The country as seen through foreign eyes.
When we entered the 21 century, India became fashionable. Suddenly we started shining. We were actually getting as much coverage as China in prestigious foreign publications like The New York Times, The Economist, and Guardian. We were no longer the mysterious, exotic, permanently-poor India. Outsiders started noticing our growth rate, which was hovering around eight per cent. In The World is Flat, published in 2005, Thomas Friedman wrote: “When you come to the chapter Y2K to March 2004, what will you say was the most crucial development? The attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11 and the Iraq war? Or the convergence of technology and events that allowed India, China, and so many other countries to become part of the global supply chain for services and manufacturing, creating an explosion of wealth in the middle classes of the world’s two biggest nations, giving them a huge new stake in the success of globalisation.” In 2007, Edward Luce wrote in In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India, rather prophetically, “India is not on an autopilot to greatness. But it would take an incompetent pilot to crash the plane.”
Now that the shine has faded rapidly in the last four years and we are struggling to register a five per cent growth rate, two new books have arrived to register the foreigners’ dismay in our failures. In Implosion, John Elliot, a former Financial Times journalist, looks at India muddling through many crises and achieving some success here and there. Elliot sets out to examine why our growth is so erratic. He thinks it is due to our national approach to events that have shaped us. We know it as jugaad, in other words, an anything goes attitude. Elliot takes a dispassionate look at this concept. He quotes top Indian business leaders like Anand Mahindra worrying about Indians overdoing concepts like jugaad and frugal engineering.
Elliot’s unsentimental take on Tata Nano illustrates his point. Ravi Kant, vice chairman and former managing director of Tata Motors, tells Elliot that the tiny but spacious 624cc Tata Nano — launched as the world’s cheapest car in 2009 — is an example of frugal engineering that reduces costs but, unlike Jugaad, does not compromise on quality. Elliot points out that although the Nano’s original price of Rs.1,00,000 was made possible by substantial government loans, tax subsidies and other state government concessions for establishing a manufacturing venture in Singur, West Bengal. The terms were later matched and even improved when Nano moved to Gujarat. Tata also cut costs and the eventual price by squeezing component suppliers’ profit margins. Finally the Nano did not make waves and did not appeal to the aspiring classes it was aimed at.
Implosion is an elegantly-told compendium of India’s shortcomings. He is quite critical of Manmohan Singh who, he says, is not the architect of India’s reforms. The policies were put together over many months by many people with primarily Montek Singh Ahluwalia, deputy chairman, Planning Commission, working on it back in 1990. Finally at Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao’s instigation, the policy was put together in 10 hours. Despite the progress, much remains to be done. Our record on environment, land legislation, and social indicators is quite dismal. Elliot looks at all this, corruption, dynastic politics and our relations with China and America. None of which is as it should be.
If Elliot’s book is full of gloom and doom, Simon Denyer’s Rogue Elephant gives a potted history of our fall from grace starting from the Commonwealth Games. Denyer was a much-travelled foreign correspondent for Reuters and came to India as the Washington Post’s bureau chief and moved to Bejing in 2013. He has had a ringside view to most of the headline-grabbing events of the recent past. His major claim to fame is his profile of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Washington Post in which he describes the PM as a dithering, ineffectual bureaucrat in charge of a deeply corrupt government; a man who looked the other way and remained silent as his colleagues filled their pockets. He writes of how his criticism of the PM became the top national story dominating prime time TV debates on every channel. The government, he says, was furious with him but the popular mood was different. “A taxi driver, transporting a colleague nearly 2,000 miles away in southern India, stopped the car and doffed his cap in appreciation of the Washington Post.” Really? In this book, there is nothing we don’t know; nor does it offer any new insights. Like many foreign correspondents, Denyer had access to Rahul Gandhi, Narendra Modi, Arvind Kejriwal and others. Five years down the line, if anyone wants to know all that went wrong with the second UPA government, this is the book to read.
In contrast Sam Miller’s A Strange Kind of Paradise is a delightful look at India through foreign eyes. Miller joined BBC in 1986, for which he has worked on and off ever since, and remained in Delhi from 2002. Packed with information, details, people, and there is never a dull moment. It is a personal memoir and a history of the world’s engagement with India going back 2500 years. Literary references are strewn all over; the chapters go all over the place but keep you riveted. An example: Did you know that Scylax, a sailor and the greatest seafarer of his age, is the first visitor to India whose name has survived. He was a Greek in the service of the Persian King Darius the Great and lived 500 years before Christ. “Syclox returned from a scouting trip down the Indus with some wondrous and dubious tales of strange tribes, and even stranger use they made of their extremities.” Miller’s list of those who visited and wrote about India is eclectic. They range from Megasthenes to Victorian pornographers to the Beatles and Steve Jobs.
Unlike the other two books, Miller’s account is not Delhi and North centric. He describes Tranquebar as the small forgotten corner of southern India. The chapter tells you why Tranquebar is an Ozone junkie’s paradise; about Ziegenbalg, the German preacher who settled there and reestablished printing in the subcontinent; about Robert Clive, Tipu Sultan, Warren Hastings, literary and historical references to them.
This is the only book I know where the footnotes are as interesting, if not more so, than the chapters! You will smile and laugh through Miller’s account of people who visited India.
Implosion: India’s Tryst with Reality; John Elliott, HarperCollins, Rs.699.
A Strange Kind of Paradise: India through Foreign Eyes; Sam Miller, Hamish Hamilton, Rs.599.
Rogue Elephant; Simon Denyer, Bloomsbury Publishing, Rs.599.