A journalist looks beyond the dynamic IT sector to explore the
challenges confronting India. Reviewed by Robin Tatu
In Spite of the Gods:
The Strange Rise of Modern India
by Edward Luce,
Doubleday 2007, 400 pages.
With India and China grabbing the headlines in daily stories on
global development, it’s difficult to determine which country
is making greater strides. China has emerged as the world’s
manufacturing giant, whose burgeoning economy already dwarves most
others. Yet India has now moved beyond its early outsourcing niche
to greater involvement in IT, manufacturing and research and development,
with new engineering and technology centers opening apace. In addition,
India has achieved tremendous economic growth without imposing state-mandated
savings or rigid family-planning; it maintains a free press and
independent judiciary and draws upon a rich intellectual tradition.
In his new book, In Spite of the Gods, author Edward Luce suggests
that as the world’s largest democracy, India may demonstrate
even greater potential than its neighbor, while providing an important
geopolitical counterbalance to China.
With an average annual growth rate of 6 percent over the past decade
and a consistent 8 percent in the past four years, the South Asian
tortoise seems set to overtake the East Asian hare. Yet progress
is still painstakingly slow. Despite tremendous advances, the country
is hampered by weak infrastructure, outmoded regulations and crippling
social inequalities. While other analysts have discussed these problems,
Luce places them at the core of his book. Moving beyond the phenomenon
of India’s IT sector—whose workers make up a mere one-fourth
of 1 percent of the total population—he offers a more comprehensive
study of modern India. In Spite of the Gods provides an excellent
introduction for anyone wishing to learn more about the complex
dynamics of the Asian subcontinent.
As a former South Asia bureau chief for the London Financial Times
who lived in India for five years, Luce writes with easy authority
and an engaging style. His book is filled with interviews with key
political figures, ministers and industry leaders but also with
visits to local temples and villages, and discussions with farmers,
teenagers, movie stars and army officers. He has clearly taken to
heart advice once given to Rupert Murdoch: “to get anywhere
in India, you must meet all the wrong people.”
Divided into eight chapters, the book explores India’s vast
political culture—the omnipresent state and its bureaucracy,
corruption and competing parties; the different social classes,
castes and religious groups; and India’s relations with Pakistan,
China and the United States.
Particularly illuminating is the author’s analysis of the
historical precedents of seemingly illogical policies. He suggests,
for example, that the early 20th-century championing of villages
by the politico-spiritual leader Mohandas Gandhi continues to influence
government policy, as well as the thinking of many modern intellectuals.
Gandhi’s philosophical legacy has not only discouraged industrialization
beyond cottage-industry size but has also encouraged romantic views
of villages in dire need of electrification, clean water and all-weather
roads. In similar fashion, India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal
Nehru, legislated some of the world’s toughest labor laws
to protect workers from exploitation by their former colonial overlords.
Yet today, these same laws make it nearly impossible to fire an
employee. And with companies reluctant to expand their payrolls,
India’s businesses are not expanding as they could. One successful
textile industrialist who employs 33,000 people told Luce that if
he were located in China, his workforce would be closer to 200,000.
In the closing chapters, the author turns his gaze to the future.
Luce believes that India is positioned for global leadership and
that, while challenging, the country’s pluralism is one of
its great strengths. Yet he cautions that India’s political
elites must address their country’s urgent problems, the most
pressing of which he identifies as poverty, environmental degradation,
a growing HIV-AIDS epidemic and the protection and strengthening
of their liberal democracy. Luce concludes that the nation “is
not on autopilot to greatness. But it would take an incompetent
pilot to crash the plane.” Quoting the economist Vijay Kelkar,
he adds, “The 21st century is India’s to lose.”
Robin Tatu is a senior editor of Prism.