Incredible India: Through a newsman’s eyes

Inspiteofthegods India is an unlikely economic giant. The vast majority of its people don't even have steady jobs, points out Edward Luce in his insightful book on India.

Fewer than 40 million of its 470 million workforce are employed in the "organized sector", which offers job protection and other benefits. The government and the public sector are the biggest employers, employing 25 million people. The big Indian companies we hear about such as Infosys and Reliance Industries employ far fewer people. Less than 1 per cent works in the IT industry and yet India has become a software giant.

 Edward Luce aptly calls his book In Spite Of The Gods: The Strange Rise Of Modern India. India is a deeply religious, largely superstitious country, he says, where most people continue to live in the Edward_lucevillages because there are not enough jobs in the cities. Unlike America or Britain, India has not industrialized on a large scale before setting up high-tech industries.

Luce knows India inside out. He was the Financial Times' South Asia bureau chief based in New Delhi from 2001 to 2006 before becoming the newspaper's Washington bureau chief. And his wife is an Indian.

Luce traces India's lopsided growth to the policies set by India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. He promoted capital-intensive industries and poured as much money into higher education as in primary education. The result: India produces about a million engineering graduates a year but only 65 percent of the population is literate.

India has to change into a more urban, industrial economy, says Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and Luce agrees with him. Yes, they have met, not once but several times.

This is a tight, well-written book which describes the country, its people and politics with interesting details and anecdotes.

Luce recalls an interview with Sonia Gandhi in 2004:

"You know politics does not come easily to me," she said. "I do not enjoy it. I do not even think I am very good at it. Politics killed my mother-in-law and it killed my husband. But when I saw what they were doing to India's secular culture, I felt I could no longer stand by and watch it happen without doing something," she said (referring to the Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002). "Secularism is the most important legacy of my family. I had to stand up and defend it. I could not watch them tear it." Sonia's eyes were brimming with tears. She was not sobbing. But there was an intense sadness in her face.

Continue reading “Incredible India: Through a newsman’s eyes”

An absorbing history of India since independence

India After Gandhi: The History Of The World's Largest Democracy by Ramachandra Guha

Ramachandra_guha Ramachandra Guha's India After Gandhi: The History Of The World's Largest Democracy is a riveting account of India since independence  in 1947. 

The narrative never flags. Historical figures are brought to life and history re-enacted in its pages. It makes you appreciate the greatness of Gandhi and Nehru as well as India as it is today.

The leaders may have shrunken in stature, the country pulled in different directions by political parties representing various groups and communities, but democracy has deepened, not weakened, says Guha. The coalition governments that have come and gone over the past two decades are a sign that the country today can be governed only by consensus. No one can do another Indira Gandhi.

Indira GandhiImage via Wikipedia

She was Nehru's daughter in her secular outlook. Nobody can say she discriminated against any community though she was forced to fight Sikh separatists and sent the army after them into the Golden Temple, their holiest shrine, for which she paid with her life – killed by two of her Sikh bodyguards.

But, apart from their secular outlook, father and daughter had little in common. Nehru respected democracy, the independence of the media and the judiciary. The Congress party in his time was also more independent, run by powerful politicians who did not necessarily listen to him though he was the prime minister and their leader.

Nehru had friends even among his political opponents. Guha writes in absorbing detail about the countless actions taken by Gandhi and Nehru to keep India secular. He makes you admire them simply by describing what they did.

Continue reading “An absorbing history of India since independence”

Calcutta hosts world’s biggest book fair

I am surprised the BBC didn’t mention the Scottish writer Alexander McCall Smith is in Calcutta (Kolkata) for the Kolkata Book Fair. Maybe the BBC presenter and the Indian correspondent Subir Bhowmik ran out of time discussing the size and scale and the city’s passion for books that has made it the world’s largest retail book fair. Yes, that’s what the BBC said, the Kolkata Book Fair is the world’s largest retail book fair. Attended by millions of people.

The queue to enter the fair could be kilometres long, said the BBC correspondent. That’s why it was moved away from the Maidan. Environmentalists worried the vast crowd was polluting the Maidan, the green belt in the heart of the city.

Book sales in Calcutta are not likely to be hit even by the global downturn, said Subir Bhowmik. Bengalis – that’s people like him and me – can’t do without books and travel, he said.

He has been attending the fair since it started in 1976. I was there too. That’s where I could pick up the Larousse encyclopedias and the Thames and Hudson art books on the cheap. They used to be sold at discounts by booksellers from New Delhi, where apparently there were few buyers for those books.

Here in Singapore I like Borders and Kinokuniya, the Japanese bookshop which is even better and has a larger collection than Borders.

