In Spite of the Gods
by Edward Luce, Doubleday, $26.00, 400 pages.
Ever since Queen Victoria presided over the British raj in India, statesmen, merchants, writers and missionaries have attempted to untangle the baffling contradictions of the fabled subcontinent that, according to British journalist Edward Luce, the author of the compelling In Spite of the Gods, may within a decade rival China in population and prosperity.
For Rudyard Kipling, India provided a rich backdrop for his tales and his musings on empire. For Mahatma Gandhi, India was an experiment in nonviolent resistance against British rule. And what Winston Churchill said of Russia in 1939 might well be said of India today: “It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”
This book may head the long line of attempts to unravel the paradoxes and promise of India.
In the summer of 1949, a year after India became independent, I escorted 35 eager Americans on a round-the-world trip, including brief visits in Calcutta and New Delhi, where we placed a wreath at Gandhi’s memorial and had a free-ranging 90-minute discussion with Prime Minister Nehru in his residence. Wearing a red rose on his white jacket, he introduced us to his daughter Indira, who later as prime minister was assassinated by radical Hindus.
As we were leaving, Nehru gave me an autographed copy of his new 500-page book, The Discovery of India. Later, as I read it, I was struck by his frequent references to Western thinkers, e.g., Tocqueville, Goethe, Darwin, Adam Smith, Einstein, Walter Lippmann and Andre Malraux. And to political leaders, such as Churchill, FDR, Hitler and Stalin. Hardly surprising. Nehru, like the young author of this book, was Oxford-educated, and each sought to untangle the enigma.
Successive U.S. ambassadors also struggled to discover India, some in amusing ways. Chester Bowles’ wife, for example, tried to identify with ordinary Indians by riding a bicycle in Delhi’s dusty streets. In the early 1960s, Kenneth Galbraith impressed his Indian hosts by taking notes during obligatory ceremonies; later they learned that he was actually writing his autobiography. Despite Gailbraith’s bad manners, Mr. Luce says that his calling India a “functioning anarchy” came close to the mark.
As bureau chief for the Financial Times in New Delhi for five years, Mr. Luce had a close-up view of the rapidly unfolding economic and political drama following the post Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.
He soon discovered “India is anything but the unchanging land of cliches. It is in the grips of dramatic change little short of a revolution in politics, economics, society and culture. In politics, the single-party governance of India’s early decades has given way to an era of multiparty coalitions.”
In his early chapters, Mr. Luce, now Financial Times bureau chief in Washington, provides masterful historic summaries of India’s economy, politics, caste system, Hindu nationalism, conflict with Pakistan over Kashmir, and gingerly acquisition of nuclear weapons.
Despite India’s mass poverty and illiteracy, he sees a rapidly modernizing country that within a generation could become the world’s third-largest economy, with more English-speaking inhabitants than the United States. This convincing portrait of a dynamic India is summarized in his final chapter. Here are some high points.
In the past 30 years, India has moved from “single-party rule to twenty-four-party rule, from anti-nuclear to nuclear, from undeclared border wars with Pakistan to a lengthy peace process” and from “virtual bankruptcy to a lengthy boom.” Throughout, “India has given a higher priority to stability than it has to efficiency.”
Mr. Luce acknowledges that China has a much higher literacy rate, due mainly to its “one official language, and very little religious division” and notes that “Christian missionaries are seeking to incorporate India’s tribal groups into mainstream society.”
On the political front, Mr. Luce says Hindu nationalism is as divisive to India as Islamic fundamentalism is to Muslim societies. Between the 18 official languages, caste system and mosaic of ethnic groups, India has the most complex democracy in the world.
He concludes his argument by addressing four critical problems facing India in “the coming years and decades”:
1. Lifting “300 million people out of absolute poverty” and providing the rest with a “more secure standard of living.” With an implicit reference to Communist China, he says India has accomplished its high growth rate “without any of the tools of an autocratic state.” Of the 35 million Indians who have formal jobs and pay income tax, 21 percent are direct government employees. Of the 14 million who work in the “organized private sector,” fewer than one million are employed in information technology, such as software and computer call centers upwardly mobile jobs often outsourced from America. If China didn’t exist, the world would be talking about India’s economic miracle.
2. Overcoming rapid environmental degradation that poisons India’s air and water supply and “at the global level will increasingly add to climate change.”
3. Addressing more vigorously the HIV-AIDS epidemic that, left unchecked, “could derail India’s upbeat economic projections.” The U.S. National Intelligence Council “estimates that unless India moves onto a war footing against AIDS, it will have 25 million HIV-infected people by 2010, rising to 40 million people by 2013 (which is only marginally less that the world’s total HIV population in 2006).”
4. “Strengthening India’s system of liberal democracy,” that with “the talents of its people,” is India’s most precious asset.
He believes that “India can still live up to the dreams of Nehru and Gandhi to become a political beacon to the world,” but “the most coherent threat” to democracy is Hindu nationalism. “India must raise the caliber of its politicians and find ways of preventing criminals from standing in elections.”
Nehru’s influence cast a long shadow. In 1959 he told Khrushchev that “You don’t change the course of history by turning the faces of portraits to the wall.”
Mr. Luce concludes his masterful and upbeat book with a statement by Vijay Kelkar, whom he calls one of India’s wisest economists: “The 21st century is India’s to lose.”
And with a charming story about a five-hour train trip to Delhi in a first-class compartment with four feather beds. As Mr. Luce was about to fall asleep, he was interrupted by an eager and well read 10-year-old Sikh boy who had written unanswered letters to Queen Elizabeth and President George W. Bush. The boy plied him with questions about world affairs. Despite his fatigue, Mr. Luce responded for several hours. Finally, to get some sleep Mr. Luce gave the boy his cell phone number.
This episode recalled an all night conversation I had with an equally eager young communist in Budapest in June 1948. Like the Sikh, he was driven by politics. He was convinced that the Soviet Union would soon stop rationing sugar and that Henry Wallace should be elected president of the United States.
Back to Mr. Luce’s splendid book. In my view, it is the single most informed and balanced profile of India today.
— Ernest W. Lefever is a Senior Scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He has visited India five times between 1949 and 2000 in support of research and writing projects.