Ever since India became independent, there have been sceptics who have predicted its imminent demise. Some have claimed that it would soon become a basket-case, marked by mass famines; others that it would break up into many competing nation-states; still others that general elections would give way to rule by unelected generals. India’s survival as a united and (largely) independent democracy is a standing rebuke to these prophets of doom. It is also a rebuff to orthodox theories of political science, which hold that countries which are poor and culturally heterogeneous cannot be democratic.

Why hasn’t India, then, gone the way of sub-Saharan Africa? Or of Yugoslavia? Or of neighbouring Pakistan? Why does a united and (mostly) democratic India survive?

There are, I think, eight main reasons why there is still an India, eight factors or processes that serve to keep this motley crew somewhat together. Of these, four are the bequest of the British: the game of cricket, the railways, the civil service and the English language. Four others are of (so to say) “indigenous” origin. The first of these is the Hindi film, which has provided a shared pantheon of heroes and a shared vocabulary in which to speak of them. A second are the epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, which have given us a shared moral (and sometimes immoral) universe. A third is the sense of territorial boundedness given us by the Himalaya and the oceans. A fourth, and to my mind the most significant of all, is the integrative idea of India embodied in the Constitution.

As I have argued in previous columns, this idea of India was the work above all of four men. Thus Gandhi and Tagore gave us a non-destructive, open-minded nationalism, its windows open to the world. Gandhi and Ambedkar, working in parallel and sometimes in opposition, together fatally undermined the legitimacy of caste prejudice. Gandhi and Nehru, working together, insisted that neither state nor civil society should favour one religion over another.

I have seen these men as forming part of a single, complementary, even unified quartet. That, of course, is not how the partisans and party men see them — nor, admittedly, is it how it was in their own lifetimes. Tagore and Gandhi greatly respected one another; yet they had frequent and sometimes quite heated debates. Likewise Gandhi and Nehru. And Ambedkar certainly saw Gandhi (and sometimes Nehru too) as a political rival. However, from the detached perspective of the historian, it is more fruitful to see them not as rivals, but as allies in the building of a shared idea of India. There might be, indeed were, disagreements on the most suitable methods to achieve these ends, but no serious disagreement on the ends themselves: namely, representative democracy, religious harmony, gender and caste equality, and cultural ecumenism.

One of the finest tributes to the Tagore-Gandhi-Nehru-Ambedkar idea of India was offered by the scientist and polymath, J.B.S. Haldane. In 1956, Haldane moved to Calcutta to join the Indian Statistical Institute, at the same time putting in his papers for Indian nationality. A few years later, an American science writer described Haldane as a “citizen of the world”. The Englishman-turned-Indian replied: “No doubt I am in some sense a citizen of the world. But I believe with Thomas Jefferson that one of the chief duties of a citizen is to be a nuisance to the government of his state. As there is no world state, I cannot do this…On the other hand I can be, and am, a nuisance to the government of India, which has the merit of permitting a good deal of criticism, though it reacts to it rather slowly. I also happen to be proud of being a citizen of India, which is a lot more diverse than Europe, let alone the USA, USSR, or China, and thus a better model for a possible world organization. It may of course break up, but it is a wonderful experiment. So I want to be labelled as a citizen of India.”

Read this series in full

 •  Freeing our heroes
 •  Believers in free air
 •  Why India survives
Haldane once called India “the closest approximation to the Free World”. A scientist friend from New York protested, saying his impression was that “India has its fair share of scoundrels and a tremendous amount of poor unthinking and disgustingly subservient individuals who are not attractive”. To this Haldane responded: “Perhaps one is freer to be a scoundrel in India than elsewhere. So one was in the USA in the days of people like Jay Gould [i.e., the nineteen twenties], when (in my opinion) there was more internal freedom in the USA than there is today. The ‘disgusting subservience’ of the others has its limits. The people of Calcutta riot, upset trams, and refuse to obey police regulations, in a manner which would have delighted Jefferson. I don’t think their activities are very efficient, but that is not the question at issue.”

The people of Calcutta still riot and upset trams, and the government of India (as I know from experience) still responds to criticism, very slowly. And there still are fears that India might break up, these caused by the rising force of threats to the idea of India which has, for some sixty years, held this nation together. Of these threats I myself hold three to be most dangerous; those of Hindu chauvinism, of assorted caste chauvinisms, and of the corruption and degradation of public institutions.

The press and public opinion are quite alert to the dangers posed by these threats. Less attention, perhaps, has been paid to what lies behind them. I would like to suggest that behind the rise of religious and caste chauvinism, and of public immorality, lies an alternate quartet of ideological figures. Where the original idea of India rested on the work of Tagore, Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar, the degradation of the idea of India has been inspired by the work and example of, among others, M.S. Golwalkar, V.D. Savarkar, Indira Gandhi and Laloo Prasad Yadav.

It is tempting to consider these figures head-to-head, pair by contrasting pair. Thus, Tagore was a pluralist, deeply engaged with his own cultural traditions yet willing to celebrate any lamp lit anywhere in the world; Golwalkar a cultural xenophobe, fearful and suspicious of cricket, the English language, trousers, skirts and all other things “foreign”. Then again, Gandhi and Savarkar gave us alternate visions of the nation-state; the Mahatma’s based upon the idea that it must be respectful of the sentiments and beliefs of all its citizens; Savarkar’s on the notion that one religious group must aggressively direct and dictate public policy. Third, we have Nehru and Indira —the father nurturing a multi-party system, a free press, an autonomous bureaucracy and an independent judiciary; the daughter instead imposing single-party rule and favouring journalists, judges and civil servants who were subservient to her and her party. Finally, we have, in rivalry, two professed spokesmen for the underclass: one, Ambedkar, who used the law and public institutions to deepen the processes of democracy; the other, Laloo, for whom “social justice” in effect means the perversion of public institutions for the aggrandizement of one’s family and, at a pinch, one’s caste.

I must confess that to think of these figures as contrasting pairs is an idea that is not entirely original. Recall that when Savarkar’s portrait was hung in parliament, it was placed directly opposite a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi’s. Perhaps parliament should now take this further, by putting a portrait of Golwalkar opposite one of Tagore, a portrait of Indira Gandhi opposite one of Jawaharlal Nehru, a portrait of Laloo Prasad Yadav opposite one of B.R. Ambedkar. Then we shall openly have before us the real, true, ultimate choices facing India, and Indians.