WHAT IF the trouble with Nehru’s India was that, contrary to received wisdom, it was too right-wing? That is the question Gunnar Myrdal asked in his 1968 magnum opus, Asian Drama. Weighing in at a million words over three volumes and over two thousand pages, the Swedish economist was no doubt spared many an inquisition by readers daunted by its Proustian length. Yet, despite its unwieldiness, it received its fair share of bouquets and brickbats. The Indian republic of letters evidently hated it. Delhi’s bureaucrats, meanwhile, loved it. Many, however, were left nonplussed. Why had a self-styled social democrat expended so much ink and bile trashing a regime so very much on the same page as him?
More bafflingly, on a personal level, the Myrdals rather got on with Nehru. There seemed to have been more to it than the cajolements of easy access and the prime minister’s incontrovertible charm, though there were elements of these. For her part, Gunnar’s wife and fellow Nobel laureate, Alva, “cherished a large photograph of Nehru for the rest of her life, even carrying it to her last hospital room”—so we learn from Walter A Jackson, one of Gunnar’s biographers. She classed him among the “very few who can stand the test of the Gandhian idea, that is, of living according to the principle of truth.” Equalling hers were Gunnar’s gushes: Nehru was “one of the most perfect human beings,” no less, “a noble man … a democrat … an egalitarian.” The admiration was reciprocated, and, in 1958, Gunnar was invited to address the Lok Sabha, where he regurgitated Nehruvian nostrums: agricultural involution, rapid industrialisation, national service, social revolution, even that vacuous watchword “socialist pattern of society.” These, admittedly, were early days. It would take a decade for Myrdal to develop his own incredibly bleak opinions on India’s postcolonial conundrums: poverty, progress, power. Shrouded in unremitting Calvinist gloom, the kind that had for centuries been condemned as heresy in his native land, Asian Drama felt like a brick angrily hurled through the window of Nehru’s confident edifice. Nothing, it seemed, could save it.
It is a melancholy but seductive argument. For one thing, contemporary Indian commentators often find themselves going back to it. Asian Drama is one of those encyclopaedic volumes people love returning to, each time profiting from a different section. For instance, Myrdal gets half a dozen mentions in the economist Ashoka Mody’s brilliant, no-holds-barred indictment of the ruling class, India is Broken. Its conclusion, that the state is captive to capital, is incontrovertibly Myrdalian. The Modi regime, meanwhile, has reminded the policy wonk Sanjaya Baru of Myrdal’s characterisation of India as a “soft state.” But Myrdal’s politics remain somewhat elusive. As it is, a rather confusing picture emerges from the critical reception of Asian Drama. Was he an idealist or a realist, an admirer or critic of Nehru’s, an Indophile or Indophobe, a revolutionary or a gradualist, and, indeed, more fundamentally, a progressive or a conservative? It appears that the only thing everyone can agree about is that Myrdal was something of a wet blanket.