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'The twenty-first century is India's to lose'

Last updated on: March 05, 2007 11:56 IST
After the wave of nostalgic books on the British Raj in recent years and on Indian philosophy in an earlier era, it is now fashionable to write futuristic books on India. Curiosity about the secret of the phenomenal success of India as an economic power, with all its contradictions and weaknesses, has opened the floodgates of studies and analyses, but the rise of modern India remains 'strange', as the author of the book, In Spite of the Gods, Edward Luce of The Financial Times asserts.

Coming as it does after Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat, it cannot escape comparison with Friedman's brief history of the twenty-first century. 'Friedman's thesis is that the world is flat. My point is that India is not flat', Luce told me in an interview for the Asianet television channel.

'India's growth rate is not a flash in a pan'

But the differences between the two books go beyond the flatness argument. Friedman thinks that India is poised to take over the world in the twenty-first century. His warning is to the Western world that it has to learn to cope with India and China to survive and safeguard their prosperity. But Luce asserts, 'India is not on autopilot to greatness.' An incompetent pilot could still crash the plane. He echoes Vijay Kelkar's ominous statement, 'The twenty-first century is India's to lose.' 'India never loses an opportunity to lose an opportunity' is the joke he quotes in the final chapter of the book.

But Luce is not just content with highlighting the contradictions and dangers. With characteristic British self-confidence, he prescribes remedies for the ills he identifies even if they amount to tall orders for the very reasons he brings out in the book. They are easier said than done.

For instance, alleviation of poverty is a key element for progress, but to establish a better economic climate for India's farmers and create more jobs in manufacturing and services, India has to overcome many of the hazards inherent in the system. The same is the case with combating environmental degradation, development of a coherent energy strategy, defeating the HIV-AIDS epidemic, saving liberal democracy or eliminating corruption. Normalising relations with Pakistan is an equally Herculean task.

Luce considers that these remedies are required for India to ascend the international rankings. What Luce finds strange is that India continues to rise in spite of the gods, who seem to hold India back.

As the son-in-law of an Indian family, Luce has insights that go deeper than those of a foreign correspondent in India. He cites his own wedding ceremony as an example of India being 'a functional anarchy' as J K Galbraith described it thirty years ago. Unlike China, which seems to have a method, India's method is in its madness.

'The complexity of India is most appealing'

To change the metaphor, India is like a truck with twelve wheels: even if one or two are punctured, the truck moves on. China, on the other hand, has fewer wheels that enable it to move faster, but others wonder what the consequences will be if a couple of wheels fall off.

He quashes the argument that, India, unlike China, is unable to move faster because of its 'autocracy deficiency.' He argues that autocracy in Pakistan has not helped its development, but he minimises the role played by roadblocks in the legislatures, massive protests and litigation, which hamper decision-making and implementation of programmes.

Luce is rightly outraged by the squandering of opportunities by India and that is the reason given for a critical rather than an adulatory book on India. But since he is essentially sympathetic to his wife's homeland, his criticism evokes resonance rather than anger. After all, his effort is to unravel the mystery of past failures to see whether India can fulfill its present promise.

Speaking on India at the Foreign Service Institute in Washington, DC last year, I lamented the fact that there was a wide gap between the assessment of the Western press on India and its potential and the recognition by governments of India's importance in the global arena. The shining India that every newspaper praises as the country of the future is thwarted repeatedly when it seeks to acquire the trappings of a great power like permanent membership of the UN Security Council.

The US diplomats present were unable to explain this phenomenon. Luce provides answers to that question, not in simple terms, but with a convincing explanation of the anxieties that India provokes. He bluntly states that the expanding nuclear arsenal is an important piece on the international chessboard.

The Indian bureaucracy baffles Luce more than anything else. His caustic comment is that even though the portrait that hangs in the offices of district collectors is that of Mahatma Gandhi, colonial British officials would feel at home there. Minor officials and other sycophants constantly surround the collectors and make them look like film stars and politicians.

He concedes that many of them began as people of high calibre with idealism, but they cannot stem the tide of petitioners, supplicants and others who bombard them from every side. Corruption has crept in everywhere and the most optimistic claim by activists is that they 'have raised the cost of corruption.'

The book is replete with specific instances of corruption that would put any Indian to shame. It also carries comments from respected Indians, including former civil servants to show how rampant corruption has become. 'Life can be very cruel to the poor in India', Luce concludes.

The irony is that it is the same India, which is poised to be a developed country. The evils of the police and the legal system also do not augur well for a potential great power.

The continuing role of castes and communities in modern India is another constraint that Luce examines in some detail. The phenomena of Lalu Prasad Yadav and Mayawati should astonish any observer of the Indian scene. How do their models fit in with modernity and development?

The caste factor and the use of the muscle power undermine the very fundamentals of democracy. Having spoken to the leaders, who are guilty of such practices, Luce is convinced that caste in India shows no sign of withering away.

Equally baffling is the rise of Hindu nationalism in a secular society. But Luce discovers from a Hindu intellectual that the dominant 'right-side brain' of the polytheistic Indians is responsible for the rise nationalism. Earlier, overdeveloped 'left-side brains' borne out of Western education ran India!

Many BJP attitudes and policies come up for criticism and Gujarat gets detailed critical treatment, but he believes that the BJP could well govern India again. Consumers are voting for a new kind of Hinduism with their wallets.

Luce is equally ruthless in his analysis of Congress policies and the dynasty cult. He traces the evolution of the Congress party over the years to show that it no longer appeared to believe in anything. Its policies and postures are conditioned by expediency. Dynasty, he discovers, is not confined to the Nehru-Gandhis. He quotes a rather exaggerated statement by Inder Malhotra that 'only two senior positions in Indian public life -- the governor of the central bank and the army chief of staff -- are untouched by dynasties.'

He sees a bright future for dynasties in democratic India in the long term.

On foreign policy, Luce concentrates on the India-US-China relationships and India-Pakistan relations in the context of the Hindu-Muslim relationship within India. On Kashmir, he observes that every Kashmiri he met disliked the Islamic radicals and blamed Pakistan for their presence.

But they also bitterly resented the Indian security forces. He thoughtlessly accepts Pakistani criticism that India is a country that often agrees to something and then spends years arguing what it has actually agreed to. Nothing is farther from the truth. He also calls the IFS most accomplished at 'semantic nit-picking.' This is an astonishing conclusion, considering that he acknowledges his indebtedness to several IFS officers for their insights.

Luce has a vast canvass on which he has tried to bring in a huge array of sights much like the city scenes of the cartoonist Mario Miranda. The good and the bad get equal treatment and only a careful observer will see every minute detail. But he conveys his sense of bafflement that a country of such contradictions should do so well in spite of the diversity or because of it. His remedies may not work, but his analysis should open our eyes.

T P Sreenivasan, a former member of the Indian Foreign Service, was India'sĀ ambassador to the United Nations, Vienna, andĀ governor for India, International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna.

For more articles by Ambassador Sreenivasan, click here.

T P Sreenivasan