The Spoils of Indian Democracy

The Spoils of Indian Democracy

Two new books show how perceptions of India have been shaped and distorted by rhapsodic portrayals of its business elite.


There is a fundamental dissonance between lived experience and analysis that becomes pronounced at certain times, across particular cultures and in relation to certain subjects. Today this is especially true of books that look at people living on the margins of globalization, at groups whose assimilation into the model of neoliberal capitalism is still unfinished, still unpredictable. All too often, a writer crossing the border into other realms of existence chooses to ignore the dissonance, offering an analysis that hardly takes into account the difference between the way things look from the Western centers of neoliberal capitalism and the way life feels in the new capitalist outposts in Asia.

Such, at least, seem to be the overwhelming response of the journalists and scholars who have turned their gaze on China and India in the past few years, hoping, apparently, to discover in these two fastest-growing economies in the world some shape of the future. The interest is, on the one hand, perfectly justified. China and India together account for more than 2 billion people; both possess civilizational identities that predate anything in the Western world; and in each case these identities are inflected by the tremendous damage visited upon them by colonial powers. But an inquiry into China and India also serves other, less benign, intentions. As evident from the international business class strolling through the airports of India and China, these countries represent a success story for Western capitalism, a phenomenon that comes as a relief from the crisis in the imperial center, the quagmire in the Middle East and the dominoes toppling quietly but effectively in Latin America.

Even more than China, India seems to have emerged as a case study in effective Western indoctrination, leaving behind the reputation for chaos that once prompted John Kenneth Galbraith to describe it as “a functioning anarchy.” As unabashedly capitalist as China, its cities similarly filled with new elites flaunting their wealth, India also possesses two attributes guaranteed to disarm the itinerant Western observer: democracy among the masses and fluent English among the elite. More than any other factors, these characteristics seem to explain the recent rhapsodies about India, from Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat to the cover stories last year in Newsweek, Foreign Affairs, Time and The Economist.

For Western observers like Friedman democracy in India is like air-conditioning in a building. Once they know it’s there, they don’t have to think further about it. It is possible for them to settle down and enjoy the fact that most people in the building, including the service staff, speak English. This is what Friedman did in his whirlwind tour through the office parks of Bangalore, and what he discovered was that India is more or less like Kansas. The world is flat.

Yet experience suggests otherwise. Although the Indian metropolises and new suburbs display a runaway consumerism boosted by rising incomes and easy credit, this is an incomplete and superficial picture. The upper and middle classes benefiting from the new flows of capital, when examined closely, appear both self-centered and riven by paradoxes, seeking validation for their lives from Hindu evangelist gurus even as they acquire the latest consumer gadgets. The call-center and technology workers Friedman calls “zippies” no doubt manifest a Darwinian drive to earn more money, but they are equally likely to question the nature of their work; they are contradictory people capable of expressing chauvinist ideas about their foreign clients and empathy for the Western workers they are replacing. And these are only the upper layers of Indian society, their numbers remarkably small compared with the 350 million people who still live on less than a dollar a day.

In a provincial city like Bhopal, which is relatively untouched by globalization, Indians can appear far more complex than is suggested by reports in the foreign and national press. When one talks to the displaced peasants, slum dwellers and small entrepreneurs there, they express both frustration at their marginalization by the new economy and a healthy skepticism about the benefits it promises. Unlike most members of the English-speaking elite, who dismiss references to the colonial past as a hang-up of the left, for unprivileged and often uneducated Indians the point of comparison for multinational corporations remains the East India Company.

Some of this complexity of the Indian experience was captured well in an article written two years ago by Financial Times journalist Edward Luce. Oxford-educated and a former speechwriter to Lawrence Summers during the latter’s term as Bill Clinton’s Treasury Secretary–as the jacket informs us–Luce nevertheless demonstrated a remarkably firm grasp of the contradictions of India’s rise as a superpower. Reporting from Gurgaon, the Delhi suburb that has gone from farmland to elite enclave in a decade, Luce described an encounter with a former army colonel who manages the suburb’s first shopping mall:

I ask him why everything in Gurgaon has a Californian name. The apartment high-rises are called Beverly Hills, Belvedere Towers, Silver Oaks, Windsor Court and West End Heights. The office blocks are called Royalton Towers, Icon Pinnacle, Plaza Tower and Gateway Tower. And the malls are prefixed by Metropolis, or Mega or Super or City. Which way is it to India? I joke.
 ”We offer a total experience for the full family entertainment,” says Bhutani, as we sip our cafe lattes. “It is a total all-round experience. You don’t have to haggle in the retail outlets, the prices are fixed. You don’t have to watch rats scurry across the floor in the cinema or worry the power supply will go. And afterwards you can eat in a restaurant with a clean kitchen and guaranteed quality.”

The colonel’s automaton speech is a revealing example of the Newspeak that passes for public discourse among India’s elite, far more representative than the gnomic pronouncements of Friedman’s zippies. And unlike Friedman, whose faith in liberal capitalism is shared by Luce, the latter is a good enough reporter to note that Gurgaon is a fantasy, a Sim City in concrete and glass that appears bewildering to most Indians.

