“India is, the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend, and the great grandmother of tradition. Our most valuable and most instructive materials in the history of man are treasured up in India only.” – Mark Twain
India is simply too large, complex and diverse really to be thought of as one place. Its history is equally diverse and has been written about in numerous excellent books. If there are two books which get close to doing justice to India then they are John Keay’s ‘A History of India’ and ‘Raj; The Making and Unmaking of British India’ by Lawrence James. If you want to get a glimpse of India as it was and how it became the country it is today then read both books before setting foot in this incredible country.
Most history books start with the Indus Valley Civilisation which flourished between 3,300 – 1,300 B.C. They move on to the Vedic Civilisation, Mahajanapadas (600-300 B.C.), the Magadha Empire and the influx of Persian and Greek conquests, including Alexander the Great.
There were many more empires and dynasties in different parts of the sub-continent before the Rashtrakuta Empire (753 – 982 A.D) in the west, Pala Empire (750 – 1199 A.D.) in the north and west, Chola Dynasty (300s B.C. – 1279 A.D.) in the south and east and Western Chalukya Empire (973 – 1189 A.D.) in the mid-west.
Islam invaded from the west in the 12th to 16th Centuries, bringing in a rich additional culture and clash of religions as modern India portrays with Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Muslims and, with the first Europeans, Christianity.
The first Christians to arrive were Portuguese in the person of explorer Vasco da Gama in 1498. The Dutch very quickly followed with the British not far behind. In 1617 the British established the British East India Company which had morphed into the Raj by 1858. The heavy hand of the British East India Company and then the Raj soon led to mutinies and rebellions with the first major rebellion in 1857.
In 1885 the Indian National Congress (INC) was founded and by 1900 had reached across all of India but it failed to win Muslim support. In 1906 the All India Muslim League was formed and by the 1920s Mahatma Gandhi had encouraged the independence movement to start a non-cooperation movement.
With the Second World War the country was split; there were those who opposed getting involved on the side of the British, but many more did and the British Indian Army eventually numbered around 2.5 million men. After the war, the weakened United Kingdom and the rise of American power, Communism and the Cold War meant that independence was going to happen sooner or later.
On 3rd June 1947 the last British Governor-General of India, Viscount Louis Mountbatten announced the partition of British India into India and Pakistan; on 14th August 1947 Pakistan became an independent state and on 15th August 1947 it was the turn of India. What took place over the next few weeks was reprehensible; as Muslims fled to Pakistan and Hindus and Sikhs fled to India; more than 12 million people found themselves on the move. Religious violence took place on a massive scale with an estimated 100,000 women raped and possibly as many as one million people murdered. Both sides were equally guilty but ultimately it was the hasty partitioning and withdrawal of the British that created the environment for hate and violence.
Indian National Congress (INC) leader Jawaharlal Nehru became the first Prime Minister of India on 15th August 1947 and he was to remain in office until 1964 as the INC dominated politics in the early years of independent India. Mahatma Gandhi, who was the moral leader of India chose not to accept office. A new constitution was passed in 1950 which made India a secular and a democratic state.
In 1947 India went to war with Pakistan for the first of a number of wars over the next few years (also in 1965, 1971 and 1999) and in 1962 a border dispute escalated into war with China.
In the post-independence India many people held varying and violent views including religious, caste and Naxalist violence. Many of those problems remain in modern India.
One nationalist who had opposed the doctrine of non-violence assassinated Mahatma Gandhi on 30th January 1948. At Gandhi’s funeral the nation mourned; “The light has gone out of our lives and there is darkness everywhere.”
The same words were used when Jawaharlal Nehru died suddenly of a heart attack on 27th May 1964. In a few short years the moral and intellectual compasses of India had been torn away from the new state.
Lal Bahadur Shastri succeeded Nehru as Prime Minister but Indira Gandhi, Nehru’s daughter, took over as Prime Minister in 1967 (and leader of the Indian National Congress) and remained in office until 1977. The Indian national Congress won its fourth election in a row in 1967, but with a reduced majority of 283 of the 520 seats in the Lok Sabha or lower chamber.
Indira Gandhi moved towards a Socialist doctrine over the next few years and, as a result, caused a split in the party. Nevertheless the majority were with her and she won a decisive victory in 1971 taking 352 of the 518 seats in the Lok Sabha. Soon after India became embroiled in the Bangladesh Liberation War which resulted in the independence of East Pakistan (after independence it became Bangladesh).
By this time the economic and social problems of India were growing and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi became more authoritarian. Opposition to her rule grew and galvanised under the leadership of Jaya Prakash Narayan. By 1975 strikes and violence forced the Prime Minister to declare a state of emergency, suspend civil liberties and abandon elections. Accusations of corruption increased and Indira Gandhi’s son Sanjay was singled out.
