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The Idea of India

Sunil Khilnani; With a New Introduction by the Author
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Paperbacks June 1999
ISBN 13: 978-0-374-52591-0, ISBN 10: 0-374-52591-9
5 1/2 x 8 1/4 inches, 288 pages

The key book on India in the postnuclear era, with a new Introduction by the author. Our appreciation of the importance of India can only increase in light of the recent revelations of its nuclear capabilities. Sunil Khilnani’s exciting, timely study addresses the paradoxes and ironies of this, the world’s largest democracy. Throughout his penetrating, provocative work, he illuminates this fundamental issue: Can the original idea of India survive its own successes?


“A splendid-and timely-book . . . Spirited, combative and insight-filled . . . Khilnani has woven a rich analysis of contemporary India and its evolution since indepence. I am inclined to agree with [him] on the robustness and staying power of the secular idea of India.” —Amartya Sen, The Times Literary Supplement

“A masterful rebuttal to all cultural romantics and religious chauvinists . . . [A] splendid book about definitions of the Indian nation.” –Ian Buruma, The New York Review of Books

“Especially brilliant is Khilnani’s attempt to understand the changing nature of India by studying its urban constructs.” –Chitra Divakaruni, Los Angeles Times Book Review

About the Author(s)

Sunil Khilnani

Sunil Khilnani, born in New Delhi and educated at Cambridge University, teaches politics at Birkbeck College, University of London. The author of Arguing Revolution, he is at work on a biography of Nehru (forthcoming from FSG).

Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

Khilnani (politics, Univ. of London) offers a penetrating analysis of the spread of democracy to ever more diverse segments of the Indian body politic. Juxtaposed to this trend is the breakup of the Congress Party’s hegemony and the subsequent growth of regional political parties. With the ebbing of congressional power and the elimination of its Socialist economic constraints, the Indian economy has embraced greater growth as the number of Indians living below the poverty line diminishes. Khilnani attributes much of this growth to India’s cities, which emerge as paradoxical points of exclusion and economic dynamism when compared with rural India. In the process, national identity has in Khilnani’s vision been subsumed by regional political focuses, urban and rural divisions, and greater religious identification. Hence, India‘s future will necessitate the continuance of a viable democracy sustaining the economic, cultural, and social diversity of the subcontinent. The author skillfully draws out the ironies and paradoxes of Indian history with a subtle, illuminating prose. For informed readers.

From Kirkus Reviews

A profound meditation on the meaning and significance of India, which, Khilnani (Politics/Univ. of London) argues, has a far wider relevance than it is conventional to suppose. The relevance comes in part, of course, from the fact that India is the most populous democracy in the world and that it, unlike most of the countries that became independent in the postwar period, remained a democracy, with the exception of a 22- month “emergency” imposed by Indira Gandhi. This is curious, because there was little in India‘s history to prepare it for democracy, and its independence caused the fearful bloodletting of Partition, when Pakistan broke away. Khilnani calls Partition “the unspeakable sadness at the heart of the idea of India,” which raises the question of whether it was a division of one territory between two nations or peoples, or the breaking of one civilization into two territories. He believes that the survival of democracy is largely attributable to Nehru’s exemplary adherence to democratic and parliamentary procedures during his long ascendancy from 1947 to 1964 and that democracy has now “irreversibly entered the Indian political imagination.” But the understanding of democracy has changed. Government has become more centralized and powerful, the stakes have become much higher, the studious secularism and religious tolerance of the earlier period have become more tenuous, and violence has grown. Democracy has come to mean adherence to the electoral process. In his most perceptive essays, Khilnani explores this new conception and what it now means to be an Indian. His analysis of the economy is less satisfactory and fails to give a sense of where India is going since it shook off what was called “the Hindu rate of growth,” and whether, amid all the other roiling issues, economic rationality can prevail. An intelligent, well-written. and original contribution to the analysis of a country that, perhaps because it has been a good deal less troublesome than China, has received disproportionately less attention.

Product Details:

· Paperback: 208 pages

· Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

· June 4 1999

· Language: English

· ISBN-10: 0374525919

· ISBN-13: 978-0374525910

In an era that abounds with superficial books on South Asia, Khilnani’s is an insightful and sensitive book, though perhaps somewhat out of sync (and this is not a criticism) with the contemporary Indian urban middle-class mood, which delights in denigrating all things perceived as “Nehruvian”; some of the other reviewers have categorized Khilnani as part of the “old school” of Indian historiographers, vaguely dismissed as “leftists”or “Nehruvians”; nothing could be further from the truth: while the book displays an empathy with Nehru’s idea of India, it is far too sophisticated to accept that conception as anything more than one of a number of competing ideas, albeit one that has exercised great power over many in the country’s urban elite. Hindutva is another such idea of India, and Khilnani offers a nuanced appraisal, far removed from both the fascistic infatuations of the right and the unthinking denunciations of those on the Indian left. Finally: the book is particularly useful on Indira Gandhi, and Khilnani persuasively links her “mass democratisation” of the late 1960’s and 70’s to the rise of both the saffron parties and the lower-caste mobilizations of the last fifteen years, though the most intellectually stimulating chapter remains the one on the architecture of the colonial city, conceptualized by Khilnani as, among others, the site where colonialism was acted out, the site, in other words, of the Indian’s subjection.

The Idea of India

Sunil Khilnani; With a New Introduction by the Author


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