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India Rising: Contrasting Perspectives

Pankaj Mishra, Temptations of the West: How to be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet  and Beyond (Farrar, Strous and Giroux, 2006)

Edward Luce, In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India (Doubleday, 2007)

A casual search on the Amazon.com on India’s globalization produces titles such as “India: The emerging giant”, “India Arriving: How this economic powerhouse is redefining global business”, “Riding the Indian Tiger: Understanding India – the world’s fastest growing market”– all heralding the rise of India’s globalizing economy and trying to assess its implications for the United States and the world. A few years ago one would have dismissed this type of writing as journalistic hype.  However, the recent downturns in the US and European economies have produced a need for a careful understanding of the major changes taking place in India and China, deemed to be the future economic centers of the world.  Many of the articles and books focus on the new business climate and economic prospects, but only a few writers offer an analysis of the broad societal transformation taking place and understanding of the experiences of the people enduring the changes. Pankaj Mishra’s Temptations of the West : How to be modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond, and Edward Luce’s In Spite of Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India, are two texts which offer a broader understanding of the transformation taking place in India.

Edward Luce is the Washington bureau chief of the Financial Times. He spent five years in India from 2001-2006 as South Asia Bureau Chief. Luce assesses not only India’s economic accomplishments and shortcomings but also comments on recent political developments and analyzes the implications of emerging international alignment with United States on India’s foreign policy.  Pankaj Mishra is a leading reporter of political happenings in India. His astute observations and commentaries appear frequently in the New York Review of Books, Granta, the New York Times Magazine and the Guardian. The book under review is a revised version of his essays which had appeared earlier in these publications.

Luce and Mishra, both cover the same terrain, dealing with important developments on the Indian political landscape. What sets them apart however, are their opposing worldviews and how differently they perceive the changing situation in India. Luce’s observations are communicated through stories and interviews, which convey his perceptions of incredulity, awe, humor, bit of sarcasm, and occasional sense of pride if he detects a positive link to British heritage. While the tone may be of a detached reporter, his comments are not above polemics, especially when it comes to Gandhianism or Nehruvian model of development.

Luce sees India’s greatest strength, not in its unique religious traditions but rather in its existence as a modern nation-state governed by democratic institutions and pluralistic traditions and now emerging as a major economic force by its intellectual capital and technological prowess.(p. 18) In spite of the considerable problems India needs to tackle, Luce is upbeat about India’s emergence as a “self-confident, materialistic and globalized” nation, and “its rise” is “explicitly desired by other countries, most notably the United States”, especially as an ally to contain China in the future. (p. 9, 19) It is precisely this understanding that sharply distinguishes Mishra’s appraisal of recent developments in India from Luce’s. Mishra has strong misgivings about recent spate of books on China and India.  He is concerned that these writings fail to take account of the fact that,

“India and China are old civilizations with complex histories. To see them in terms of whether their “rise” would help Americans make money is to uphold a crude philistinism…The think-tank experts and correspondents of business periodicals (produce books) … that reveal very little about how most Indians and Chinese live or how they see themselves and the world” but more about their “assumptions and prejudices, strengthened by the West’s supposed victory in the Cold War”. (Furthermore) conditioned to see their own consumer societies as the inevitable and desirable termination of history, these journalists tend not to inquire much into the past”. (Pankaj Mishra, 2007, p. 86).

Indeed, one can easily detect Mishra’s sensitivity to history and its legacy in the way he frames his primary concern in the Preface of his book: “How do peoples with traditions extending back to several millennia modernize themselves?”  Most of the nations of South Asia have been faced with the challenge of modernization. “But the wrenching process of remaking life and society in all their aspects (social, economic, existential) frequently collapses in violence”.  Mishra not only takes a longer historical view but also examines the region’s development from the level of individual experiences. This allows the reader to understand why there is not unrestrained enthusiasm for the free market based globalized economy as one can observe the pains, disruptions and dislocations caused by the modernizing process.

