Thursday, April 09, 2015

Book Review - The Great Indian Rope Trick: Complexity of Indian Democracy



The great Indian Rope Trick – does the future of democracy lie with India
Roderick Matthews
Pages 378; Price Rs 599
Hachette India

At the start one should make a disclosure. Roderick Matthews’ great grand-father was the private tutor of Jawaharlal Nehru and his wife the Governess of his sisters.  But, this is not to mean Matthews’ views are coloured by his connections with the Nehru family.  His is essentially a student of modern history specialising on India and if one may still use the old term “sub-continent’’.

It was important to set that background to give an idea of the author’s approach to the book. This is not yet another glib commentary on India’s post-independence history leading up to the epic elections of 2014. He takes a much a longer view and starts not just with the ‘’colonial beginnings’’ of Indian democracy but even its philosophical roots in “Dharma, Injustice and Pragmatism’’.  He takes in his sweep the evolution of Democracy in entire South Asia – Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar.

The essential thesis of Matthews’ work is – Democracy in India has survived 67 years but is not a ‘’done deal’’.  In this time – it has witnessed a series of extraordinary events which has ‘’conferred a certain wisdom’’ – but could enfeeblement, retirement or senility be on the horizon, he asks? In doing so he has tried to examine the various threats to Indian Democracy : social (sexual violence, Khaps and the inevitable caste and religion) , political (Maoists, Separatist and Secessionist Movements) and Security (Terrorism), Economic disparities  and Corruption  and even Judiciary (backlog of cases  and  compromise by the senior judiciary).  But in doing so, he gets mired in the sheer complexity that is India.

In the ultimate analysis Matthews feels – like most do – Indian democracy for all its shortcomings is a success, even a triumph – discounting any concerns about creeping dictatorship. India is a country that has lived (and experimented) with democracy while retaining great many of its traditional social features.  The deficiencies if any are more of ‘’practice’’ (in certain specific areas – touched upon before ) but not of ‘’principle’’. He concludes – democracy contains (and even relies on) a large element of positive illusion – which he compares with the “The Great Indian Rope-trick’’.

Roderick Matthews is no Simone Denyer or Edward Luce. This is a work not of a political journalist but a scholar. Therefore, the book might be a bit out of reach for a lay reader but, perhaps, a little short of depth for a seasoned political scientist.

Review first published in Business Today Magazine, issue of April 26, 2015