Published on December 23, 2007
The author tries "going native".
In Spite of the Gods: the Strange Rise of Modern India
By Edward Luce
Published by Abacus
Available at Kinokuniya Books, Bt482
Reviewed by Manote Tripathi
With India and China touted as the most important global players of the 21st century, it's hardly surprising that volumes of literature dealing with the economies of both nations have been flooding the bookstores. But Edward Luce's "In Spite of the Gods: the Strange Rise of Modern India" is a welcome addition to the multitude of books on the subcontinent, as most other authors tend to be either Indians fascinated by their own history or Western guru-analysts so impressed with India's growing educated workforce and rapid growth that they are already envisaging the country as the next superpower.
Luce is to be commended for his painstakingly researched account of changing India. This is no superfluous paean to a projected glorious future but rather a perceptive treatise drawn from his five years working as the Financial Times' New Delhi bureau chief. It will appeal to both new and veteran observers of the country.
Seven themes form the contextual framework: India's post-independence lopsided economy, the backward Indian bureaucracy, the rise of the lower caste, the threat of Hindu nationalism, the Congress party's Nehru-Gandhi legacy, India's foreign policy, and the country's experience with modernity.
By covering so much ground, Luce displays a profound interest in, and personal fascination with India. He even tries "going native": he and his Indian wife had a flamboyant full-scale Hindu wedding in New Delhi. India, he admits, has taught him lessons in eastern hospitality.
The images he conjures are of a country at ease with its own social and technical paradoxes while at loggerheads with divisive religious traditions. Its lofty goal is to overcome internal problems and progress into a new world order as a pluralist, democratic model of development. Today's India is led by Sikh prime minister (Manmohan Singh), and headed by a woman president (Pratibha Devisingh Patil). The ruling Congress is chaired by a woman from a Christian background (Sonia Gandhi).
Indians themselves don't see such mixtures as something special and indeed pluralism is visible in other facets of Indian life, from literature and cinema to business and sports. Regardless of their faiths, Mother India's sons invariably prefer to be called Indians rather than Muslims or Hindus.
And there's nothing quite like the Indian paradox. India is a globalised nation in the 21st century, self-confident and materialistic, a fact attributable to its economic ascent in the wake of the 1991 economic liberalisation by the then prime minister Narasimha Rao that dismantled the snail-paced "Licence Raj" (a colonial-style tight system of controls and permits). But look carefully and you'll see two striking features at odds with each other in India's early-21st-century economy: its modern and booming service sector in a sea of forsaken farmland.
India's contrasts are a source of outrage for the author. The elite may be discussing India's progress in developing intercontinental missiles, but meanwhile the country remains home to one third of the world's chronically malnourished children. Almost a million Indian infants die of diarrhoea every year. Half of its women don't know how to read and write. More than 100 million rural Indians do not own any land.
Luce writes fluently of the conflicting opinions in the religious, economic and political spheres, drawing on the perhaps ambiguous forces that brought India into the bourgeois epoch of development, such as the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty and popular heroes like Dr Bhim Rao Ambedkar, a symbol of the struggle against discrimination who framed the new Constitution after independence.
Formed in 1885, the Congress Party started as a mass organisation of mostly English-educated Indians championing national freedom and socialism. The Cambridge-educated Nehru, who regarded Fabian socialism as the cure for all evils, left three clear stamps on India that remain to this day: democracy, secularism and socialism.
Yet many of the assumptions about Nehru as a hopeless idealist who dragged India into the bureaucratic quagmire for 40 years are justified. India went badly astray after independence and Nehru's lopsided economic policies led to India failing to achieve the high economic growth rates that were seen across Asia in the four decades after the 1950s.
In contrast, Gandhi looked more to India's villages and self-sufficient rural communities at the expense of its textile sector. The Gandhian faith in village life and economies still persists at all levels of society, but 750 million of India's 1.1 billion people live in its 680,000 villages, half of which still lack proper healthcare centres and elementary schools.
India's ability to balance religious sensibilities with pluralism remains a decisive factor in upholding its vibrant democracy in the face of Hindu nationalism. Besides, there's a long checklist of necessities to tick off in the interests of the masses, most probably with the gods on board.