What does it mean to be Indian, and what is the idea of India? These are questions that are seem increasingly complex in the country today, when debates rage over patriotism, nationalism, secularism, discrimination and individual rights. These are the questions that Harsh Madhusudan and Rajeev Mantri, the authors of A New Idea of India: Individual Rights in a Civilisational State, set out to answer, while making a case for primacy of individual rights over group identity.
This isn’t a book that’s easy to ignore—Prime Minister Narendra Modi has tweeted about it, and the authors have done photo calls with many cabinet ministers in the weeks since its launch. While the buzz is indeed impressive, the book details thoughts that the authors first put down in the opinion pages of Mint seven years ago, making a call back then to debate the idea of a “new India”.
As they did then, the authors want to open up a debate and rethink “the arrogance of the idea of India” being a singular one owned largely by a set of intellectuals. The crux of their argument finds itself enmeshed in the title, which points out that they’re examining the possibilities offered by a “new idea of India” and not “the” idea of India. The book makes the case that India is a “civilisational republic, a democratic policy based on the rule of law that in turn is rooted in India’s millennia-old pluralistic ethos”.
What is this idea? The first part of their argument is that India, or Bharat, is not an entity created by the British, but has historical roots and its older ethos of cohesiveness is often overlooked while drawing up policy. As they write: “India is a civilization which is transforming into a ‘nation; through the instrumentality of a sovereign, democratic State.'" This challenges the Nehruvian worldview that sees India as an “accident of history and a collection of communities”.
Their second argument is that individual rights should trump most group rights, especially those of minorities. Incentives and special carve-outs for identified groups of people create perverse incentives, they argue, citing the case of state funding of minority educational institutions which then have seat reservations. Some targeted group benefits for caste and gender are required for affirmative action, they concede, but the privileging groups over the individual is not an idea of India the authors agree with. In India, some groups have been singled out largely so that votes are easier to harness.
In its rethinking of the idea of India, the book maps the misuse of the word "secular" in the way India has interpreted it and makes a case for “saving secularism from the secularists”. The new idea of India also does not consider profit a dirty word but believes that a healthy corporate sector is needed to really erase social divisions.
Investors (as the authors also identify themselves) have the clearest and no-nonsense approaches to many ideas that career intellectuals simmer in the dum pukht for far too long. This refreshing book, filled with citations and references, is not one to be ignored, especially by those who find themselves aghast that the worldview they hold is being questioned.
This book is a starting point to a debate that India needs right now—on “the” idea of India thus far as envisaged by a population emerging from colonial rule versus an idea that’s more in keeping with a contemporary, more aspirational society. Whichever side of the debate you’re on, you cannot ignore this book.
Monika Halan is Consulting Editor at Mint and writes on household finance, policy and regulation.