The Nation


Book Review

A changing continent

A new book looks at India's new global economic role while examining 63 years of post-independence history

India: A Portrait

By Patrick French

Published by Penguin Books

Available at Asia Books

Reviewed by Manote Tripathi

When "India: A Portrait" by British author Patrick French came out last year, it received mostly good reviews from Western critics. Indian reviewers were less enthusiastic, pointing out that French's treatise showers praise on India's rising global political role to the extent that he ignores the plight of millions of the country's poor.

It's true that French, who wrote "Tibet Tibet" (which highlights Tibetan suffering), envisages India's bright prospects. Stone workers, poor villagers, servants as well as slave and child labourers take turns cropping up, but these are not the main subjects.

It's hard not to read "Portrait" without comparing it to Financial Times correspondent Edward Luce's "In Spite of the Gods", increasingly the benchmark against which titles about the Indian subcontinent are measured. Perhaps that's because Luce served as the FT's New Delhi bureau chief for five years. Both titles touch more or less on the same subject: the rise of modern India and India in transition. Both are weighty and not because of their thickness. Luce's is 362 pages long while French's is 30 pages longer. Both tackle similar subjects. I liked Luce's journalistic approach and his unlimited access to the VIPs in and beyond New Delhi, multiple interviews and political and economic analyses. I also enjoyed French's book, which is more a collection of "personal voices".

French makes it easy for us to wade through the complexity of modern India by dividing the book into three key major themes. Rashtra (nation), Lakshmi (wealth) and Samaj (society), each backed up with interviews.

To French, India is a macrocosm, "with its overlap of extreme wealth and lavish poverty … its competing ideologies, its lack of uniformity, its kindness and profound cruelty, its complex relationships with religion, its parallel realities and the rapid speed of social change".

The problem with "Portrait" is that French is too polite at times. Luce discusses China's suppression of autonomy in Tibet and how India's decision to grant sanctuary to the Tibetans needled the Chinese but French's work lacks that critical approach. In fact, the issue of Tibet is not really highlighted at all.

That said, there is a lot to learn in "Portrait".

In short, French's main thesis statements are: India may be the world's default setting in the future. Corruption and poverty will remain. People will die from poverty. The growth of the economy will not eradicate poverty. Politics remains a family business. The problem of India is Indians.

One may get the feeling all these issues are inter-connected. You ignore one thing, and the rest malfunctions. So the image of India that comes through is one of not just the world's biggest democracy, but a handicapped one.

French has stories to back that up.

It might be possible to sum up the state of Indian politics through Rahul Gandhi's speech. "There are 3-4 ways of entering politics. First if one has money and power, second, through family connections. I am an example of that. Third, if one knows somebody in politics. And fourth by working hard for the people. Without my father, grandfather and great-grandfather, I could never have been in the place that I am now.

Family dynasties still haven't died down. There's a question of competence among Indian political leaders and French isn't reluctant to point the finger at Nehru for all that went wrong in India's economy in the decades after independence.

There's no secret about the competence of his daughter, Indira, whose talents were never rated by Nehru. I'd always thought that historian Ramchandra Guha's criticism of her as Nehru's "unfortunate legacy" was the harshest. French goes deeper, describing her as a weak parliamentary performer among other things.

French also writes about the impressive rise of the "dynamic" rising middle classes who are determined to give back to society. People like telecom tycoon Sunil Mittal (not related to the steel dynasty) who keeps children in school through his charity are just what India needs. French asserts compassion is not a Hindu concept, and he's worried by the extreme indifference the Indians show to the issue of human suffering. He quotes as examples the Dalit who works in a quarry in Karnataka and the Rajasthan girls who were injected with a cattle hormone to bring puberty prematurely, so they could be sold to brothers in the UAE.

So yes, the horror stories are there. But French doesn't think that's the right way to portray India, rather like Western travel writers, usually first-timers in India, are prone to do.

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