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.”

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” (, 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.

If Luce’s book is shaped by the rigid certainties of neoliberalism, Mira Kamdar’s account of how India is changing the world is fueled by a breathless enthusiasm that seems to have less to do with economics and more to do with identity.

An Indian-American scholar at the Asia Society, Kamdar is an enthusiast of most things Indian and has clearly done extensive research for this book. As a result, Planet India contains nuggets of information on everything from the animation industry in India to a party at Tavern on the Green for Mira Nair’s new film:

At the cocktail party preceding the screening, the Who’s Who list of the Indian diaspora cultural elite went on endlessly. I did catch celebrated actress and author Madhur Jaffrey, just out with her memoir Climbing the Mango Trees, and her husband, accomplished violinist Sanford Allen. Filmmaker Jagmohan Mundhra… and his wife, Chandra, and their film producer daughter, Smriti Mundhra, were there. I saw Sarita Choudhury, who starred in Mira Nair’s film Mississippi Masala.

I’m sure Kamdar enjoyed herself, even if there were people she missed in the huge crowd.

In India, she covers a wide terrain and a great breadth of subjects, including the obvious divide between the upper classes and the majority, the distress in rural areas and the overwhelming environmental crisis. Kamdar is clearly liberal in her worldview, critical of Wal-Mart, American inequality and the elite Indians who worship at the shrines of Wal-Mart and American-style inequality. But too much of her book is taken up by smooth-toned capitalists who assure her that they will “create purchasing power and turn India’s poor into consumers,” which sounds more like a threat than a promise, and who say, “Our biggest challenge is the challenge nobody has solved in the world: how to grow equity,” which sounds like hokum.

Both books reveal, if in different ways, how significant India’s business class has become in shaping perceptions of the country. Ostensibly suffering under the weight of the state, they have nevertheless managed to accumulate great wealth and are in the process of discovering solutions to inequality, social injustice and environmental degradation. In that sense, Indian businessmen–especially those in technology–spout the rhetoric of “frictionless capitalism” that enriches the individual while saving the world. Slavoj Zizek, writing in The London Review of Books about the originators of this idea–Bill Gates and his “court-philosophers” like Friedman–noted how they offer a geeky smartness as the solution to all the world’s problems:

Being smart means being dynamic and nomadic, and against centralised bureaucracy; believing in dialogue and co-operation as against central authority; in flexibility as against routine; culture and knowledge as against industrial production; in spontaneous interaction and autopoeisis as against fixed hierarchy.

Zizek observes that this kind of corporate philanthropy simply involves giving with one hand what has been grabbed with the other. In India, however, there seems to be more grabbing than giving going on, reminding us of what Marx said of the British in India: They had to first get India in order to subject it afterward to their sharp philanthropy.

In any case, the frictionless capitalism in India reveals its sharp edges if you rub it long enough. When Luce visits the Art of Living Foundation near Bangalore to visit Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, a guru equally popular in Bangalore’s boardrooms and in Manhattan penthouses, he finds:

On the pillars that supported the dome around the central stage were the symbols of the world’s main religions: the Islamic Crescent, the Star of David, and the Cross of Jesus. In the center, much larger than the other representations, was a depiction of Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth.

Despite the ecumenical distribution of religious symbols, the guru turns out to have “a close attachment to the RSS,” the right-wing Hindu organization that drew inspiration from Hitler and Mussolini and whose history of violence ranges from the assassination of Gandhi to more recent massacres of Muslim and Christian minorities. Luce’s book is especially good on Hindu fundamentalism, reporting superbly on the strange convergence of science, business, paranoia and fascism that characterizes the right in India. It is not an accident that the “biofuturologist” Luce meets should be spouting nonsense about the “software” of human development intrinsic to India (naturally) and the “hardware” of the West, nor that he was encountered at the residence of a “prosperous industrialist.”

There is, of course, much more to India than the corrupt state, right-wing Hinduism and unctuous businessmen. In fact, what is surprising is the number of Indians skeptical of the direction the country has been taken by its comprador elites, although their voices tend to go unrecorded by media obsessed with telling the most obvious story. The experience of these other Indians who dwell outside boardrooms can be depicted, but this can be done only by books that address what it means to be human in a time and place of great change. It requires writing that takes its own possibilities seriously, eschewing the language of the press release and the annual corporate report, choosing a form true to experience, whether this be the novel or the work of social reportage.

There are already books that show how it can be done, from the sharp, pungent essay collections put out by Arundhati Roy to Temptations of the West by Pankaj Mishra and Maximum City by Suketu Mehta. And if the subterranean murmurs are anything to go by, it seems that there are still other writers willing to examine the experience of India critically and with empathy, who take their inspiration not from Friedman but from Barbara Ehrenreich in how to bring a hidden world to light. Because otherwise, there is only the glib promise of capitalism, no different from what the Red Queen says to Alice: “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

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