19 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on 4 April 2007
Edward Luce has written a very readable uptodate account. He has done his research and sometimes produces some interesting analysis, although he sometimes goes alarmingly far back in history to make some points. However I get the feeling he spent too much time interviewing the political and business elites, and did not really see the rise of the middle class in the towns. Hence he does not understand the true India and what makes it ticks. He makes the point that its not `the economy, stupid' that matters in India, but the politics. Actually, its not `the politics, stupid' it is the society, and he has little insight into this.
Luce makes some interesting comparisons with China and has an illuminating chapter on foreign affairs but his shopping-list of recommendations on how to put India on the right track domestically are simply laughable, and even downright arrogant, displaying a complete disregard for how the electorate might perceive any of his recommendations, eg. increasing the price of electricity and water. The now defunct and discredited Enron went bellyup in India under just such a delusion, and he, as a Financial Times journalist should know this.
23 of 36 people found the following review helpful
on 10 July 2007
The book starts out well, and offers a smattering of statistics that intrigue, as well as some background into India's history and its founding fathers so to say, including Nehru, Ambedkar, and Gandhi. Notably absent is any mention of Sardar Patel till almost 200 pages, and that too in passing. As the man most responsible for weaving the hundreds of princely states that were so cynically given the choice by the British to accede to India, Pakistan or to remain independent, into a single cohesive Indian state that we know today, his absence from the initial chapters is a small but representative instance of the book. On page 195, this is the only reference to the man who can truly be called the maker of a united India: "... forced Vallabhbhai Patel, Nehru's right-wing Home Minister..." - sort of damning the man by association with the 'right-wing'.
Parts where the book gets interesting is when he lists statistics to support his argument that India needs to modernize its cities and get beyond its romantic fixation with villages. To that point he quotes Ambedkar:
"The love of the intellectual Indian for the village community is pathetic. What is the village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow mindedness, and communalism?"
The chapter on the Indian babudom (bureaucracy) begins with this quote from Kautilya's Arthashastra:
"Just as it is impossible to know when a fish swimming in water is drinking water, so it is impossible to find out when a government servant is stealing money."
He recounts an incident that Nikhil Dey shared on the hoops that the govt servants will go through to hide their venality:
"The government officials took us to a check dam that we knew had been registered as four different dams on their spending accounts. Then they took us to the same check dam three more times by three different routes hoping we wouldn't notice it was the same one."
Shamelessness personified, our babus and netas.
Later on, on page 86 this is quite revealing in being very representative of the destructive hand of the government wherever it has fallen:
"The ancient habit of harvesting rainwater as it falls and feeding it through hundreds of channels into tanks has also disappeared. The tanks and their feeder channels were maintained by a family in the village, whose specific task was hereditary. But after independence the government said it would take charge of all irrigation to bring development to the people."
We know how 'well' those efforts have borne fruit.
So far so good. On its way to deserving 4 or 5 stars.
But, after this flurry, the book sort of degenerates into biased opinionating for the next several chapters. It reads a bit shallow, with anecdotes of interviews Luce conducted with (in)famous personalities strewn over the place, but never do these result in any insight. Like the interviews of Laloo, Amar Singh, Modi, Chandrababu Naidu, and Arun Gawli, they are meant to entertain, titillate, but never inform.
The chapters on the caste system and the BJP are where Luce lets go of any pretense of objectivity or balance. His repeated use of the word 'pogrom' to describe the post-Godhra riots in Gujarat is not only meant to be deliberately provocative, but also, ultimately, a deep insult to the real victims of actual pogroms like the Holocaust in Germany or the one in Bangladesh before the 1971 war, where an estimated 2 million Hindus were slaughtered. Despite his repeated use of the word pogrom and unbalanced ranting against Modi, he does not see it fit to mention that in the riots, as per figures released by the UPA govt (not the BJP led NDA), approximately 800 Muslims and 300 Hindus died. Hardly the statistics one would expect if one truly goes by the eloquent prose the Luce attempts to weave. His treatment of the nuclear tests by India in 1998 and the almost unanimously jubilant reaction of Indians that followed is also reduced to nothing more than the result of xenophobic manipulation of the nation by a rabidly Hindu party, the BJP. Finally, on the topic, the writing gets pathetic when he refers to the likes of Romila Thapar as one of India's most respected historians. One only wishes he had at least taken a couple of hours to browse through Arun Shourie's 'Eminent Historians', an expose (that has not been contested or disputed by even the communists, ignored - yes, but not challenged) of sorts of the corruption and lazy and at times outright wrong 'research' conducted by such historians as Thapar and Irfan Habib.
