Posted by: John Elliott | January 13, 2011

‘If Salman Taseer had been Indian he would still be alive’

India’s ‘House of the People is a House of Dynasty’

Two important books have been launched in Delhi this week, one on Pakistan and the other on India. Both have been written by serious respected authors and both have strong history that is relevant at a time when Pakistan is sliding deeper into irrational religious-based murder and terrorism, and India’s massive economic success is being undermined by rampant and debilitating corruption and poor political leadership.

Both books had launches with brief seminars and cocktail receptions. The first was for Tinderbox, the past and future of Pakistan by M.J.Akbar, a leading newspaper and magazine editor. MJ, as he is generally known, is the author of several books including a biography of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister.

The launch was attended by top politicians, academics and others, and speakers included India’s vice president, the finance minister, and opposition leader. Few kind words were said about Pakistan and, though the criticisms were generally well-meaning, coming as they did from an anxious neighbour, they would sound condescendingly critical to an outsider.

The second launch was for India – A Portrait by Patrick French, a younger and well-known London-based author who has strong links with India and first made his name 16 years ago with a memorable portrait of Sir Francis Younghusband, an early-1900s British explorer and spy. More recently, he proved his skills with a trenchant biography of V.S.Naipaul, the controversial writer adopted as an icon in India. This was a lower-key launch, somewhat trivialised by unfocussed questions. Patrick is now on a book tour round India, which ends at the Jaipur Literary Festival in ten days time, so has plenty of opportunity to spell out the strengths of his country portrait that runs from independence in 1947 to today.

I’ll be reviewing his book later next week for an Indian newspaper and will put that review up on this blog. Here, I’ll just mention that Patrick’s main contribution to knowledge of the current political scene is a devastating detailed analysis of the escalation of dynastic politics.

“India is going back to monarchy,” commented Outlook magazine (right) under the headline “The Princely State of India” when it ran lengthy excerpts recently. Patrick wrote that Parliament’s Lok Sabha (House of the People), was becoming a “Vansh Sabha – a House of Dynasty”.

Led by the ruling Gandhi dynasty, more than a third of the Congress Party’s MPs elected in 2009 came into politics through a family link. Even worse, literally all the MPs (not just Congress) aged under 30, and more than two-thirds of those under 40, were from hereditary families. More on that next week.

Returning to the Pakistan book, the most memorable quote at the launch came from MJ, who opened a powerful and reasoned speech with the bald statement: “If Salman Taseer had been an Indian Muslim, he would still have been alive today”. Speaking as an Indian Muslim himself, MJ was referring to the governor of the Pakistan province of Punjab, who was gunned down last week by one of his guards for supporting a Christian woman sentenced to death under draconian blasphemy laws.

Taseer was no saint. He had a chequered professional and private life, and would never have become a leading politician if the current Pakistan president, Asaf Ali Zardari, had not made him the Punjab governor. He was an independently minded character and this led to his death because he bravely stood out against Islamic extremism. His killing has made him a hero figure, and the dreadful way in which his opponents applauded his death has assured him a tragic place in the history of Pakistan’s decline. No Muslim cleric would preside at his funeral and lawyers (his own profession) threw flower petals approvingly at his killer.

Picking up MJ’s remark, that would never have happened in India, despite the country’s deeply ingrained history of ethnic cruelty and violence, and recent evidence that Hindu extremists have been responsible for some of the country’s terrorist attacks.

The irony, as MJ (below) points out in his book, is that in 1947 Muslims opted for a separate homeland because they believed they would be “physically safe, and their religion secure”, in a new nation. “Instead within six decades, Pakistan had become one of the most violent nations on earth, not because Hindus were killing Muslims but because Muslims were killing Muslims”.

MJ starts his “history of an idea” in the 1750s with the collapse of the Mughal Empire’s Muslim rule. That created a “mood of anguish” among the north Indian elite and led, “out of a fear of the future and pride in the past”, to the search for a new Muslim space. “Indians and Pakistanis are the same people; their nations were the first to win freedom from the mightiest empire in history,” he writes.

“Why then have the two countries moved on such divergent arcs since 14 and 15 August 1947? The idea of India is stronger than the Indian; the idea of Pakistan is weaker than the Pakistani. Secular democracy, a basis of the modern state, was the irreducible ideology of India, while the germ of theocracy lay in Pakistan’s genes.”

Among India’s Muslims, MJ is possibly the most erudite critic of 1947 partition. That leads to damning remarks such as “Pakistan is an idea that is regressive. India is an idea that is progressive”. This of course, sadly, has been proved right as India’s economy booms and Pakistan’s stability declines.

But India has deep problems too. There is a map of Pakistan on the inside cover of MJ’s book that highlights the areas to the north and north-west that are under Taliban influence. That’s quite scary, but so are maps of India that highlight areas under Maoist Naxalite control, which amount to a third of India’s districts.

Pakistan is suffering from a deeply flawed political system and corrupt often brutal administration that cannot cope with rising Islamisation. Despite its many successes, India is suffering from a deeply flawed pattern of economic growth and corrupt often brutal administration, which is failing to cope with the growing aspirations of the poor, leaving room for a Maoist rebellion.

As MJ points out, Pakistan’s slide into Islamic extremism began in the late 1970s under the then military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq. That’s over 20 years ago. What will India look like in 20 years time if it does not tackle its own weaknesses?


  1. I have been asked by someone, who sent a comment on this post, why it has not gone up on the blog. It is because I do not run comments that come from false email addresses, as this one did from If an address looks false, I message it for verification, and then reject the comment if I get no answer or a bounceback.

  2. Dear John,
    1. India at the time of 1947, was much more fragile socially, politically and almost non existent economically. But your biased approach does not predict better future for india and you compare it with other asian nations like Pakistan and china. Why do you miss UK? The political and economic decline in UK will lead to what level after 20 years? I am sure that India will be far better, than UK if not USA politically and economically. Its the Indian market and tolerance that will determine future course. I hope you will agree.

    with regads

  3. Each time you end on a despondent note, I feel like reminding you that India’s strengths are its democracy — however flavoured — and, as you surely relish, it’s freedom of speech. Economists don’t seem to have a surefire solution to inclusive growth, neither in a developed economy (USA’s and UK’s government-backed housing boom), nor ours in a nascent stage of development. But it remains a target in India, not least because the ballot box will dictate against failure as the Government found out in 2004. Terrorism, whether of an ethnic/regional nature or through development neglect is a recognized and professed priority problem. We haven’t found a solution. Give us yours.

  4. I would also add that council of state is now a council of business associations! As we know now there are no.of representations of business tycoons either as they are or representative of them. So, later in 20years India might be run by b.tycoons on profit expectations only! The country will be land of rich not a land of people.

    But, I wish (and to an certain extend that happens) India is a cell that corrects/ balances itself for losses.

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