A Liberal Interpretation of India’s Future

2 01 2009

Review of

INDIA EXPRESS: the future of a new superpower

Daniel Lak, Penguin/Viking, New Delhi, 2008, pp. xx + 314, hardcover, Rs. 499, (Indian edition)

I started reading this book at a time when the current global economic crisis was in full bloom. It was a time when Wall Street investment banking was already history and we had been treated to the strange spectacle of an entire country(Iceland) going bankrupt. Even though insulated from some of the worst, it was a time when premier brand airlines were laying off staff and asking for Government bailouts, the second largest bank in India was rumoured to be in a crisis and the Prime Minister was pleading with the private sector not to retrench staff. It was indeed a strange time to read a book which predicts that India will replace the United States of America as the world’s leading liberal superpower in the next few decades.

In October 2003, Goldman Sachs published the now-famous BRIC report. This report, named after Brazil, Russia, India and China, predicted that these four economies would come to dominate the global economy in the next four decades. In short, these four countries, with their histories of underdevelopment, third-worldism and defeat in the Cold War, were the superpowers of the future! The idea that the BRIC countries would rise up to challenge and even displace the reigning superpowers of the USA, Europe and Japan has excited a wide range of scholars and writers to from across the world to enter this debate.

While China’s ascendance to superpowerdom has rarely been disputed, the possibility of India’s rise has been hotly contested. The massive developmental challenges with regard to poverty, malnutrition, health, shelter, education and public infrastructure are but too obvious to ignore. In fact, with a third of the world’s extreme poor and 40 per cent of the world’s malnourished children India ranks a lowly 128 in the UNDP’s Human Development Index. Looked at in absolute numbers, the figures are even more startling. India has more than 700 million people who earn less than US $ 2 a day and close to 300 million earn less than one dollar! Eighty five million children in India are chronically malnourished and about 400 million of its citizens still cannot read or write. Four out of five Indians do not have access to safe drinking water and sanitation too is beyond the reach of a vast majority. The rule of law, well entrenched in the Acts, codes, rules and regulations passed in such abundance by the legislatures, courts and bureaucrats, remains hidden for most Indians while corruption, nepotism and bias buffet them all through their lives. And if this list was not enough to derail any thoughts of India Express, this putative superpower still has to deal with some of the deepest and most vile forms of social exclusion and discrimination. The sheer scale of these challenges to India’s superpowerdom has led to much doubt and cynicism about India’s ability to finally gain a place on the high table.

Others have argued for India’s rise based on its robust democratic practice and culture, the millions of English speaking engineers who work for salaries unthinkable in the West for even unskilled labour and a booming private sector which has thrown up a pack of aggressive billionaires trawling the globe purchasing industries and mines.

In this mounting pile of books debating India’s potential superpowerdom, comes the present book by Daniel Lak. Having been BBC’s India correspondent for a fairly long time, Lak has come to know the country intimately and writes with ease about the various aspects of social and political life. He appears to understand the range and depth of the challenges but also appreciates the strengths well enough to steer clear of stereotypes and easy generalisations. This comfort with his object of observation allows Lak to address each of India’s pitfalls and shortcomings even though the book is ostensibly about India’s strengths and prospects of greatness. He does not elide over issues like income and wealth inequality, population growth and skewed sex ratios, illiteracy, religious and other primordial tensions, democratic malfunctions and weak infrastructure.

Despite that, the entire tone of the book is celebratory. It begins with Lak’s recollection of Ram press-wala in Chennai who ironed the white collars of the neighbourhoods bureaucrats, professionals and entrepreneurs for his living. He recounts how this poor, illiterate man saved whatever little he could, borrowed money from his regular clients and sent his son to an engineering college. His son is now among the millions who power India’s Information Technology industry. Lak shows how this changed the fortunes of this humble press-walas family and put them on a trajectory which people of his economic class and social caste could not even have imagined a few decades ago.

