Accidental India: A review



As we celebrate our 64th republic day, it would be interesting to review the country’s achievements in the last 64 years. Instead of taking on the arduous task myself, I shall review a book that does just that. An extremely interesting book titled ‘Accidental India’ by Shankkar Aiyar.


The book is written on an interesting premise that most of the good things that happened in India happened accidentally and at the points when the country was in the brink of grave crisis. The book tries to show every great step taken by the country as the initiative of a small group of heroic individuals fighting bravely against the country’s political system and bureaucratic machinery that tries its best to pull them down. It portrays the story of years of struggle that finally succeed only when the country’s ruling class is pushed to the corner and forced to let them succeed to avoid the grave crisis facing the country. At all other times, vested interests seek to beat down any attempts towards progressive initiatives. Most of us know this instinctively, but is very interesting indeed to study the country’s history and learn about specific instances and how exactly the country’s system works.

The seven key turning points the book deals with are:-

1. Dismantling of the License Raj by Narasimha Rao Government.

2. India’s green revolution pioneered by M.S. Swaminathan supported by C.Subramaniam and Lal Bahdur Shastri

3. Nationalizing of Banks by Indira Gandhi government leading to all parts of the country including rural areas getting coverage.

4. India’s white revolution pioneered by Verghese Kurien

5. The Mid Day Meal program for children pioneered by Tamil Nadu Government under M.G. Ramachandran

6. India’s IT and BPO revolution supported by reforms brought by people like IAS officer Vittal

7. The fight for getting the citizens of India the Right to Information by Aruna Roy and others.

Each of the above is dealt with comprehensively from a historic perspective starting from the need and the first conception of the idea. The entire history of the struggle to make the idea come to fruition and all the individuals involved is covered. Along the way we get to know about the background of the individuals, their motivations, their frustrations and their struggles against every attempt by the political and bureaucratic class to scuttle the idea at every stage. That makes each chapter read like a story and keeps the attention of the reader riveted till the end. We root for the hero and start feeling empathy for the struggle rather than just dry detached intellectual understanding of the issues.

I am not sure if I personally agree with the final conclusion. The writer concludes that the system should change and reforms should be well planned and executed based on a vision and not just happen in response to crisis. He points out that there is lot of pain and struggle involved for the common people the way change is happening currently. He suggests we have been lucky so far that right things happened at the right time to avoid disasters, in spite of numerous missed opportunities and continuous bungling by the country’s rulers and administrators. He feels that luck might not always lend us the hand and unless we have a leadership that manages change systematically with a long term vision, we might not tide through the next crisis. This may be true. But such leadership is not going to jump from the sky. The current system is well entrenched and they are not going to voluntarily step down and give way to more sincere and enlightened leadership. The educated middle class who read this book have neither the financial power nor the numerical strength to bring this change about either. So I feel it is only wishful thinking and focus should be more on what we can do at our level.

Also I am not sure if things can really work so well orchestrated and planned to a script the way China tries to do it. I read a book called ‘Good to Great’ by Jim Collins that suggests even for corporates, greatness comes from creation of right environment rather than meticulous planning. I feel that is more important at a national level as well. Possibly the author’s suggestion is also along this direction and not exactly the over planning that China indulges in. China’s over planning in my opinion is as much a risk as India’s under planning as I feel it restricts the agility to react to unexpected changes in the world that have not been factored in the assumptions based on which plans are made.

Coming back to the book, I feel it has done a balanced job, tilting neither left nor right, giving equal credit to capitalistic and socialistic reforms. Things are explained lucidly and easy for anybody even without knowledge of economics to understand. The book is a bit expensive at Rs. 700. But I feel it is worth it. It is a book to buy, keep and revisit, not the type to read once and throw. It has so many details and each issue has so many nuances that cannot be grasped and remembered entirely in one reading. So it is nice to keep it on the shelf and read again. Also, I feel a book like this gives much more value for your time and money than a year’s newspapers. It gives you clarity and puts things in the right perspective.

