“India’s over a billion people living in a million villages, and we constantly forget they’re there”, someone said to me in the summer of 2013. At the time I mumbled something from the Bluffer’s Guide to World Affairs about it being a rapidly growing BRIC economy with huge potential, but levels of extreme poverty that were stubbornly refusing to shift despite astonishing levels of economic growth. But in a way, they were right. We do forget that India – or at least its people – are there far too often. Of the BRIC nations, it is the one that least frequently pushes its way to our attention. We feel little of the economic impact of Brazil, but it elbows its way to our attention through hosting World Cups and Olympics and we know it is becoming increasingly politically dominant within its geographic sphere. China is the vast, totalitarian super-power, the scale of whose economic growth carries much of the rest of the world with it – and whose economic failure or a turn to using its financial clout for greater political ends could reshape every life on the planet. Russia is the threatening military power, using its inherited clout to re-establish its geographic dominance, even as its economy creaks.
India, on the other hand, is just *there*. We know that when we ring our bank, the answer comes from Bangalore. We know that every so often our prime ministers and mayors step off the plane in Mumbai to have a garland draped round their neck for the cameras and to announce investment deals with impressive numbers of zeros in them. We argue over whether to spend our tax pounds helping those millions of Indians left in horrific poverty while their government invests in a space programme. And we know that this nuclear-armed democracy glares across its western border at its equally atomically-equipped neighbour. But beyond that? Its internal politics are shrouded in a mist of post-independence catch-all parties and sectarian rivalries. Beyond the cricket field, it does not impinge on our sporting sensibilities. Its food, film and music we know – but we associate them as much with Birmingham as we do with Bihar. And outside that seventy-year animosity with Pakistan, no-one in the west ever really seems to consider India’s role in global affairs – it has no sphere of influence, no easily discernible ideological bent to its foreign policy. A nation that is happy to trade, but which remains largely insular and isolationist in its global outlook.
I started to read a lot about contemporary India, which often served only to highlight my confusion about the place. The conclusions of the different authors could have been about different countries. Critiques were few and far between, but panglossian paeans to the wonders of Mother India and its ‘modernization’ were ten-a-rupee. Of the few critical treatises that I read, Perry Anderson’s The Indian Ideology came closest to confirming my own prejudices: that India was in many ways a nationalist state, which hadn’t needed nationalism to tackle any existential threat to its existence since independence. That the historically dominant Congress Party, while the more progressive and secularist of the two major parties, lived a lie about its ability to be an all-encompassing party, dating back to its pre-independence foundation in which it had claimed to be a representative of the Indian entity, yet had been dominated from the outset by the Hindu majority, which had played a role in making the disaster of partition a certainty.
When I decided to go to India, time was running out for the 10-year old Congress administration of Manmohan Singh. Tired and mired (though not personally implicated) in corruption scandals, the 81-year old Singh was standing down at the elections, with his party trailing the resurgent BJP in the polls, the Hindu nationalist party led by Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat and in many ways the archetypal free-market right winger. But beyond the run-of-the-mill Thatcherite economics (tempered by a very Indian belief in a pretty sizable state), Modi cuts a more worrying figure, a card-carrying member of ultra-Hindu nationalist organisations and guilty of, at best, turning a blind eye to an anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat in 2002 which left 2,000 dead. Pitched against him by Congress, a party that seems to feel constrained in selecting prime ministerial candidates from the ranks of the Gandhi clan (Singh was only prime minister because Sonia Gandhi unexpectedly rejected the job after Congress’ 2004 victory where she had been the party’s lead candidate) was Rahul Gandhi, son of Sonia and Rajiv, blessed with film-star good looks but apparently lacking in any obvious political ability. Gandhi and Congress were heading, barring a miracle, for disaster at the polls.