An election was finally called in 1977 and Indira Gandhi’s Congress suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of a coalition of opposition parties contesting the elections under the Janata Party (People’s Party) title. The Janata Party won 295 of the 542 seats in the Lok Sabha and Congress was reduced to 154 seats. But any broad coalition struggles to stay united for very long and the new government was no exception. By 1979 the coalition was crumbling and in 1980 Indira Gandhi and her Congress (I) Alliance (made up of five parties) won 374 seats.
On 31st October 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s Sikh bodyguards assassinated her, many believe because of the attack by the Indian Army on the Golden Temple at Amritsar in the June of that year when many Sikhs were killed and the temple desecrated. The ensuing anti-Sikh riots resulted in some 8,000 deaths and many more badly injured.
Congress chose Rajiv Gandhi, Indira’s oldest son to be the next Prime Minister. Parliament was dissolved and Congress won the 1984 election with a majority of 404 seats in the 515 seat parliament. Rajiv Gandhi instigated many reforms but the so called Bofors Scandal implicated many senior government officials in corruption allegations.
Rajiv and Congress won the most seats in 1989, down to 197 seats, but it was V.P Singh and the Janata Dal party with 143 seats and it’s National Front Coalition that formed the government. The government lasted just a few months and after further attempts to form minority governments, fresh elections were held in June 1991.
Congress was back on top with 244 of the 545 seats in the Lok Sabha, but on 21st May 1991 but whilst campaigning in Tamil Nadu Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by a female LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) suicide bomber.
P. V. Narasimha Rao became the new Prime Minister and India entered a period of economic liberalisation and reform, which opened the Indian economy to global trade and investment. On the political scene this was also a period when many new parties, based largely on the states, were formed; India was about to enter an age of coalition governments.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a Hindu Nationalist party, had been formed in 1980 and steadily grew in influence. In the 1996 elections it finally achieved success and emerged as the largest single party with 161 seats in the 545 seat lower chamber. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee managed to form a coalition which lasted less than two weeks and it fell to the Janata Dal to form a 14 party coalition called the United Front; it lasted just about a year.
In 1998 fresh elections were held and this time the BJP took 182 seats. Again they formed a government in coalition with a number of other parties but again the government collapsed in late 1998 and fresh elections were held in 1999.
Clearly something had to change. The big parties decided to set up pre-election coalitions with a myriad of smaller state parties to fight the elections. The 1999 election was to be the first of these alliances and the BJPs National Democratic Alliance (NDA) consisting of 14 parties won the day with 270 seats in the 545 seat Lok Sabha. The Indian National Congress managed just 114 seats.
Despite a string of natural disasters and corruption scandals the NDA government was a success; the economy grew rapidly, there was political stability and the prospect of peace with Pakistan.
It was therefore with great surprise when Congress and its newly formed 14 party United Progressive Alliance (UPA) won the election of 2004 with 275 seats against the NDAs 185 seats. Congress built on that success and managed to draw in more small parties to form a government of 335 members.
Congress President Sonia Gandhi (Rajiv Gandhi’s Italian born widow) declined the role of prime minister and instead asked former Finance Minister and respected economist Manmohan Singh to fill the role (he also became the first Sikh and non-Hindu to hold the post). India continued its golden period of growth and the middle class expanded rapidly as many more skilled professionals entered the scientific and information technology sectors.
So many people had benefitted from the economic growth that it was little surprise that the UPA won the 2009 general election with 262 seats in the 543 seat Lok Sabha. Again more little parties joined after the election and the UPA was eventually 322 seats strong.
All good things eventually unravel, and the UPA government found itself losing support as the economy slowed. Corruption once more raised its ugly head and the country has faced the spread of Naxal groups (Maoist Communists) committing outrages across the east and north east of the country. There has also been a rash of scandals including Coalgate and the 2G spectrum scam which have tarnished the government’s reputation. They in turn have led to the India Against Corruption Movement and the creation of a new political party, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Congress has lost support in the Lok Sabha which has made the passing of legislation almost impossible as the BJP and its allies ground the parliamentary process to a halt.
The next few years will decide if India is governable or not. With the rise of the small state based parties and the weakening of the national parties pre-election coalitions can evaporate quickly after an election. The states are growing in strength but without a strong federal core India faces new political challenges.
The President is elected by an electoral college consisting of elected members of both Houses of Parliament and the legislatures of the states for a five-year term with no term limits.
The bicameral parliament consists of the Council of States or Rajya Sabha which has no more than 250 members up to 12 of whom are appointed by the President whilst the remainder are chosen by the elected members of the state and territorial assemblies. Members serve six year terms. The People’s Assembly or Lok Sabha (lower chamber) has 545 seats of whom 543 members are elected by popular vote and 2 are appointed by the President. Members serve five year terms.
The Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) 2016 places India at joint 79th out of 176 countries with a CPI 2016 score of 40 (where 100 is least corrupt).