Mishra’s writing is intensely humanistic, often filled with poignancy and angst for the suffering from the violence that the process of modernization entails. He is keen to offer a deeper understanding to explain the way things appear. “India, with its severe disparities of income, caste, and religion, is split into so many separate worlds. You can live in one without knowing anything about the others, and no world has an obvious past until you make the effort to dredging it up”. (26-27) Indeed, Mishra does not hesitate to ‘dredge up’ the burdensome historical legacy of British colonial policies when they explain the roots of present morass in certain parts of India. Most importantly, contrary to Luce’s enthusiastic endorsement of India’s new economic strategy, Mishra is very wary of the policy of consumerist globalization that Indian elites seem to have adopted because they have ignored the long term environmental and other social consequences. The two authors deal with a wide range of issues, from India’s economic past, present and future to the challenge of right wing Hindu Nationalism, the mobilization of Dalits (former untouchables) to the disaffection of India’s Muslims, brutality of Indian military response to terrorism in Kashmir to India’s international standing in the neighborhood and world as a major power.

Luce’s India

Luce’s strength lies in capturing vividly India’s diversity. Through his travels, the reader gets to meet not only the VIPs of Indian politics, such as the former President of India, Abdul Kalam, the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh,  the leader the Congress Party in power, Sonia Gandhi, but also a wide range of individuals from IT entrepreneurs to dedicated civil rights activists, gangster politicians to upright bureaucrats, police chief to a mafia don.  Luce shows that entrepreneurs like Alok Kejriwal and Nandan Nilekani, are thriving in the new Information Technology based economy,  at the same time, life remains rather harsh in the villages and less developed states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, where the only way out of rural poverty for families is to hope that one of their sons will get a government job (61-2).  It is easy to be disheartened seeing the callousness towards the suffering of India’s rural masses by inept bureaucrats and corrupt politicians. Yet Luce offers glimpses of hope through conversations with human rights activists such as Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey who work with villagers to ensure that government programs and welfare policies are assiduously implemented; his meeting with V J Kurian, an incorruptible Indian Administrative Service Officer brings awareness of the nexus of powerful business and political interests who stymie efforts to carry out development projects scrupulously.

When Luce encounters efficiently run government organizations, such as the Indian Space Research Organization, or the Indian Election Commission, or its efficient management of Kumbh Mela, a religious gathering at the confluence of two rivers, which caters to ten million visitors with adequate provision of public health facilities, he concludes that “India’s problems with governance have more to do with the state’s priorities than with its capabilities”. (87)  It is capable of functioning well: the record of delivery of service versus loss through embezzlement vary considerably between various states; in better managed southern states are Kerala and Tamil Nadu,  80% of subsidized food reaches the poor in contrast to the eastern state of Bihar where 80% of food is stolen.(83)

In spite of his frequent frustrations with mind-boggling bureaucratic ineptitude and indifference, Luce feels positive about India, and that comes from its pluralistic democratic politics which enables a wide range of opinions to be heard and offers opportunities for all to have a say in the system through elections. He is definitely moved by the empowerment of Dalit activists (former untouchables), appreciates the commitment to secularism and removal of rural poverty in the Congress Party, but was repelled by right wing outfits like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Council of Hinduism), and its youth wing, Bajrang Dal, who have been responsible for several riots and large scale killings of Muslims and harassment of Christian missionaries. (108-114, 158-62). His meetings with Kashmiri muslims underlined their tragic situation; there was a fatigue from continued violence and disgust with Islamic radicals since the Islam practiced in Kashmir was very accommodating of other religions. (243).

Luce concludes by highlighting four problems that need urgent attention: lifting 300 million out of absolute poverty, addressing problems of environmental degradation leading to considerable air and water pollution and preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS epidemic and strengthening India’s system of liberal democracy. (335-6).

So how does Luce feel about India’s future? He provides an interesting analogy to his own observations about India; “if you were to be transported inside a swarm (of bees), it would appear to be anarchic, with individual bees buzzing around in every different direction. But if you stood back and observed the swarm as a whole, it would be going in one direction”. (p.329) He does feel however that in spite of many positive trends in recent years, it would be incorrect to conclude that “India is…on an autopilot to greatness. But it would take an incompetent pilot to crash it. (353) If India’s globalizing progress makes Luce cautiously optimistic about its future trajectory, why is it that Mishra appears more hesitant about this path to modernity? How do Mishra’s insights differ on this process? It might be helpful to think of Luce’s book as a panoramic view of India’s development, whereas Mishra’s writings seem to zoom deeply into specific settings to offer a gritty picture of reality as experienced by the individuals in the process.  Not only do these different lenses offer different images but also remind us that they are focusing on different aspects.

