Book: Accidental India: A History of the Nation’s Passage Through Crisis and Change
Author: Shankkar Aiyar
Number of pages: 352
Price: Rs. 695
Accidental India by Shankkar Aiyar looked like a daunting read but I’m glad I opted to read it. I learnt, saw through some popular lies and developed even more disgust for the government. I also smiled, nodding in agreement at some of Aiyar’s observations. He is curt, to the point and unabashed in his criticisms. No, he doesn’t quite play the blame game but he doesn’t mince his words either.
In this heavily-researched piece, Aiyar states that everything that India has achieved seems to have come about by accident or been engineered by the crisis. He elucidates on this further with reference to seven turning points in the history of Indian governance to argue “that none of these were the results of planned initiative but were rather accidental consequences of major crises that had to be resolved at any cost.”
I usually gloss over the Preface in most books but not in this one. Aiyar makes an interesting observation: “Political freedom was granted and economic freedom denied.” The Constitution recognizes the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. However, the prevalent social and economic structure continues to deny the principle of one man one value.
He highlights how Indian politicians have repeatedly done little for the larger population, riding high on sectarianism, divisive politics and vested interests to preserve the status quo. The text reads like a primer to the Indian political history since Independence with harsh observations and criticisms. It rips apart the popular misconceptions, specifically those relating to liberalization policy initiated in 1991.
The seven turning points, which in the Preface, Aiyar terms as “seven ‘mini miracles’”:
- The Bonfire of the Vanities: The Liberalization of the Economy 1991
- The Hunger Games: The Green Revolution 1964
- Das Kapital: The Nationalization of Banks 1969
- The Milky Way: Operation Flood 1970
- Soup Kitchen for the Soul: The Mid-day Meal Scheme 1982
- The Black Swan: The Software Revolution 1990
- The Da Vinci Code: The Right to Information 2005
Aiyar tackles heavy and complex issues in each of the above but I love how each of these chapters have been named. Crisp and contemporary. One can either read them in their chronological order or skip to the chapter of one’s choice.
My favorite chapter was “The Milky Way: Operation Flood 1970.” I had always only heard the Amul story in stray bits and pieces. But I was absolutely delighted upon reading Aiyar’s take on it. It was a fascinating account, devoid of any trace of pessimism or despair. I found myself smiling through the entire chapter. I came home that evening to share with the mother very excitedly that “The father of India’s Milk Revolution ‘did not like the taste’” of milk.
“Soup Kitchen for the Soul: The Mid-day Meal Scheme 1982” was a second favorite. Until I read the book, I had no clue that the popular mid-day meal scheme was such a turning point and that it had been pioneered by MG Ramachandran in Tamil Nadu. I was also amazed by the sheer economies and scale of the scheme. It took so little and yielded such positive returns. At the end of the chapter, I was filled with utmost disgust for the Indian government.
“The Da Vinci Code: The Right to Information 2005” detailing the triumphant struggle of pressure groups and activists was inspiring. With its roots in a rural Rajasthan, it was a revelation of how we as citizens could aspire for greater change in the Indian polity.
In the Preface, Aiyar relates a telling anecdote by Bimal Jalan, former governor of the RBI. Sometime in the seventies, as Jalan was about to announce a major liberalization in import licensing, he was approached by a senior official to defer it for after his daughter’s marriage as nobody would turn up with gifts.
This is symptomatic of the larger issue at hand. And it sums up the premise of this book.
This one book I will hold on to. Read it at leisure for some interesting insights and perspective on Indian polity and get inspired.