Gross Notional Product

Gross Notional Product

It is not easy to survey history as a whole,to discover trends in its movement,to seek out its meaning. Lord Meghnad Desai is not the first to undertake the attempt.

The Rediscovery of India

Meghnad Desai

Allen Lane

Pages: 498

Rs 699

It is not easy to survey history as a whole,to discover trends in its movement,to seek out its meaning. Lord Meghnad Desai is not the first to undertake the attempt. As India’s stock rises in the global market,more and more books appear on our history,politics and sociology,and he joins the company of Sunil Khilnani,Ramachandra Guha and Nandan Nilekani. One feels the liveliest admiration for their historical knowledge and for the ingenuity with which they draw upon it.

With The Rediscovery of India,the stage is set for yet another round of “discovering” or “rediscovering” India. A common theme runs through their prose: how did India achieve its transition from colonialism to building a modern nation? “Challenge and response” is the formula in which they summarise history. They never let us forget the profound awareness of the unity of India. Lastly,they analyse,as Guha does,the traditions that hold it all together and the role of the individuals who helped to create the preconditions for a stable democracy.

Now,what does Desai set out to prove? An economist of repute who has made London his home,he celebrates India’s nationhood in its multi-national polity. Shed the pre-1947 baggage,he tells us. A striking idea! Oddly enough,more than half of his book is grounded in history,recounting people’s adventures and triumphs and the indomitable spirit they have displayed now and then. For the critically minded reader of colonial history,dozens of questions crop up which are not even touched upon by him.


My own fundamental disagreement is with the author’s preoccupation with the constitutional debates that took place in the early 1920s and ’30s. I would have preferred an engagement with what is still a relevant and lively theme — the impact and consequences of colonialism on our economy and society. Lately,Gandhiji’s Hind Swaraj has gained salience because some of us have discerned new insights into the workings of these aspects. And in the chapters dealing with what he calls “The Rupture”,the large syntheses of history do not appreciate the infinite complexity of Partition history.

The usefulness of Desai’s general explanations on Partition is apparent. Constitutional debates too are,doubtless,important. But they make sense only if the reader is acquainted with the structure of politics and its linkages with caste,community and region. Our author also loses sight of the emotional and ideological fervour of nationalism. The non-cooperation (1920),the civil disobedience (1930) and the Quit India (1942) movements receive inadequate attention.

But,like all histories,this one can make us a little wiser. The fundamental question is this: why did the Congress movement,with its broadly inclusive policies,fail to carry conviction with the Dalits and some sections of the Muslim community? The other question relates to the diminishing value of a secular ideology and the growing appeal of religious symbols. This may well explain why the trans-communal networks in Bengal and Punjab collapsed in the 1940s,a process which ultimately led to India’s Partition.

So far we have been looking at what are no more than preliminaries. With the chapters on independent India,the writer comes to grips with his problem. His analysis is sound,based on imagination richly stocked with erudition. The sweep of imagination is admirable and you feel warmed by the glow of his enthusiasm.

The questions that he raises too are vital,although his theories do not always rest securely on the historical foundation he has built up so laboriously. He is comforted by the electoral verdict in 2009,leading him to the conclusion: “The lessons of the last twenty years … are that,perhaps,the obsession with a single overarching narrative — Nehruvian or Hindutva — is unwarranted.”

Desai wrote The Rediscovery of India in order to provide a corrective to “a flawed understanding of [India’s own history”. As a bonus,he suggests,for example,a “non-unitary narrative” to cement the Indian Union and recasting the narrative of nationhood. He advocates,furthermore,a rethinking of our reservation policy. Scratch your head and find the right answers.