An unlikely nation

Many predicted that the state of India would fail and that its races and religions would surely not

Speaking in Cambridge in 1880, a high official of the British Raj named Sir John Strachey said that the "first and most essential thing to learn about India" is that "there is not, and there never was an India". Strachey thought it "conceivable that national sympathies may arise in particular Indian countries", but "that they should ever extend to India generally, that men of the Punjab, Bengal, the Northwestern Provinces, and Madras, should ever feel that they belong to one Indian nation, is impossible".

One hundred and twenty-five years after Strachey issued this verdict, I was driving from Patiala to Amritsar, a day's journey during which I traversed almost the whole breadth of the Indian province of Punjab. Early on, my car was held up by a level crossing. A goods train passed by leisurely, and I read the signs on the wagons - SR, NR, SCR, SER, WR - the "R"standing always for "Railway", the other letters for the different regional branches of India's greatest and most genuinely public-service organisation. In the course of their wanderings over the years, the wagons had got all mixed up, so that one which rightfully belonged to the Northern Railway was placed next to one that was the property of the South Central Railway, and so on.

The train passed, and my car started up again. An hour later we came to the town of Khanna. I knew this to be a famous grain mandi, or market, so I sat up and looked at the signs. One especially struck me: "Indian Bank, Khanna Branch. Head Office: Rajaji Salai, Chennai". The Indian Bank was founded in Madras (now Chennai) in the early 20th century by a group of patriotic entrepreneurs. "Rajaji" was the honorific given to C Rajagopalachari, the great Tamil writer and nationalist who became the first Indian to hold the office of governor general.

These two encounters provided an emphatic repudiation of Strachey's verdict. It was typical that the wagons belonging to different regional branches of Indian Railways had got so messed up; but that there was an Indian Railways to which all those branches owed allegiance signalled a unity amidst the diversity. And that a burly, mutton-eating, whisky-guzzling Sikh farmer in the Punjab would bank his savings in a bank headquartered in Chennai, on a road named for an austere, vegetarian Tamil scholar, was charming beyond words.

The patriot in me warmed to these juxtapositions, but the historian recognised how contingent they were. For India was and is an unnatural nation, a nation that was not supposed to exist, a nation that was never expected to survive. Strachey was merely the first in a long line of British commentators who thought that a united and independent political entity could never successfully be imposed on a land so differentiated by caste, religion, language and region. Winston Churchill, for example, predicted that after the British left the subcontinent, "India will fall back quite rapidly through the centuries into the barbarism and privations of the Middle Ages". He also thought it likely that "an army of white janissaries, officered if necessary from Germany, will be hired to secure the armed ascendancy of the Hindu".

Sixty years after independence, India somehow survives, and the German janissaries are still awaited. But it remains an unnatural nation and, what's more, an unlikely democracy. When the first general election was held in 1952, some 85 per cent of the voters were illiterate. In the west, the vote had been granted in stages, first to men of property, then to men of education, then to all men. Women were able to vote only after a bitter and protracted struggle (in a supposedly advanced country such as Switzerland, the right to vote was withheld from women until as late as 1971). So when Jawaharlal Nehru's government chose to introduce the universal adult franchise, there were plenty of sceptics, some of them home-grown. A Madras editor termed the first elections "the biggest gamble in history". The weekly Organiser, the mouthpiece of the radical Hindu organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, warned against "this precipitate dose of democracy", explaining that Nehru "would live to confess the failure of universal adult franchise in India".

