Under my byline

From down up

Posted in Books, Profiles by Rrishi on 19 December 2009

Economist, politician, teacher and peer Meghnad Desai brought a half-century of reading and thinking to bear on his latest work on India

“Now that I’ve retired from my main job,” says Meghnad Desai, who taught at the London School of Economics from 1965 to 2005, “I have the House of Lords, which is four afternoons a week, 30 weeks [a year] — and then I have the rest of the day free and I basically read and write — that’s all I do.” Lord Desai was raised to the peerage in 1991, for his services to the Labour Party.

“I immensely enjoy writing,” he says, “and even now the number of ideas I have [is] far outstripping my ability to write. On a day I can write 4,000 words. I like to get, on a good day, three or four hours of writing work.” Earlier this year Desai launched Dead on Time, a speedy and crowded political thriller anchored in his own political environment of Westminster (which I reviewed in June). A book on Kamal Amrohi’s 1972 film Pakeezah is on its way, and so are his memoirs. Add economics and this list offers an idea of the range of his interests.

At the moment, however, Desai has a different book to talk about, a tome of weight and breadth called The Rediscovery of India. “This was a big book,” he says, “this had to be done very persistently and thoroughly.” As the title hints, it is a rejoinder to what Desai calls the “Congress view” of India’s history — which was, in essence, a knee-jerk reaction to the British colonial position that India had never been a single unit, politically or culturally, and thus not a nation, until they came and brought the subcontinent under one authority. According to Desai’s summary of the “Congress view”, British “divide and rule” prevented what had since time immemorial been a nation (see Gupta golden age…) with a syncretic culture (see Hindus and Muslims) from coming together again. And Partition was the ultimate colonial act of evil.

This is a bit of a straw man, scholarship having moved on since, but Desai is probably right that in general the “Congress view” predominates. This book is his attempt to open up the discourse by re-evaluating India’s history since Vasco da Gama, to show that the Brits were right, that this nation is not much older than this republic — and why that does not matter, because since Independence our several nations have come to form a single polity.

“I wanted to push this notion,” Desai says, “that the only way to think about India is not in a unitarian way — you don’t need a single vision. Relax! You have this success story. Every country has problems, inequality and poverty are not unique to India. So I wanted to convey that this particular experiment was one of the most exciting experiments.”

By its very nature such a book project is a slow-cooking, long-simmering one. “I genuinely have thought about this for 50 years,” Desai says, since “the linguistic states agitation in the 1950s. Bombay was full of agitations for Maharashtra and despite being a Gujarati-speaking family we were all for it.”

Desai left India in 1961 to study in America, but he had already put down roots in left-wing politics, which later bore fruit in his work for the UK Labour Party. Unlike Indian communists, however, Desai raised the idea of viewing India as a federation, “from down up rather than from top down” — because he saw that each region was different. When he presented a paper to this effect in 1970 in Delhi, he says, “The hostility among the CPM and CPI delegates was absolutely amazing. For them India was one, and the states were contingent events. They didn’t want to know about diversity at all — they were into the unitarian framework, and I had got myself out of [that].”

Desai describes this and other steps on the long path to Rediscovery. “I went on reading and reading and then I thought, okay, the time has come for me to now get out a big book, because unless I write a big book people won’t understand. Talking or writing articles or even short essays you don’t really get the chance to explain everything. […] I also tried to make it interesting by telling stories and personal anecdotes and biographies.”

One of the unusual and entertaining features of this book is the “counterfactuals”, brief sections in which Desai plays what-if with history (example: “Could India Have Been Independent in 1922?”). “Economists are model-builders,” he says. “Economists take a little bit of data, build models, try them out, and say ‘Hey, will this run or not?’” Here, however, the models apply to history and politics — apt, for a part-time politician.

Desai pays close attention to politics in India as well as the UK. For a left-winger, he is very positive about business and globalisation, and India’s recent performance as an economy and polity — both of which tend, he thinks, to stability and prosperity. “In fact,” he says, “I remember Manmohan Singh saying to me a long time ago that ‘the fact that you came out for [liberalisation] gives great hope, because everyone knows that you were not told to do it by me’. I’ve always conducted myself independently of anybody.” Even Desai’s name-dropping can be endearing!

There are flaws, such as that much of the story is already well-known, and it may not look like it at first skim-read, but Desai’s big new book is genuinely novel and provocative, as well as useful.

The Rediscovery of India
Meghnad Desai
Penguin
pp xiv + 498

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Here is another profile/review I did of Meghnad Desai in May 2009, when he launched Dead on Time.

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