08 November 2001

Book Review: The Idea of India (1999), by Sunil Khilnani, ****


A key book on India in the postnuclear era, with a new Introduction by the author. Sunil Khilnani's exciting, timely study addresses the paradoxes and ironies of this, the world's largest democracy. Throughout his penetrating, provocative work, he illuminates this fundamental issue: Can the original idea of India survive its own successes?


The author tries to encapsulate the idea of India in five chapters:

Democracy (how this was possible in India, and in fact how democracy made India possible!);

Temples of the future (on growth after WW II);

Cities (and the role they play in changing India);

Who is an Indian (the most complicated of all chapters!)

The Garb of Modernity (on ongoing change)

A useful bibliographical essay completes this articulate book.

These are important aspects of what makes India, of course, but hardly the only ones and perhaps not the main ones. Most people in India still live in the countryside.

In my view the main drawback of the book is its excessive praise of Nehru. Yes he did keep India united after partition and preserved democracy but his autocratic economic planning delayed India's development, which really took off after the Nehru/Gandhi dynasty came to an end with Rajiv's resignation in 1989 and assassination in 1991.

In any case, there can hardly be any such thing as "the" idea of India. A better title might have been "One Idea of India".

See my other reviews on India in this blog.