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16 comments:

Rickie said...

Hmm...like you said, this is something we are all aware of instinctively. It's the reason why we always seem to lurch from one crisis to the next, with a little bit of good happening in the middle.
It looks like India is not destined for greatness, just many centuries of slightly-better-than-average existence. Sad, but it's ok. Who says being in the middle of the pack is such a bad thing?

The Fool said...

True, Rickie. Thats the reality.Can't live in a world of dreams.

umashankar said...

The title appears catchy and there seems to be some truth in the claims. Having been closely associated with the banking industry I am sure the first round of nationalisation was accidental at best when Ms Indira Gandhi stood to earn more politically over her formidable adversary. That said, India has been fairly passive in its stance since incipience. The 1991 financial crises was neither an accident nor a design. It was a disaster waiting to happen.

It is truly hard to digest books such as these, more so if one has one's own convictions in the matter. At INR 700 the book is certainly pricey as observed by you. And the author is no Arun Shourie.

I appreciate your calm approach to book reviews. By the end the sum total of observations strike a consonance.

gayatri soni said...

I thought that it would be a book with history pages, but your turned the mood. I would like to have a go for it.

Nice review at nice time! :)

The Fool said...

Thanks Umashankar. Yes. When you have strong opinions on a topic, tough to read other points of view without starting the mental argument with the author. But I tend to read with an open mind and accept what the writer says following his flow of thought. All the analyzing starts after I am done with the book and I try to assimilate the information with my exerting information and preujudices. I was luck to get this book free. This was a prize catch from blog adda compared to some of the Indian fiction writers' books.

The Fool said...

Thanks Gayatri. Do check it out. It is not the chronological history. Ramchandra Guha's book is like that.

Vishal Kataria said...

Excellent review... And the 7 events listed are indeed the key points in India's advancement over the years, despite a lot of blunders committed by Nehru, his daughter and Gandhi.

As a book, it can only suggest how our country can holistically advance in conclusion. Egging the youth to push for the change they want is something more suited to Chetan Bhagat and the likes.

Great review this. If you are interested in this subject, lay your hands on 'India Unbound' by Gurcharan Das. It's the best there is covering India's history and economy over the decades.

The Fool said...

Thanks a lot, Vishal. India unbound was the first book I read on the topic, India after Gandhi by Ramchandra Guha being the only other, though that focuses more on the political aspects than the economic aspects. It is really fascianting triangulating across the 3 books. I am looking to lay hands on other books on the topic too.

Saro said...

Some friends and I were discussing the system last night over a few drinks and a friend recounted this notion that I thought made brilliant sense. And that is that the day India has an iron tight system in place, half its population will go hungry or more. Why? Because all those middle men, those people that we bribe, would go home with less money (or a salary that is anyways insufficient) and be unable to feed their families. Got me thinking.. :) Happy Republic Day TF!

Suresh Chandrasekaran said...

Excellent review, TF! In one way, however, it is that very recalcitrant attitude of the ruling classes that also keeps the crises being as devastating as the West faces with runaway capitalism. A teeny bit of silver lining in the cloud.

Rachna said...

A very competent review, TF. I have read Ramchandra Guha's India after Gandhi. That book superbly covers political and related events after independence though it was a bit biased towards Nehru. This one sounds interesting too. I wonder if it is possible to be completely biased for historians or economists who write on issues spanning long periods.

The Fool said...

Thanks, Saro. You are right. The whole country has learnt to thrive on corruption that last 1000 years or so. Difficult to get corruption out of this nation's DNA. Maybe people should think about channelling the corruption in a postive direction instead of eleminating it.

The Fool said...

Thanks a lot, CS. Maybe true. Sometimes doing nothing can be best.

The Fool said...

Thanks a lot, Rachna. Guess bias usually creeps in unintentionally more as an undertone. I feel Ramchandra Guha tries his best to be sincere.

Divenita said...

Please add excerpts.

The Fool said...

Thanks. Maybe I will next time on. Most reviewers fo that I guess.

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