The Spoils of Indian Democracy | The Nation


The Spoils of Indian Democracy

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Luce has since moved to Washington, and his book on India arrives as a summation of his reporting experience on the subcontinent. Unfortunately, the insightful, funny article he wrote for the Financial Times can be found only in a bowdlerized version in the book, crammed hurriedly and apologetically into the last chapter. It is as if Luce has suddenly remembered the Washington Consensus and the Summers memo, and the account in his book is strangely disembodied despite its claims to move away from "the detached and impersonal style that journalists follow."

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Siddhartha Deb
Siddhartha Deb, who teaches at the New School, is the author of The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New...

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As far as its neoliberal dogma goes, In Spite of the Gods doesn't offer much that is new. Luce visits a few places, talks to some people, fitting each experience and observation into its ritual slot. Modernization is good, traditionalism bad. Bureaucrats are corrupt, businessmen honest and efficient. When Luce meets social activists and villagers who speak of alternative ways of development that don't involve large-scale resettlement in urban slums, he finds them charming and moves on. "A hundred years ago, France was predominantly rural," he writes. "Now it is predominantly urban. But French culture lives on and so do its villages." When he interviews young Indian entrepreneurs who speak in marketing acronyms, he finds them funny but representative of the country's potential. When he has tea with technology barons who talk about the need to urbanize more rapidly, he nods approvingly as one of them says, "We have to embrace the future." There is nothing very objectionable or illuminating about any of this. It is a form of pilgrimage, where one casts some ritual stones at demons (the state, bureaucrats, unions), prostrates oneself a few times before the gods (IT executives, businessmen speaking in acronyms) and moves on, faith restored.

Luce's book is a competent summary of those aspects of India likely to be of interest to Western capital--the role of the state, the new business class, Hindu fundamentalism and the Muslim minority, India's relation to China and the United States. Should you invest your money in India? The answer is a guarded yes. Luce is clear-eyed in his analysis of the relations between India, China and the United States, seeing an emerging entente between the two Asian powers despite American efforts to promote India at the expense of China. But when he descends from the heady superstructure of geopolitics to consider India at the level of everyday existence, his details are necessarily selective in nature.

When Luce writes about the bloated Indian state and the widespread corruption in its ranks, he is quite right, even if such corruption doesn't seem qualitatively different from the enlightened market practices of Enron and Halliburton. When he notes that inefficient and costly state programs justified in the name of the poor end up disempowering the poor and subsidizing the rich, he makes a worthwhile point. But when he says that things have improved vastly in India since the opening up of its economy and the scaling back of the state in the early 1990s, and that "further liberalization would lead to higher growth and bring greater benefits," he is wrong.

There's no doubt things are much better for business executives and former army officers. It's easier to get a good cup of coffee in the cities and a mobile phone connection pretty much anywhere. Even in the small towns on the northeastern frontier, it's possible to buy a plasma TV (although next to impossible to buy a book other than Harry Potter or one by Paulo Coelho). In terms of economic growth, India's average of 8 percent is higher than it was before the globalization of its economy, although even then India's growth wasn't bad for a country devastated by two centuries of colonialism (about which Luce has relatively little to say except that it has become "fashionable since India's independence" to criticize Britain's presence in the subcontinent). But when it comes to the question of whether the new economy has benefited the majority of Indians, Luce refers us to the very state bureaucracy he derides elsewhere, noting without comment:

According to the government of India, the proportion of Indians living in absolute poverty dropped from 35 percent to just over 25 percent between 1991 and 2001. The ratio is likely to have dropped further since then.

In fact, the figures provided by the Indian government depend on a survey methodology that has been changed since the economy opened up, rendering simple comparisons with earlier measures of poverty quite meaningless. Other assessments show either a slight decline in poverty or none at all. Like the World Bank estimates that show there are fewer poor people in the world than before, estimates that have been challenged persuasively by Sanjay Reddy and Thomas Pogge in their paper "How Not to Count the Poor" (www.socialanalysis.org), the Indian government's figures on poverty serve less as an indicator of the way things are and more as an illustration of how to spin the facts to fit your needs.

It is not hard to understand this need to show that things are better than they really are. The sudden explosion of wealth among India's upper classes, looked upon approvingly by the West, has created fresh anxieties. The divide between rich and poor in India is not a creation of the last decade, but the utter separation between winners and losers is, a condition in which it becomes both easy and necessary to point out all that shines brightly under the tropical sun. Yet the software parks and glass-and-steel office towers working round the clock are easily portrayed; what is less obvious is their relation to the parched soil of the farmlands, where 25,000 farmers have killed themselves in a decade. The feverish business speculation and late-night parties of what the Indian media call "Page Three people" are no doubt colorful, exciting affairs; yet they go on at the same time as entire villages are submerged by dammed rivers and new slums arise on the outskirts of Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore.

Where Luce's book attempts to engage this other reality, it does so unevenly. Traveling to Patna, capital of India's poorest state, Bihar, Luce seems so baffled by the conjunction of shabby infrastructure and mass politics that he falls back on clichés:

In Hyderabad there are as many five-star hotels as you would find in any Western city. Most of them offer a seamless "wifi" service so you can connect to the Internet by laptop from anywhere in the building. At Patna's best hotel the crackle on the internal phone system was so noisy you could not communicate with the receptionist.... Naturally, Internet access was unthinkable. Likewise, although often clogged with traffic, Hyderabad's roads are paved and smooth. Meanwhile in Patna, a city of three million people, there is not a single functioning traffic light. Such is the reigning inertia, the city has not even changed the colonial names of its streets. I got a kick out of driving up and down Boring Road. It was named after a British official.

This account is perfectly believable, but the failure of the state in Bihar runs deeper than the absence of wifi access in Patna hotels. It is a subject that has been explored with insight and empathy by, among others, the Patna-born writer Amitava Kumar in his books Bombay London New York and Husband of a Fanatic. The rise of the oppressed castes as a political force in Bihar, a phenomenon Luce notes as having contributed significantly to the decaying infrastructure and the breakdown of law, is in itself a response to the long, brutal domination of the upper castes. The abysmal social and economic conditions in the state are not simply products of lower-caste assertion or state socialism but of the inequality enforced through decades by dominant groups of civil servants, businessmen, politicians and landlords. Because of this, Bihar remains a state where Dalits (at the very bottom of the caste order) are murdered with impunity. And until recently, Dalits retaliating against upper-caste landlords were charged under a terrorism law while upper-caste men accused of killing Dalits were booked under the usual criminal code.

Some of the weakness in Luce's account seems to come from his belief that the efficient entrepreneurs of the new economy are very different people from the corrupt functionaries of the Indian state. Yet evidence suggests otherwise, indicating that it is the same social layer--upper-caste, Hindu, middle- and upper-class--that reaps most of the benefits, whether these are filtered through the state or through capital. This is true of most of the engineers and business executives competing in the global marketplace today, people reared largely on government salaries and nurtured in state-subsidized institutions, and who today furiously protest affirmative action or subsidies for the lower castes, aboriginal people and other marginalized groups. The new elites may speak better English, but their sense of hierarchy remains undisturbed.

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