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Uncommon Rulers

Harish Khare

Edited by Ramchandra Guha
Belknap Press, London, 2014, pp. 400, $29.95


In that 1971 classic essay, ‘After the Revolution: The Fate of Nationalism in the New States’, Clifford Geertz alluded to the ‘darkened mood’ that had descended upon the new states. The great cultural anthropologist talked of a creeping ‘disenchantment with party politics, parliamen-tarianism, bureaucracy, and the new class of soldiers, clerks and local powers; in uncertainty of direction, ideological weariness, and the steady spread of random violence.’ And, in this majestic overview, Geertz feared that most of the new states were in for a spell of ‘commonplace rulers’. None of the eleven leaders included in this catalogue of iconic ‘makers of modern Asia’ can be called a ‘commonplace ruler’. Each was a transformational leader; each sought to roll back the ‘disenchantment’ phenomenon, noted by Geertz; each was a consequential leader who repainted the landscape in his country. Some succeeded brilliantly (like Deng, Lee,), some not so wholesomely (Bhutto, Sukarno); others (Gandhi, Mao, Nehru, Ho) devised and shaped their new nation’s foundational direction and drive; while some others (Indira and Chou) reinvigorated the state’s bureaucratic depth and reach. What Odd Arne Westad says about Mao and Deng—‘for bad and good they made China into the country it is today’—can also be said about other leaders, who whipped—some gently, some roughly—their disparate population into a people, and then induced them to think and become one nation, and then, mid-wifed and nurtured that nation into a modern nation-state. Ramachandra Guha’s beef is with the current occupation with ‘economic growth’ as the sole criterion for national success among Asian countries. He regrets that in this age of globalization and borderless capitalism the intellectual and scholarly yardsticks of ‘success’ in evaluating a ‘leader’ have been revised to over-emphasise economic factors—to the near-exclusion of issues of republican virtues, democratic values and social cohesion and harmony. His preference, simply put, is to ‘place politics before economics’. This is not a historian’s partisanship to his craft. There was no economic success before the political command and control.  Behind the economic success in Asia, Guha argues ‘lies a now somewhat obscured history of agitation and consolidation that created unified, stable (or more or less stable) nation-states out of fragmented territories and fractious social groups.’ Guha insists, and rightly so, on highlighting this obscured history. And this is achieved through a leader’s biography. There can be argument with Guha’s selection ...

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