Glimpses of India

LEAD REVIEW

Glimpses of India

The central question that British writer-historian Patrick French seeks to answer in his latest book, India: A Portrait, is why India is the way it is today. He looks for answers by examining India through the political, economic and social lenses.

Broadly, the book is divided into three sections. Section one looks at India’s polity, beginning with an overview of the early challenges independent India faced, such as the integration of the princely states, the writing of the Constitution and so on. An important aspect of contemporary politics that he examines in some detail is the role of family connections. That nepotism is rampant is well-known, but French quantifies nepotism in India’s parliament.

India’s young Members of Parliament (MP) are in fact hereditary MPs, he points out. Every Lok Sabha MP under the age of 30 has inherited a seat and over two-thirds of the 66 MPs aged 40 or under is a hereditary MP. The implications for India’s democracy are ominous. If the trend continues, he says, “most members of the Indian parliament would be there by heredity alone, and the nation would be back to where it had started before the freedom struggle, with rule by a heredity monarch and assorted Indian princelings.” “India’s next general election,” he warns, “is likely to return not a Lok Sabha, a house of people, but a Vansh Sabha, a house of dynasty.”

The book’s second section looks at India’s economic transformation. Here, the author traces the changes through the experiences of businessmen. The frustrations of doing business under ‘licence raj’ are vividly recounted by Gopal Srinivasan, a scion of the TVS empire, while the accumulation of great wealth by individuals that economic liberalisation has facilitated is captured through the description of Sunil Bharti Mittal’s meteoric rise from a small-time entrepreneur in the 1970s to the founder-owner of Airtel a few decades later.

The final section examines Indian society. French stresses the centrality of religion in determining a person’s identity in India and sees religion as an important way to categorise Indians. In doing so, he treads a controversial path as this was a view that was propounded by the British colonial rulers.

Far from pedantic, India: A Portrait is a lively account of the new India. The author has travelled widely to understand the country’s complexities. He recounts the life stories of Indians he encountered over the years. If the account of Mittal’s life throws light on opportunities that have opened up in the new India, that of Venkatesh, a bonded labourer in a stone quarry in Karnataka, is reminder that gruelling poverty persists and injustices remain. The story of the shampoo sachet businessman in Cuddalore, and of ‘Islamic rage boy’ Shakeel, make interesting reading.

And yet the book disappoints. Most of the stories French recounts have been told before, either by himself elsewhere or by others. There is no new ground that he covers in this book, no fresh insights into issues. He discusses India’s democracy and focuses on elections and parliament. Sadly, he ignores the role of India’s vibrant civil society.

No discussion of the new India would be complete without recognising the great sacrifice that tribals have been forced to make, to enable a small section of Indians to become rich. Their land has been taken away to enable mining and to set up special economic zones. Tribal displacement has grown manifold since 1991, with the government facilitating land grabs by big businesses in the name of furthering economic growth in the country. Yet, this tragic reality fails to find mention in French’s portrait of India.

The book is “an intimate biography of 1.2 billion people.” It is intimate in the sense that it gives voice to the people and their experiences. But it is preoccupied with the aspirations and achievements of a fraction of them — urban Indians and that too privileged ones. The vast majority who live in rural India go largely ignored. A portrait of the new India that fails to include the unfolding agrarian crisis is a distorted and incomplete one.

India: A Portrait
Patrick French
Allen Lane/Penguin
2011, pp 436
 Rs 699


 

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