Luce is eager to promote economic liberalization, and therefore definitely unsympathetic to the mixed economy model that was chosen by Nehru after independence.  From his viewpoint, India in 1950s was primarily a rural nation, where majority of its citizens lived in villages; the leaders needed to focus on land reforms and improve agricultural production to increase its crop yields. What they focused on instead was on constructing, public steel plants and aluminum smelters..Indian farmer needed local irrigation projects to help insulate him against the vagaries of India’s wildly erratic annual monsoon. Instead Nehru unveiled grand dams…

The average Indian also needed to learn how to read and write and have  access to antibiotics and anti malaria drugs, without which it was virtually impossible to escape poverty. Instead, Nehru’s Congress Party  governments poured resources into universities for the urban middle  classes and into new public hospitals in the cities.” (27-28)

Luce does acknowledge that India’s development strategy was a critique of the ‘imperial economic system’, and that there was some reason to distrust global free trade system recalling Europe’s experiences of 1930s depression. An active role of the state was not unique to independent India. Luce’s critique, however well intended, belittles the political consensus  which reflected a determination to prevent future subjugation of Indian economy to foreign economic interests; this was implicit in the model of development chosen that would ensure India’s future self-sufficiency. If India was to reduce its dependence on foreign imports, it needed to build its own industrial base. In spite of Nehru’s ‘hopelessly idealistic” approach as Luce characterized, India did achieve self-sufficiency in food production through Green Revolution, and remained free from major debt problems in 1980s and during the Asian economic crisis of 1990s, which afflicted many developing nations. Yes, in 1991, India had to borrow an emergency loan from the IMF. On this issue of IMF loan, Luce totally abandons his journalistic detachment, describing it as “the final death knell for India’s hopes for self-sufficiency” as he polemically asserts that

“Nehru’s socialist dream of creating an economy that would be immune from the influence of the former colonial powers had culminated in bankruptcy and worse, a bankruptcy in which it was London that played the symbolic role of a pawnbroker in saving India from collapse”. (31)

The response to such derision can only be generous forgiveness for the lapse of memory of the specific historical international circumstances in which India had to borrow emergency funds: the break up of the Soviet Union (loss of India’s important trading partner), US led war against Iraq in 1991, a cataclysmic international event, which caused massive disruption such as loss of India’s bilateral trade with Iraq (oil in exchange of grains), and loss of significant foreign exchange remittances of its citizens working in Kuwait and elsewhere in the Middle East. Yes, India’s foreign exchange reserve fell to $I billion in 1991, but they have risen to $239.4 billion in 2008.

Mishra’s India

If India’s earlier development appeared ‘hopelessly idealistic’ and inappropriate in Luce’s perspective, how does Mishra portray this period?

“India registered its most impressive gains from 1951 to 1980, after emerging from more than two centuries of systematic exploitation, during which it was, in effect, deindustrialized. Until 1980 India achieved an average annual economic growth of 3.5% as much as most countries achieved. In this period India’s much derided socialistic economy also helped create the country’s industrial capacity”. (Mishra,  June 2006)

While acknowledging that Nehruvian plans helped India modernize through development of its industrial and technical infrastructure, Mishra recognizes that it did not work out as planned. What emerged as a result was “a state-controlled economy (which) encouraged corruption as much as inefficiency”, and the bureaucrats and politicians looted the public through graft on “big public projects, defense contracts” and enriched themselves through “businessmen, jobs, foreign trips, and telephone connections” etc. (42) Clearly, Mishra is able to perceive the problems with the older economic model without ignoring the historical circumstances and without being dismissive of its value.