The first general election was followed by another in 1957, and then by a third five years later. Now it was claimed that it was only the will and whim of India's long-serving prime minister that kept India democratic. "When Nehru goes," wrote Aldous Huxley, "the government will become a military dictatorship - as in so many of the newly independent states, for the army seems to be the only highly organised centre of power." When Nehru died in May 1964, the army remained in the barracks while a successor, Lal Bahadur Shastri, was chosen democratically. On his death in January 1966, he, too, was followed by a democratically selected successor. This time it was a woman, Indira Gandhi. A year after assuming office, she led her party into a general election. On the eve of these polls, held in the first months of 1967, the Times of London ran a series of articles entitled "India's disintegrating democracy". The paper's Delhi correspondent, Neville Max well, was certain that "the great experiment of developing India within a democratic framework has failed". Indians, he told his readers, would soon vote in the "fourth - and surely last - general election".

Democracy for the poor

With hindsight it is easy to scoff at these predictions, but at least some of the scepticism was merited. Before India, most nations were constructed on the basis of a shared language, a single religion and a common enemy - or all of the above. This nation, however, had large populations of all the major faiths (it has, for instance, more Christians than Australia and more Muslims than Pakistan), while its citizens spoke many languages, written in different scripts. Also, before India, democracy had never been attempted in a poor and largely illiterate country.

To be sure, Indian unity is not complete. There have been, and still are, major secessionist movements in Kashmir and the north-east. Indian democracy is by no means flawless: while elections are regular, free and fair, there is a great deal of political corruption, and most parties are run like family firms. Deep divisions between rich and poor persist. Yet that it is as united and democratic as it is, is still a minor miracle. Why has it not gone the way of the former Yugoslavia? Or of its neighbour, Pakistan?

Why does a (mostly) united and (somewhat) democratic India survive? Let me offer five reasons, not necessarily in order of importance. The first is the game of cricket, described by the sociologist Ashis Nandy as "an Indian sport accidentally invented by the west". The second is the Hindi film industry, another great popular passion that unites Indians of different languages, faiths and social classes. A third is the territorial bonds imposed by the Himalayas and the oceans, which give the people of the Indian peninsula the sense that they are, on the whole, distinct from the rest of humanity. Fourth, there are some vital unifying legacies of the British, such as the civil service, the army and the English language, which allow goods and people to move more or less peaceably across India, and to traffic with one another.

The fifth, and in my view most crucial, reason why a united and democratic India survives is the constitution. Recognising the distinctiveness of the Indian experiment, this refused to base nationhood on a single religion or language. Nehru, in particular, was insistent that India would not become a "Hindu Pakistan". Likewise, despite the pressure exercised by Hindi zealots, he refused to impose that language on the regions of the south. In later decades, the Indian state has remained committed to secularism, substantially in theory if less surely in practice. The commitment to linguistic pluralism, however, remains substantial in theory as well as in practice.

That unity and pluralism are inseparable in India is graphically expressed in the Indian currency, which has a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi on one side of all banknotes, with the denomination of the note printed in bold in Hindi and English and, in smaller type, in 15 other scripts. Explaining why a single Indian nation was impossible to conceive, Strachey wrote that "you might with as much reason and probability look forward to a time when a single nation will have taken the place of the various nations of Europe". Well, he appears to have been wrong about that, too. For the Republic of India anticipated, by some 50 years, the creation of the European Union as a multilingual political unity with a single currency.

Ramachandra Guha's "India After Gandhi: the History of the World's Largest Democracy" is published by Macmillan (£25)

India timeline 1947-2007

1947 Partition by British into majority Muslim Pakistan and mainly Hindu India

1948 Mahatma Gandhi assassinated by Hindu extremist. First war with Pakistan over disputed territory of Kashmir

1951-52 First general elections won by Congress Party under leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru

1965 Second war over Kashmir

1966 Indira Gandhi becomes India’s first and only female PM

1984 Indira Gandhi assassinated by Sikh bodyguards

1996 Hindu nationalist BJP emerges as largest single party

1998 India carries out nuclear tests, to international condemnation

2003 Kashmir ceasefire

2006 US gives India access to civilian nuclear technology while India agrees to greater scrutiny

2007 Pratibha Patil becomes first woman elected president.

Research by Zain Sardar

Picture: David Parkin
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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.


Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”


May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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