In mid-April, when the historian Ramachandra Guha delivered the annual HY Sharada Prasad Memorial Lecture in New Delhi, his talk was titled “The Art and Craft of Historical Biography.” Guha dwelled at length upon the value of such writing, and upon the characteristics of a good biography. But he also raised a question that has appeared in his own writing frequently, notably in a chapter of The Last Liberal and Other Essays. Why has India, with all its fascinating complexity and its plethora of personalities, always been under-served by historical biographers?
India in Transition
India is jostling for space in the global marketplace with other rising powers and needs a robust energy supply to compete effectively. Implementing new power projects to harness its domestic natural resources is one of the ways this can be achieved. However, in India, large-scale infrastructure projects have been hard to undertake due to their perceived adverse social and environmental effects— controversial dam projects on the Narmada and Teesta Rivers being key examples.
The use of electoral quotas, such as reserved seats in parliaments or candidate quotas, has become increasingly common, and is usually defended on the basis of various assumed positive long-term effects. However, in most countries, it has been hard to identify such effects, partly because the policies have not been in place long enough.
State legislators face a significant incumbency disadvantage in India. Being elected once makes it harder to be re-elected. This is puzzling to the extent that holding political office should provide these incumbents with a significant advantage over challengers during subsequent elections. For instance, one might expect them to be rewarded for having rendered personalized services to their constituents.
Across the world, and most certainly in India, the expansion of Internet-enabled media has sparked new hopes of political participation, and new arenas for public debate and political action. Recent estimates reveal as many as 350 million Internet users in India, alongside only China and the US in reach and volume.
February 2016 marks a decade since India’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Act 2005 (NREGA) came into force. NREGA is both revolutionary and modest; it promises every rural household one hundred days of employment annually on public-works projects, but the labor is taxing and pays minimum wage, at best.
Last week, the Speaker of the Lok Sabha, Sumitra Mahajan, commented on the need to reconsider India’s extensive system of caste-based reservations. Citing Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, the noted Dalit jurist and social reformer, she said, “Ambedkarji had said, ‘Give reservations for ten years and after ten years, do a rethink. Bring them to that stage.’ We have done nothing.” She went on to note that, despite over fifty years of affirmative action for India’s most marginalized communities, caste-based inequality and discrimination persist in India.
In mid-October, the Supreme Court of India raised questions against the practice of commercial surrogacy. Later that month, the Central government responded with a ban on allowing foreign couples from hiring surrogates in India, permitting only altruistic surrogacy for infertile Indian couples. Although these changes are not surprising given the recent ban on commercial surrogacy in neighboring countries such as Thailand and Nepal, the justification of such a move needs greater scrutiny.
The National Democratic Alliance (NDA), led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), suffered a crushing defeat in the 2015 Bihar state election. In the 2014 national election, the NDA won 172 out of 243 assembly constituency (AC) segments. But in the 2015 Bihar election, just 18 months later, the NDA won only 58 ACs. As the standard election post-mortem draws to a close, it is useful to think about how this election informs our understanding of the Indian electorate.