But I enjoyed nothing better than visiting Rupa’s, the old bookshop on College Street. It used to be thick with Penguins – PG Wodehouse, AJP Taylor, John Updike, Gerald Durrell, Alistair Cooke, Graham Greene, Kingsley Amis, Michael Innes, Raymond Chandler, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald, Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, every author neatly arranged.

And it was at Oxford Bookshop on Park Street that I first saw the USA Today.

I also remember the bookshops in New Market, which used to keep neatly pressed copies of The Times and other British newspapers for delivery to the clubs in Calcutta.

Alexander McCall Smith tribute to RK Narayan

Alexander McCall Smith has been praising Indian writers such as RK Narayan, Vikram Seth and Vikram Chandra. The Hindu reports he said:

“The works of R.K. Narayan have steered my writing to a certain direction… The Man-Eater of Malgudi was the first of Narayan’s books that I read, and the effect was profound.”

Allen Ginsberg and Calcutta

But of all the writers who have visited Calcutta, the one who made the deepest impression was the poet, Allen Ginsberg.

He made friends with famous Bengali writers, poets and journalists when he visited the city in the early 60s. They did things I better not write about in Singapore. But here’s a report.

Calcutta is non-conformist, anti-establishment, said the BBC correspondent Subir Bhowmik. But the younger generation is more career-oriented, he added. Still, there’s hope…

Barack Obama is the biggest sensation this year. The Times of India reports:

Audacity of Hope and Dreams From My Father are out of stock in most bookstores. Distributors have placed huge orders for these two books, expecting a rush for them during the Kolkata Book Fair.

Indira Gandhi

Indira: The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi by Katherine Graham

I just finished reading Katherine Frank’s biography of Indira Gandhi,  Indira Gandhi was undoubtedly popular for a long time.Spirited, courageous, cultured, artistic, she had many admirable qualities. But I wouldn’t want her back as a leader. Nor her father, Jawaharlal Nehru.

He might not have been authoritarian like his daughter. But they were both British-educated leftist patricians who smothered India in a protectionist cocoon in the name of nationalism and
achieving self-sufficiency while they themselves travelled far and wide in
pursuit of their own agendas. It is no surprise that they were drawn to the
Soviet Union and the non-aligned movement whose leaders tended to dominate
their countries.

Indira Gandhi had genuine grievances against America. She had to devalue the Indian rupee by more than 50 percent under American pressure when she visited President Johnson seeking aid after drought and famine ravaged the Indian economy. Later, she failed to persuade President
Nixon to stop the Pakistani genocide in Bangladesh. Instead, he sent the US
Seventh Fleet into the Bay of Bengal to intimidate her when she intervened in
Bangladesh in 1971. Never mind that Pakistan struck first, bombing Indian air
bases. Never mind that millions of Bangladeshi refugees were pouring into India
to escape the genocide. Nixon remained hostile to India. It was only then that
India sealed a military alliance with the Soviet Union. The US was already
committed to Pakistan.

But the problem started with her father. Jawaharlal Nehru’s foreign policy was quixotic, to say the least. He preached solidarity with China, for which he was duly rewarded when China attacked India in the 1962 border war. He preached non-alignment but was friendly to China, Ho Chi Minh
and the Soviet Union. It was President Roosevelt who urged the British to give up India. Yet, Nehru never built up a close relationship with any US president.

Both Nehru and Indira Gandhi felt more comfortable in London than in Washington. Blame it on their British education. Though Nehru had been beaten and jailed by the British during the Indian independence movement, yet he shared their prejudices. The Americans apparently were brash, crass, materialistic.Nehru was not even impressed by President Kennedy. Indira Gandhi later made fun of President Reagan. But she enjoyed a warm relationship with the British prime
minister, Margaret Thatcher. It is telling that in her early days she sometimes thought of leaving politics and moving to England.

Katherine Frank relates all this in intimate detail in her biography of Indira Gandhi. It is balanced and well-written. The book gives a marvellous picture of the entire Nehru family starting from her grandfather’s time. We see her as a girl, a young woman in love, her conflicting feelings for her father and her husband, her fierce maternal instinct which would tarnish her final years.

I wouldn’t want her back as a leader, but there is so much to admire about her. Beautiful and spirited, she was certainly not lacking in courage. Consider the manner of her death. She was shot dead by two of her Sikh bodyguards in 1984. They said they wanted revenge because she
had desecrated their holiest shrine. (She had ordered the army into the Golden
Temple in Amritsar to deal with Sikh extremists fighting for an independent
homeland.) Commentators wondered why she still employed Sikh bodyguards when
their loyalty might be suspect. But that was Indira Gandhi. She couldn’t be
seen discriminating against Sikhs. “I am India’s leader,” she said.