In 1991, India initiated a major shift in its economic strategy and removed many of its earlier restrictions on foreign investment. The advanced development of Information and Technology sector further propelled India into the competition for the global service economy. Slowly India’s representation changed from a ‘poverty stricken, chaotic, violent’ place to one of glitzy high rise towers of Information Technology companies, billionaires, and shopping malls with the Starbucks and cyber cafes. But, the success and the limits of this development are what concerns Mishra. Yes, “after ten years of liberalization, a small but growing number of Indians live as well as middle-class Europeans and Americans”. (139) However, for Mishra, this vision of development is a chimera, because it leaves out the vast majority of Indians who live in the rural areas and provincial small towns. Some of Mishra’s most poignant portrayals come from travels to these regions. His visit to Allahabad on the flight of a new airline makes him think of the

“good things contact with the global economy had brought to India: higher standards to health and hygiene; a greater alertness to individual needs… But an older India of caste and poverty is never far away even on a  plane with its Western-style amenities, its atmosphere of international ease and luxury”. (26)

Leaving the comfort of the air conditioned cabin of the airline, he embarks on a car journey to Allahabad and brings the ‘other India’ vividly to the reader.

The long, bone-rattling drive afterward to Allahabad on potholed roads, through calf-deep floods, past the tin-roofed shacks and rain-battered villages of mud and hatch – the cowering huts, so picturesque from the plane, now appearing frail, in danger of collapsing onto the sodden earth from which they had been so arduously raised, the low-caste women paving their courtyards with cow dung, the men spinning rope for the string cots, the sky low and gray over the flat fields and tiny huts and the buffaloes placid in muddy pools – the long drive through a world that belonged to itself as fixedly as it would have two centuries ago was a reminder of how far even the superficially good things of globalized economy were from this heavily populated and impoverished part of India. (26)

Elsewhere Mishra points out that,

“many more places, left behind by the new high-skills-based  economy, had stagnated…While adding glossy new suburbs to the   metropolitan cities…, and revitalizing a few small cities and towns, it has bypassed many provincial centers, especially in the densely populated north, exposing hundreds of millions to swift civic decay and crime-infested politics.”(Mishra, 2007)

The impact of the globalization has been felt by the Indian middle classes.  In towns bypassed by the new economy, his middle class neighbors worry about,

“uncollected garbage on the streets, the lack of drainage, the potholed roads, the power and water breakdowns. They talk about growing corruption and crime in the city, about the recent murder of a female doctor, the rise of mafia dons and the deteriorating environment outside their home”. (49)

It is this atmosphere of growing fear, insecurity, anxiety, contempt and apathy, where

“uprooting of hundreds of tribal families by big dam projects, the suicides of hundreds of farmers victimized by the economic policies of the past decade  – feel far away, in which the deaths of more than fifty thousand people in the Kashmir in last decade incite little debate beyond the parameters of  ‘national interest’ and the pogroms against the minorities can go unpunished.” (49)

It is precisely in this context, that a new Indian identity was constructed, of which “Hinduism, nuclear bombs, beauty queens and information technology tycoons, have in recent years, become essential, if not conflicting components.” Here Mishra is making an interesting observation that links the rise of Hindu nationalism to the globalization of Indian economy.

“A decade of pro globalization policies has created a new aggressive middle class, whose concerns dominate public life in India. This class is growing; the current numbers are between 150 and 200 million. (112)

(In addition), many Indians in Britain and America have begun to see their ancestral country as an investment opportunity and a cultural resource. These rich but insecure Indians have bankrolled generously the Hindu nationalists’ rise to power and now support the assertion of Indian military and economic power. (139)

Hinduism in the hands of these Indians never looked more like the Christianity      and Islam of the popes and the mullahs and less like the multiplicity of    unselfconsciously tolerant faiths it still is for most Indians.” (112)

The pogrom of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 resulted in deaths of 2000 muslims and uprooting of a hundred thousand from their homes. It would be an error to assume that this was the work of some unemployed rural youth. The Benetton-clad attackers came in Japanese cars, looted shops, and carried off digital cameras and DVD players. This aggressive Hindu religious nationalism is clear about the subordinate status the minorities must occupy in the Hindu nation under their control.

Where does the future lie?

