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India Grows at Night: A Liberal Case for a Strong State

Oct 30, 2012

In India Grows at Night: A Liberal Case for a Strong State, author Gurcharan Das underlines the problems in India and argues for a strong liberal state with a commitment to do the right thing.

India Grows at Night

India Grows at Night: A Liberal Case for a Strong State
Gurcharan Das
Publisher: Allen Lane/Penguin Books
Pages: 320
Price: INR 599

In many ways, Gurcharan Das’ India Grows At Night: A Liberal Case for a Strong State is a sequel to his The Difficulty Of Being Good. In Difficulty, Das explored the concept of dharma—that elusive yet intuitive idea fundamental to Indian thought and life—through a contemporary reading of the Mahabharata. His analysis—which belongs firmly to the secular and liberal tradition that Das proudly espouses—looked at dharma in all its myriad confusing dimensions, and in relation to real contemporary problems in both private and public life. This examination of what Das called “the subtle art of dharma” was also, inevitably, a highly thought-provoking commentary on the state of our nation, and how it came to be the way it is.

Among all public intellectuals in India, Das’ work is possibly marked by the greatest optimism. From The Elephant Paradigm to India Unbound and Difficulty, all his books exude an unshakeable faith in both the Indian spirit, and the power of the middle class as an agent of change. As he amply demonstrates in his latest book, that faith remains intact, but in several ways, this is a darker work. Though beginning with a description of Gurgaon—which I must admit has become a clichéd and rather shallow symbol for post-reforms, resurgent India—India Grows At Night ends as an unambiguous call to arms. There is so much good that has happened since India took its first hesitant steps towards liberal capitalism in the early 1990s, says Das, but we also lost our way somewhere down the road. The governing class deviated from dharma; indeed, in many cases, turned its back on it. The growing mass of missed opportunities and sheer sloth and corruption threaten to overshadow the good.

While Das’ entirely coincidental presence at Tahrir Square in Cairo at the outbreak of Arab Spring, and the unexpectedly huge middle-class support that the Anna Hazare movement received were clearly triggers for many of the ideas presented in India Grows At Night, it is slightly disappointing (though that is no fault of the author) that the book happened to appear mere weeks before Arvind Kejriwal started firing his salvos. Das has met Kejriwal, and though impressed by his grit and honesty, finds a streak of illiberalism in the man—“well-meaning but ideologically inclined”. Das says that he told the activist (now politician) that the anti-corruption movement “must be framed in a broad strategy of reform and a reassurance that that their movement stood for upholding, not subverting, the Constitution”. But even as it stands, India Grows At Night gives a good indication of what Das’ nuanced reaction would be to Kejriwal’s recent moves.

This is all the more interesting because Das passionately calls for the creation of a new political party, somewhat in the mould of the erstwhile Swatantra Party set up by C. Rajagopalachari, who coined the term “license-permit Raj” and was the only Indian leader of stature from Jawaharlal Nehru’s generation who foresaw the ruinous effects centralized socialist State policy could have. Rajaji’s worst fears came true during Nehru’s daughter’s reign, and whose ill-effects we are still suffering from. The party that Das proposes would stand for a “strong liberal state” and be committed to “doing the right thing”—in other words, dharma. In practice, this would mean paying urgent attention to unreformed sectors of the economy such as agriculture and real estate, and pushing through the administrative reforms that India desperately needs. This reviewer, at least, would agree whole-heartedly with that strategy.

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