In the final analysis, Lak’s assessment of India’s potential as a liberal superpower are based crucially on its economic success. Many of the other strengths which he recounts, like democracy and a large group of social activists, ability to invest in education and parents sacrificing for their kids, have been part of India’s milieu for a long time. What has changed in the past one and a half decades is the trajectory of economic growth. It is here that anecdotal history comes on weak ground. For every Ram press wala there are thousands who are not able to improve their livelihoods and there are hundreds of thousands who see their basic survival threatened. Lak does see this but through the heartwarming prism of social activists and not from the desolate rope end of farmers committing suicide.

It is quite possible to build an argument that the statistically minority trend (Ram press-wala) is actually a window to the future while the presently dominant trend (endemic hunger and agrarian crisis) will soon pass. Such an argument will have to, perforce, base itself on an analysis which cannot escape quantifiable data as well as an engagement with the extant knowledge base on India’s social, economic and political life. Lak’s narrative is, on the other hand, an easy to read account with few footnotes and cross references. He bases his arguments on the quoted opinions of a wide, and well known, range of precisely that group – opinionmakers.

Someone who has been reading the mainstream press and watching the nine o’clock news will find all recognisable faces and familiar tropes. Unassuming Narayan Murthy shares space with flamboyant Lalu Prasad and Rabri Devi, Thomas Friedman, Amartya Sen with Pavan K. Varma, Sharad Joshi jostles with Anna Hazare, Arundhati Roy and C. Raja Mohan are both quoted while Gandhi and Ambedkar are referred to in different places. This is just a illustrative list of people who populate the book with their perspectives and experiences. There are the anonymous techies of India’s IT industries and the guides in Nalanda and Gaya, the little known activists in Dharawi and the diligent professor and doctoral student in one of the IITs. Not only are the people speaking in the pages of this book familiar, so are the arguments. Unfortunately, these voices remain a melange and don’t end up sustaining a coherent argument for or against the motion. It appears that Lak has not managed to move out of the mould of a good journalist, which he surely is, and in trying to portray different sides of the story he forgets that he needs to coherently argue out a fairly contentious and controversial proposition. The book provides vignettes of opinions and positions but does not quite manage to string them together into a narrative which supports the author contention.

If this is seen as a drawback of extending the journalist account for the Sunday paper into a full length monograph, there are other places where Lak’s account seems to be somewhat tendentious. One of the best examples is seen in the part where he discusses the visit of Britain’s queen to Jalianwala Bagh in 1997 on the golden jubilee of India’s independence. This is in the chapter which discusses India’s freedom struggle and its contemporary resonances. His account suggests that the British monarch visited Jalianwala Bagh to reduce the contrary voices raised over the visit of the former colonial master on the occasion of India’s independence. He terms as unreasonable demands for an apology from the queen for the massacre at Jalianwala Bagh and speaks of how she managed to come away without rendering any apology due to her grace and also managed to paper over the undiplomatic comments of the fall-guy, her consort Prince Phillip. Lak also quotes some descendant of General Dwyer to suggest that Indian accounts of, what he considers a ghastly massacre, were highly exaggerated. This and similar other accounts actually point to an important, though unsaid, feature of India Express – this is a book written for a foreign readership which is not familiar with India. Irrespective of the validity of the argument about India’s impending superpowerdom, the book is a fairly good introduction to India for a liberal Western reader.

Located in that demographic, not only would passages like this one on the Queen’s visit to Jalianwala Bagh not ranckle, it would be possible to read about the United States of America being a called a “Liberal “ Superpower without laughing out loud. Lak says, “Before America, this [liberal superpower] would have been a laughable concept”. Outside of North America and perhaps Britain, even today it is a laughable concept. For this reviewer the contentious argument about whether India will eventually become a superpower is not the main problem with this well written and engaging book. The main problem is that its prediction is part of the global seduction of India’s economic and intellectual elite to coopt them into the club of the extant superpowers. Having lived in the shadow of superpower delusions for over two centuries, it is difficult for most people in the world to have any illusions about the liberality of a superpower. If not Jalianwala Bagh, then Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Mai Lai and Fallujah should remind us of that!

~  **  ~

This review was published in Biblio, in their November – December 2008 issue. Do have a look at Biblio which is a good place for discussions on books and ideas.

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