Vishnu’s Crowded Temple

 BBC Sports Editor Mihir Bose explores a work on modern India.

Mihir Bose | Published in History Today
Vishnu’s Crowded Temple
India Since the Great Revolution
Maria Misra
Allen Lane   535pp   £25
ISBN  0 713 99367 7

Novelists of the twentieth century were not the only ones who dismissed India. So did any number of British politicians and academics.

In 1947 the British establishment, always more pro-Muslim than Hindu in those days, was convinced Pakistan would have a bright future. India would be balkanized. Just before the 1967 elections, The Times’ correspondent in Delhi gloomily forecast that this would be the last election in India. 

India has defied all such doom-merchants and, while the lavish Western praise for India as the next great superpower fit to rank alongside China may be overdone, it is not the idea of India that is ridiculous but past Western estimates of India.

Maria Misra’s book is a rare attempt by an Indian historian to explain how India has managed this feat. The rarity lies in that Misra uses narrative history, a technique many Indian historians considers old fashioned.

Misra does not disguise the fact that the modern India is a contradiction. If India, thankfully, does not have the iron state control of China, then its much vaunted democracy has not developed western-European-style politics. Politics often remain family based, the ruling Congress Party is controlled by the Italian-born wife of the grandson of India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. She could have been prime minister, she chose not to. There is ever-shifting kaleidoscope of unlikely coalitions, harnessing a bewildering  variety of caste, religion and community groups.

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