Audacity of hope

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 March, 2011, 12:00am

India: A Portrait - An Intimate Biography of 1.2 Billion People
by Patrick French
Allen Lane, HK$375

'He is a strange and charming creature ... I don't feel at all certain what feelings there are in his odd Indian head,' John Maynard Keynes wrote about his passion for an Indian lover at Cambridge, Bimla Sarkar, in a letter to another male lover, painter Duncan Grant.

Though said in the context of his longing for the exotic Sarkar, the words of Keynes - whose first book was titled Indian Currency and Finance - in a way encapsulate the enduring intellectual pursuit of British scholars to get into the alien Indian mind, an attraction once fashioned by colonial curiosity and now driven by nostalgia.

For Patrick French, who comes from this long line of Brit Indophiles, there's more to it than a gratifying connection to past glory. Understanding how India works gives him a handle on the future.

With its overlap of extreme wealth and poverty, educated and the ignorant, kindness and cruelty, competing ideologies and the rapid social change, India 'may be the world's default setting for the future', writes French in his new book India: A Portrait - An Intimate Biography of 1.2 billion People.

A Portrait is a breathless account of a nation on the move, as the clich?about India goes these days. To understand just where it is going, French puts today's India into perspective with a whistle-stop account of the country's post-independence politics, the statist philosophy that dictated its economy for most of this period, and a vivid study of the underpinnings of Indian society, which even as it changes at some levels remains rooted in a distant past.

French then sets out to get a feel for the transformation under way since the economic liberalisation was set in train in the early 1990s, unshackling the entrepreneurial vigour of a billion-plus people.

Along this journey, the author interviews the people shaping, riding and observing, or just being touched - or untouched - by the changes taking place, and chronicles India through their individual stories. The result is encounters with characters as kaleidoscopic as India: self-made billionaire; bonded labourer; politically inclined goon; oleaginous fixer; feudal lord; Tennyson-quoting cop; Maoist commander; geek; activist; politician; terrorist; male stripper; 'godman'; a doctor couple charged with killing their daughter; a 76-year-old YouTube sensation who ravages famous songs; a driver who only drives backwards, and so on.

Every sixth person walking the earth and every second person living in a democracy is an Indian. That is what makes India an especially compelling subject for societies such as Hong Kong that crave democracy. Now that India is freeing up its market, it is also a case study for those who see economic and political freedoms as a mutually reinforcing binary - a notion that China seems to challenge and to which India attests.

This is where - analysis of Indian democracy, and its interplay with market - French's book deserves maximum credit, and criticism. Credit, because he not only captures the vibrancy of Indian elections and democratic diffusion but also exposes how rising dynasticism limits the scope of free choice. Criticism, because he does not adequately explore the robber-baron loot of India that liberalisation has also unleashed, and its symbiosis with politics.

In a brilliant section titled Family Politics, French explores the role of dynasty in Indian politics. The outsider's perspective helps. In a society where family is central and nepotism is omnipresent, from films to business, it strikes him as odd ('I tried to picture this in a British context and imagined, unhappily, how it would feel to have the nation's destiny in the hands of the children of Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair').

Statistically quantifying the princeling syndrome, French arrives at some stark findings: nearly 30 per cent of the elected members of parliament (MPs) are from political families; all MPs under 30 and more than two-thirds of those under 40 inherited the seat; and 70 per cent of women MPs reached that position through family connections.

Historian Ramachandra Guha famously calls India a 50-50 democracy. French's research suggests that while the world tends to see India as a robust democracy, calling it a budding oligarchy wouldn't be completely off the mark either. And this concentration of political power is taking place in step with the cornering of economic resources. The book's most crucial omission is that this underbelly of India's healthy double-digit growth story is barely touched.

Gritty small-town entrepreneurs and home-bred software giants are only part of that story. Economic reforms have also spawned a new breed of billionaires who have essentially made their money from crony capitalism, creating a scale of criminal collaboration between business and politics never seen before in India. None of French's interviewees shed any light on this phenomenon.

Once stereotyped by poverty and mysticism, India is now hyped as the new land of freedom and material possibilities. One gets the feeling that French is not averse to straying from this script, but not much. To be fair, he has sought to strike a balance. But the dominant narrative remains one of hope and change.

There is much in India that inspires hope, and much that does not. Wealth is rising, but so is disparity. Indians are estimated to have stashed more money in secret Swiss accounts, US$1.43 trillion, than the rest of the world put together, yet there are more desperately poor people in India than in the entire sub-Saharan Africa.

Millions are being lifted out of poverty but an inequitable health-care system drags millions right back in every year. The service sector is booming but public service delivery is a disaster. There is no account of a crumbling rural hospital or a dysfunctional court, no interviews of victims of these structural injustices.

Take Satish the stripper. Rather, Satish the pimp, as he has moved up the value chain ('Now I only do management,' as he says). Satish has about 40 men working in his 'agency' in Delhi and most of them are Punjabi farmers. Did these young men migrate to the city but couldn't find gainful employment as they lacked the skills demanded in a service-led economy? Nearly 200,000 farmers have committed suicide since 1997, caught in a spiral of debt and crop failure. Was starvation the only alternative to prostitution for Satish's 'staff'? We won't know because French has neither interviewed an angsty unemployed middle-class youth nor a dead farmer's family.

A Tamil professor tells French: 'Being an Indian works best if you start respecting inexactitude.' In a country where 'kindly adjust' is possibly the most commonly used phrase, accommodation and flexibility are a way of life - the reason why India survives as a nation despite its extreme diversity. But it's also a place where a person can get ostracised, even killed, for wanting to marry outside their community.

The country's syncretic impulse is as strong as its cultural rigidity, and that's just one of its numerous dualities. An objective biographer would concentrate on capturing this split personality more accurately, rather than getting intimate.