarat in 2002, when a pogrom of Muslims was overseen and directed by elected politicians. Through a series of revealing interviews with ideologues, she skewers the absurdities of a "Hindu" history, in which centuries of persecution by Muslim and British rulers are to be avenged by the militants of the present day. But the Indian state is not spared either - as she points out, the criminal justice system is in a state of near-collapse, incapable of bringing to book ordinary criminals, let alone rioters allied with politicians.

As a university professor, Nussbaum thinks that Indian education is not liberal enough, and that a greater focus on the humanities and a feeling for poetry among the educated classes might have prevented the march of the Hindu right. This is questionable - the depth and richness of German humanistic culture did not stop Hitler. And, as it happens, the people of the Indian state of Maharashtra combine a deep love of poetry with an equally deep prejudice against Muslims.

Nussbaum is renowned for her work on Greek philosophy and modern constitutionalism. In this, one of her more polemical works, the pieties of political correctness are more obviously on display. (Consider this one-sentence summary of the history of European colonialism in India: "The British were appalling tyrants, exploiters, and racists.") She has difficulty understanding why others don't share her progressive views - why, for example, the low caste Hindus who participated in the riots in Gujarat "put religion ahead of caste and class". She complains that the Indian writer Arun Shourie, coping with a seriously disabled son, came to uphold "a persecutory and therefore highly dangerous view of the other", when "sorrow might have led, instead, to new sympathy with the underdog."

It is not just modern fundamentalists that Nussbaum finds wanting, but long-dead liberal thinkers too. So, in a chapter praising Tagore, Gandhi and Nehru for fostering a pluralistic ethos, she yet chastises them for not doing enough to anticipate - and forestall - a rightwing resurgence. If Tagore had delegated more, she says, and Gandhi had a "constructive economic program", and Nehru promoted the humanities, then perhaps India might have had a "liberal pluralistic rhetorical and imaginative culture whose ideas could have worked at the grassroots level to oppose those of the Hindu right".

Where Nussbaum focuses on religion, Mira Kamdar's book Planet India is more of a wide-angle view, a brisk and conversation-filled ride through India's corporate offices, film studios, farms and slums. We learn about India's new-found entrepreneurial energy and its consumer boom (120 million mobile phones, and counting), but also of the agrarian crisis (manifested most starkly in a rash of farmers' suicides), the health crisis (a fast-growing Aids epidemic, among other things), and the environmental crisis - on display in world-record levels of air pollution and in the continuous depletion of underground aquifers.

Kamdar is an engaging writer, who wishes however to read in her experiences a message for mankind. "As Goes India, So Goes the World" is the title of one of her sections as well of one of her chapters. She writes that "the world has to cheer India on." For, "if India fails, there is a real risk that our world will become hostage to political chaos, war over dwindling resources, a poisoned environment, and galloping disease... But if India succeeds, it will demonstrate that it is possible to lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. It will prove that multi- ethnic, multi-religious democracy is not a luxury for rich societies... India's gambit is truly the venture of the century."

Perhaps Kamdar places too many burdens on a single nation, albeit a very large and very interesting one. She looks to India for guidance with regard to energy conservation, hoping that it would take "a global leadership role in low-cost, highly efficient, and low-polluting vehicles". She also looks to it to show the way in urban design: "India's cities have the potential to become the role model for burgeoning metropolises elsewhere in the developing world." And in managing religious diversity: "With a Muslim population of 150 million, India can set a badly needed example for other democracies of what can be done, in practical terms, to take the moral high ground." And, finally, in dealing with serious epidemics, for India is "where there is perhaps the most hope of finding ways to deal with these... scourges on a scale that could actually serve the world's billions".

Christopher Kremmer expects rather less from India. Inhaling the Mahatma is leisurely paced, the work of a seeker who has come to understand rather than to judge. His hopes (and fears) are implicit rather than explicit, submerged in a series of vignettes drawn from his travels through the subcontinent. Rather than interviewees carefully chosen beforehand, we encounter a charmingly random collection of ordinary Indians. So we find Kremmer in the upper reaches of the Ganges, accompanied by a Hindi teacher; in a gallery in New Delhi, guided through the collections by a young modern artist; in the interior hills of Orissa, talking to a widowed missionary; in the flat farmlands of Uttar Pradesh, interrogating a hijacker-turned-politician; and, finally, in the holy city of Varanasi, seeking advice from a temple priest who moonlights as a professor of electrical engineering.

Kremmer vividly conveys the feel of the Indian landscape, how it looks and smells, not excluding the dirt and the degradation. His humour is dryly understated - of a new five-star hospital in Delhi, he writes: "Middle-class Indians no longer travel to Varanasi to die; they come to Apollo to live." There is a fine cameo of a drive taken with Rajiv Gandhi on the campaign trail ("when people briefly were the rajas, and the candidate was a beggar"), and an even better one of a later drive with his son Rahul. Both Gandhis appear charming as well as confused, dedicated as well as self-regarding. (Rajiv, notes Kremmer, was separated from his people by his imperfect command of Hindi, but "Rahul didn't just speak English; he spoke corporate jargon.")

To this Indian, the appeal of Kremmer's book is that it takes the country as it is. The western writers of the 1960s warned their readers that India was a losing proposition, the laboratory, as it were, of failed experiments in democracy and nation-building. On the other hand, some writers now insist that India must get it right if humanity in general is to get it right. India must show the world how to combine growth with equity and sustainability; India must also show the world how best to negotiate the delicate balance between faith and state. Admittedly, to be treated with contempt and condescension was not very nice; but to be burdened with these great expectations is not very comforting either.

Ramachandra Guha's India After Gandhi: The History of the World's Largest Democracy (Macmillan) is published this month.

THE CLASH WITHIN: Democracy, Religious Violence and India's Future
by Martha C. Nussbaum
Harvard University Press

PLANET INDIA: How the Fastest-Growing Democracy is Transforming America and the World
by Mira Kamdar

by Christopher Kremmer
HarperCollins Australia

Copyright 2007 The Financial Times Limited

Martha Nussbaum