There was no way that a short visit to India was going to solve its mysteries for me. But it might perhaps give me a bit of a handle on its vastnesses and diversities of geography and population. I would travel, I decided, from the very southern tip of India’s inverted triangle, to about as far north as I could get, in the Kashmir Valley, stopping off to see the sights and cities along the way. At the heart of my journey would be one of India’s most famous attributes, its railways. One of the most quoted factoids in British politics is that the NHS is one of the world’s largest employers, beaten only by China’s People’s Liberation Army and the Indian Railways. Despite growing car ownership and rising numbers of cut-price airlines, India’s railways show no signs of entering decline. They still stretch to almost every corner of the sub-continent, except where topography prevents it, the network continues to expand ambitiously, and expresses of up to 24 coaches in length still make journeys of many thousands of kilometers, linking extremities of the country together, conveying up to seven classes of accommodation, the cheapest being subsidised so that travel is affordable to all but the most destitute. The railway plays a key role not only in the economic and social life of India, but also in its politics. The Minister of Railways is among the most senior government jobs and everyone seems to know who it is at any given moment. Their decisions are reported studiously by the press and their micro-management of timetables, fares and every other aspect of the railway seems to know no bounds – one former minister, known to all as Lalu, is best known for ordering that earthenware cups be used to serve chai in again by Indian Railway pantry cars, after they were replaced by paper. Alas, the decision was subsequently reversed by a subsequent minister and your seven rupee chai comes in paper once again.
The bargain prices of Indian Railways meant that relatively luxurious classes of travel became available to me. The moment I picked a Two-tier air conditioned pass (normally known as 2AC – the main classes on long-distance trains in descending hierachy are 1AC, 2AC, 3AC, Sleeper, General) I began to wonder if I’d regret it. Travel forums told me that this was the insular class, where people drew the curtains around their berths and hid away, where the windows were smeared and the views obscured – where India really wouldn’t be found. It is true that, when you see a long Indian express pull into a station, the AC cars are what WH Auden would call ‘the blank-faced coaches’, full panes of glass over their windows, contrasting with the open windows, protected by bars (which are a slightly alarming sight at first acquaintance) of the sleeper and general coaches. In reality, 2AC was often friendly and chatty and the air-conditioning very welcome. True, the windows could be dirty (I nearly hugged the only person I ever saw washing the AC windows, before my longest journey) but rarely enough to obscure the view, and contrary to the warnings I read, no official in AC ever stopped me engaging in one of the great joys of Indian rail travel – sitting by the open door and watching the countryside race (or chug) past.
Barely had I made my plans, than the general election dates were announced, coinciding closely with my journey. Partially due to the size of the country but also because of the need to move security forces around the sub-continent to deal with occasionally violent incidents around polling, it takes 35 days to hold an Indian election, with nine different polling days over that period, split across the states. I would be flying in to India on the day after the first votes were cast and be leaving a week before voting ended. Tales of violent protests, wildcat strikes and occupations of railway lines that sometimes occurred around elections made me doubt my ability to keep to my planned schedule, but the prospect of seeing the world’s largest democracy in action more than counter-acted that. I flew to India in early April 2014, excited, anticipatory and just a little wary.
What follows tries very hard not to be a list of ‘everything I saw in India’, which would be far longer than this already lengthy blog, but a pen portrait of my impressions and experiences. A quick note, too, on spellings, especially of place names: I will certainly have spelled some places ‘wrong’, partially due to carelessness, but also because of the genuine disparities that exist in the anglicised spelling of such names – road signs, rail timetables and maps will often have three different spellings of a single village. Indeed, you can stand on a station platform and see the same place spelled differently on the signs at either end. I’ve gone with either whatever seemed most common, whatever seemed most in tune with local pronunciation, or failing that, whichever one I liked best. Where place names have changed as a result of the de-colonisation process, I’ve gone with the ‘new’ official name, unless it’s completely ignored by everyone in real life. Hence Mumbai not Bombay, but Ooty not Udhagamandalam. Along with the photos on this site, more are available on my Flickr site here.