Edward Luce on India

In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India

It's time, in case you hadn't noticed, to wake up to today's India, a powerhouse that is beating its own idiosyncratic path to world-power status while at the same time gripping its heritage. Edward Luce, in his extremely interesting and readable new book, In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India (Doubleday, 2007), writes toward the end,

Sometimes it seems that in India the modern lifestyle is just another layer on the country's ancient palimpsest. It is simply adding modernity to what it already has.

With its long tradition of religious tolerance, Indians have a much more positive, almost American, feeling about religion and spirituality. Unlike Europe, where religious disagreements have so often been massively lethal, India has not experienced religion as a bad thing. This ought not to be overstated, however, as the nation is still riven by caste warfare and a general suspicion of Muslims. There is also the yawning divide between a relatively small urban middle class (about a fifth of the population) and the largely poor rural population (there are at least as many Indians living in absolute poverty as there are in the middle class). There is the very high degree of official corruption. coupled with patronizing "relief" programs that tend to benefit people who don't really need help. All of these problems might continue to plague India no matter how affluent and up-to-date enclaves of prosperity get to be.

In Spite of the Gods is an excellent primer on India, with just enough history to put things in context. Mr Luce, who spent five years in India working as a reporter for the Financial Times - and who married an Indian while he was there - announces at the outset that his book "is not about a love affair with the culture and antiquities of India." In an early encounter with a Frenchman living in an ashram of sorts, he explains,

I wanted to know why India exerted such a powerful spiritual pull on so many foreigners, since it had not had that effect on me. What I did not say was that I felt India had labored too long under the burden of spiritual greatness that Westerners have for centuries thrust upon it and which Indians had themselves got into the habit of picking up and sending back (with a cherry on top). Over the centuries, and particularly during the era of British colonial rule and its aftermath, many Indians endorsed in one form or another the view that India was a uniquely metaphysical civilization.

Mr Luce's book is intelligently divided into subject-oriented chapters, which I'll get to in a minute, but there are themes that run throughout the text as a kind of weft. A vaguely sentimental piety about "Indian values" is one of these. Mr Luce traces it back to Gandhi, and is quite critical of Gandhi's embrace of poverty. One of modern India's biggest mistakes, furthered by Nehru and only recently subjected to serious questioning, is the faith placed on the institution of "the village." The village may be, in some heritage sense, the foyer of Indian society, but it no longer makes economic sense, and in fact it never did. Mr Luce is quite sharp about the mistrust that two of three of India's most important founders had for business, especially big business. He regards it as little more than caste-nurtured snobbery. And he's particularly good at showing how the Congress Party - the party of Gandhi and Nehru - has appropriated the unprogressive attitudes and methods of India's Brahmin elite.

Better Congress, though, than the BJP (India People's Party). Having denounced the BJP as "the most coherent threat to India's liberal democracy," Mr Luce confesses,

Readers will have noticed that I have little positive to say about Hindu nationalism. not only does it preach a violent and vengeful philosophy, but it also tarnishes by association all that is good and tolerant about Hinduism. If the BJP wishes to regain national office it should focus on combating corruption and modernizing India's state. This would clearly differentiate it from the Congress Pary, which, apart from the royal touch, remains essentially a party of bureaucracy and patronage.

That's from the book's Conclusion. By the time you get to it, you know exactly what Mr Luce is talking about.

The chapters into which In Spite of the Gods is divided follow a coherent line of thought. In the Introduction, Mr Luce touches on the problem of the village. The first chapter is about "India's schizophrenic economy." It reads almost as an expansion of the Introduction, widened to include the failure of Nehru's economic plans, the village activism of Aruna Roy, and the thinking of some of India's new tycoons. The second chapter deals with the reach of the Indian state, which is extensive but often ineffective. Mr Luce makes the case that the Indian government is overpopulated by self-serving individuals who abuse their power for personal gain; because of another Indian weakness (a tendency to let words substitute for action), the problem of corruption is much less glaring than it ought to be. There follow three chapters about the principal divisions in Indian politics: the low- and no-caste parties; the BJP (and its insidious, fascist association with something called the RSS); and the Congress Party. There follows a substantial chapter about India's Muslims and India's troubled relations with Pakistan. (Mr Luce seems to feel that it would be better if Pakistan could be remerged with India, but he understands why this is unlikely.) Wrapping things up are a strong chapter about relations with China and the United States, considered both from the economic and geopolitical perspective, and a final chapter about how smoothly many of India's modernizing trends fit alongside traditional ways of doing things. Only in the Conclusion does Mr Luce offer anything like a policy paper. He outlines a daunting list of things that India ought to do to assure progress. Again, however, he is aware that although some Indians may be interested in radically improving their lot, the Western idea of progress is almost unintelligible in India.

I haven't attempted to do justice to this book, largely because I know that I could not. I would simply reveal the shallowness of my understanding of Indian affairs. It is a sign of that shallowness that I feel (in a way that I know not to trust) that I now know all about India. What I do have, in lieu of such comprehensive knowledge, is an armature for learning more. In Spite of the Gods is a book that I am going to consult often, to refresh my memory of issues that come up in the news. Mr Luce's very agreeable book makes me feel, at least, that I can read news from India with intelligence. That is worth a great deal more than the cost of In Spite of the Gods. (July 2007)

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