At this point, it might be useful to compare Luce’s observations of India’s economic future in the globalized economy with Mishra’s. Luce says that India is destined to become a major economic player (third largest economy) behind China, according to forecasts made by CIA, investment banks and business organizations and academic institutions. India would be the third in another few decades. It has consistently recorded an average growth rate of 6% a year since 1991. The sharp economic acceleration has coincided with a steady fall in the rate of India’s population growth. (39) This is a positive trend and must be continued.

Not shy to be polemical, Luce asserts that “whatever your economic ideology, and however much you may disapprove of India’s widening inequality of income distribution, it would require incredible acrobatics to argue that India’s “neoliberal” phase since 1991 has been worse for the poor than what it replaced”. (Luce, “One Land, Two Planets”, The New Statesman, 20 Jan 2006.)

Whether capable of acrobatics or not, many reasonable minded Indians would disagree about his assessment that life for the poor has been better since the post 1991 reforms. Based on UNDP reports, India, in spite of significant years of economic growth, has not shown noticeable improvement in development indicators. Malnutrition of the children, infant mortality, inadequate healthcare and lack of adequate primary education are still major problems faced by the poor, which constitute a third of the population. There may be high growth in the IT sector but it employs only a miniscule percent of the Indian workforce.  Fatigued by debt problem, as victims of aggressive marketing of genetically modified seeds, 100,000 farmers have committed suicide. The resentment against this glitzy urban growth has fueled armed rebellions in the poorest, populous states. It is not a surprise that the Indian electorate did not buy the “India Shining” campaign in 2004 which symbolized the “neo-liberal” development strategy. High economic growth rates do not in themselves lead to removal of poverty (an argument that Luce also makes).  The new development model has vitalized Indian economy but it will not impact the lives of the rural poor without a major labor employment oriented strategy. (Mishra July 2006)

What role should India play in its neighborhood?

As Luce sees it, India faces enough challenges within its boundaries, but can not ignore the threats of terrorism and instability in its neighborhood.  US interest in the stability and control of the Islamic militancy in the neighboring states of Pakistan and Afghanistan and future containment of China are the underlying rationale for the civilian nuclear deal offered by the Bush administration. It will be up to India to benefit from America’s help without jeopardizing its relations with China.(294)

The implied question on this issue is whether India is willing to further American interests in the region. While Mishra does not address this question directly, his observations from travels through Pakistan and Afghanistan elicit caution about taking on another nation’s agenda. Certainly the intellectual elites in Pakistan have bemoaned the “Talibanization of Pakistan”, a consequence of allowing United States to use its territory for recruiting and training Jihadis to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. (223-225). The fact India maintained its independence in the foreign policy was beneficial since its 150 million Muslim minority (second largest in the world) did not join in the Jihad in Afghanistan. (Luce, 252)  However, if there continues to be attacks on the Muslims without impunity and growing alienation, it would not be long for the disaffected to be radicalized to form international connections. (108)

Argument about Modernity?

Finally, one could make the case that the two books highlight different ideas on “modernity”. Luce has observed that “India’s educated elite feel ambivalent about modernity” and his explanation is that “the new wealth and technology of the last fifteen years appears to have exacerbated some of India’s less savory traditions”. (308) However, it is not simply the “gender gap” as a result of sex selective abortions or the excessive demand of the dowry that raises the discomfort about modernity. (307- 311). It may be that Indian intellectuals are aware of the yardstick by which modernity is being defined in the West and which India does not seem to fit into easily. As Luce himself clearly expresses his dilemma about ‘modernity’ in India which does not fit his expectations.

“Sometimes it seems that in India the modern lifestyle is just another layer on the country’s ancient palimpsest. It is simply adding modernity to what it already has. Most Europeans tend to think of modernity as the triumph of a secular way of life: Church attendance gradually dwindles and religion becomes a minority pastime confined to worshipers’ private lives. Religion turns into a branch of the heritage industry, celebrated more for its architecture and history         than its contemporary relevance…In Europe the past is the past. But in India, the past is in many ways also the future.  (303)

Here, it might be useful to recall Mishra’s observations about how   modernity was achieved elsewhere.