Similarly, when he describes the caste system, you feel sympathy for the lower castes and a sense of outrage at how they have been exploited over the ages. But only initially. After a few pages you get the feeling that Luce is somehow lost his sense of proportion, again, and has started ranting against everything Hindu. He cannot bring himself to find even a single thing good about the ancient Hindu, Indian culture, and ends up reducing it to a single-point agenda of frothing venom (or is it spouting) against Hinduism based on the caste system.
When writing about Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, his talent of trivializing things he does not like or agree with are in full display, as in his description of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar:
"It looked as if Jesus were shooting a shampoo commercial."
Yet again, he paints Ravi Shankar as somehow not worthy of respect or a charlatan of sorts because of some association he holds with the RSS and because of his views that a temple should be built at the Ayodhya site. This alone is enough in Luce's opinion to condemn the man.
When describing the Congress and Sonia Gandhi, he writes with the sort of empathy that can only spring from a complete, and, or, deliberate ignorance of facts. His choice of words quite transparently betray his bias for Sonia Gandhi, unencumbered by the knowledge of her corruption and disdain for India:
"After 1991 she always looked glum and funereal." (page 185)
"It would be hard to doubt her sincerity." (Page 206)
"Her eyes were brimming with tears. She was not sobbing, but there was intense sadness in her eyes." (page 209)
These words would do a Barbara Taylor Bradford or a Mills & Boon author proud.
The facts speak a bit differently:
For close to 20 years after marrying into India's most powerful family, she did not see it proper to apply for Indian citizenship, choosing to do so only when her husband was to contest elections. Till today no one knows whether she has in fact renounced her Italian citizenship, which she is required by law to do.
When the Janata Party came to power in 1977, while Indira Gandhi, Sanjay Gandhi, Maneka Gandhi and her son stayed put, Sonia Gandhi took her two children and Rajiv Gandhi into hiding in the Italian embassy in New Delhi.
When Rajiv Gandhi became the prime minister, her friends and brethren found themselves the beneficiaries of massive sums of money in kickbacks paid for almost every defense deal India negotiated at the time, including Bofors, HDW submarines, and more. Does the name Quatrocchi strike a bell?
In 1999 (or was it 1998), when the opportunity presented itself, without having the support of a majority of MPs, she went running to the President of India (KR Narayanan, a gentleman who proved himself more loyal to the Congress party and Sonia Gandhi than to the Indian constitution) to stake a claim to form the government. It turned out that she did not, in fact have the support of 272 MPs, and the country faced its third elections in less than three years.
In 2004, after the general elections, she went once again to the President, this time an honorable man - Dr APJ Kalam - to stake her claim to form the government, and by extension, to the post of Prime Minister of India. What transpired in that meeting is not known, but she 'renounced' her claim to the Prime Minister's post only after that fateful meeting.
So much for sincerity, honesty... But facts inconvenient to prejudices need to be overlooked, something that Luce does with disarming felicity.
Ultimately, and unfortunately so, Luce's 'In Spite of the Gods', ends up being what can only be described as the typically superficial work by someone looking to cash in on the current obsession in the West about the rise of India. For a more balanced, and also much more informative book, I would suggest Gurcharan Das' 'India Unbound'.
When I started this book, I wanted to give it 4 or 5 stars. After reading his diatribe in the middle, it went down to 1 star. After finishing the book I was inclined to give it 2 or 3, but finally decided on 2 stars because of the unforgivably one-sided stance he adopts, even in the face of easily verifiable facts.
The book had much promise - pity that it's been so wasted.