The story of India is so bewilderingly complex and endlessly fascinating that, no matter how many books have been written already, there is still scope for another book. Not everything on India could be said or written about. That seems to account for Patrick French's decision to write this book. As early as 1997, he had made up his mind to tell the world what India has become, rather than what India should be. In pursuit of this objective, he has been interviewing people of varied social background — the famous and the ordinary; the influential and the powerless — so that he could base his work on their perceptions and experiences. Thus A.R. Rehman, Afzal Guru, Kobad Gandy, and Shakeel Bhatt (from Kashmir), among others, figure in the book.
An outcome of strenuous effort, this book by Patrick French, who has to his credit quite a few acclaimed works, may remind one of Edward Luce's Inspite of the Gods-The Strange Rise of Modern India. At another level, it resonates with V.S. Naipaul's India: A Million Mutinies Now. In its formulation, it belongs less to the genre of social science and more to that of high quality reportage creatively synthesised to produce a lucid narrative.
French makes profound observations on India's polity, economy, and society under the rubrics, rashtra (nation), lakshmi (wealth), and samaj (society). On the basis of his interviews, he draws multiple portraits of India and analyse them in all their varied hues but stops short of presenting the ‘real' portrait, although he throws up distinct hints. Perhaps, he expects the reader to draw his/her own conclusion. It is up to the readers to figure out whether Indian democracy is genuine or sham, and its future bright or gloomy.
One gets to know some interesting facts — for instance, that Sonia Gandhi was born in Italy on December 9, 1946, the day the Constituent Assembly of India met in New Delhi. To cite some more examples, mushrooms are not allowed in the Tihar Jail — wonder what has mushroom got to do with security!; Afzal Guru, awaiting the noose for his role in terror attack on Parliament House, misses roasted chicken most; and Sonia Gandhi had as early as 1999 made up her mind on letting Manmohan Singh head the government.
Of the three parts in the book, the first, on the polity, has four chapters. The chapters titled “the centrifuge” and “family politics” are particularly well researched. The picture of Indian democracy French paints is not very pleasant. Basing himself on the member-profile of the 15th Lok Sabha, which shows that as many as 145 of its 545 members are directly from political families, he argues that the next House will be a ‘Vansha Lok Sabha' (a House of Dynasty). It would have been useful and appropriate if a comparative study had been made of the background of members of the various Lok Sabhas to find out how they have changed over the years.
A large number of political parties are being controlled by families — in some cases by families of the founders who had launched their political career on the anti-dynasty plank, like Mulayam Singh and Lalu Prasad. Also, the phenomenon is not confined to particular ideologies.
Instances of Thackareys and Karunanidhis suggest that ‘family-controlled politics' is seen as quite normal in India by leaders who aspire to govern the country in the name of democracy and merit. But then, long before it crept into the political arena, this affliction of family-control had held sway over business-houses.
In the second part, ‘Lakshmi', the chapter dealing with John Maynard Keynes is noteworthy. It not only discusses Keynes' economic theories but also talks about his understanding of Indian economy, besides providing some facets of personal life.
Among the chapters in the third part, ‘Samaj', the ones titled ‘The Outcaste Revenge' and ‘Only in India' are particularly striking. The former begins with a narration of the journey Ambedkar made, as a child, to join his father and describes how he played a trick on an upper-caste person to get water for quenching his thirst.
Overall, the book provides a sound introduction to India's changing dynamics of social power and economic structure, and the part the political elite plays in infusing strength to the systemic flaws.