“The historical lessons…from Europe and east Asia are… (that) most countries have become modern nation states by breaking with their ethnically and culturally diverse pasts and imposing, usually undemocratically, a certain sameness of behavior and manner on their citizens. (Mishra, January 2006)

If modernity is defined by uniformity, materialism, sameness of conduct by citizens, then it is clearly lacking in India with a “pre-modern world of multiple identities and faiths in which most Indians still live”. He recalls that,

“most Hindus themselves felt little need for precise self-descriptions, except when faced with questions about religion on official forms. Long after their encounter with the monotheistic religions of Islam and Christianity, they continued to define themselves through their overlapping  allegiances to family, caste, linguistic group, region and devotional sect.” (Mishra 2002)

However, this pluralistic Hindu belief system, which enabled many diverse communities to coexist, lacks acceptance in a world of “universalistic ideologies of nationalism and progress”. (Mishra, 2002).  It would also be useful to recall that “One nation, one culture, one language” plank of Hindu nationalism in India is the representation of a troublesome modernity.  (197)

Mishra has observed also the resistance to the homogenizing ‘modernity’ in India. He notes that,

“foreign brand names count for relatively little here. Hollywood movies have never amounted to more than 5 percent of the Indian film business; jeans and skirts are as far as ever from replacing the sari or the shalwar kameez as the preferred garment of Indian women. McDonald’s and Pizza Hut may represent glamour to the Indian elite but have failed to supplant the fast food that has been available in India for centuries…Anyone Indian or foreign, trying to run a successful business in India has to acknowledge the great diversity of Indian tastes in food, clothing, entertainment, rather than impose on Indians a standardized, international version.” (Mishra, January 2006)

Mishra is wary of a “neo-orientalist” perspective of India and China’s economic progress, which not only seeks to attribute their success to “globalizing free market capitalism” but also “fail to reckon fully with the tortured and often tragic experience of modern development”. (Mishra, 06 2006) . He is most vehement in reminding us the future possibilities of “economic rivalries and military conflicts”, if India and China with their consumerist middle classes were to seek to compete in a world of finite energy resources.  To contemplate a world where billions of Indians and Chinese would enjoy “the lifestyles of Europeans and Americans – is an absurd and dangerous fantasy”. It will certainly bring rapid destruction of the global environment and devastating social consequences. (June 2006) Where will this search for modernity lead? Mishra notes that “many intellectuals and activists in India and China grapple with this challenge of modernity every day, knowing well the disasters that lie in wait if they fail”. One can only hope that “for peace (to prevail) in this century…India and China find a less calamitous way to becoming modern”. (June 2006)

To conclude, the two books are definitely worth reading as they offer many important insights on contemporary situation in India. While the two authors offer different perspectives, and yet, in many ways, they also complement each other.  As I conclude this review, I am reminded that life in the subcontinent is far from peaceful. 8 bomb blasts shook the city of Jaipur a few days back (May 13 2008), shattering what appeared to be a normal market day.

As I think more about it, the bombing was just another expression of the conflicts within the subcontinent about issues of identity and modernity, I was recently reminded by my niece to check the number of U-Tube videos competing to offer a triumphalist celebration of India’s rise against other videos showing a different reality—one that the Hindu nationalist men would not like to see or acknowledge.  Another reminder to heed Mishra’s concern about becoming modern peacefully.

References

Edward Luce, “One land, Two planets”, The New Statesman, Jan 30, 2006

Pankaj Mishra, “It’s a round world after all: India, China and the Global Economy”, Harper’s Magazine, August 2007, 83-88

Pankaj Mishra, “Death of the small town”, The Guardian, UK, Aug 14, 2007

Pankaj Mishra, “The Myth of the New India”, The New York Times, July 6, 2006

Pankaj Mishra, “The western view of the rise of India and China is a self-affirming fiction”, The Guardian, UK, June 10, 2006

Pankaj Mishra, “A New sort of Superpower”, The New Statesman, Jan 30, 2006

Pankaj Mishra, Temptations of the West: How to be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet  and Beyond (Farrar, Strous and Giroux, 2006)

Edward Luce, In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India (Doubleday, 2007)

 

Manju Parikh teaches at College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University.

 

 

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