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India, Warts and Wonders

A foreign correspondent who had access to Prime Minister Narendra Modi looks at India, comprehensively.
Palakunnathu G. Mathai   Delhi     Print Edition: September 10, 2017
India, Warts and Wonders

Did Prime Minister Narendra Modi yearn to win the Nobel Peace Prize? That rumour had been doing the rounds by 2015. But, writes Adam Roberts, The Economist's former Delhi-based South Asia bureau chief, "A member of the relevant committee, in Oslo, once told me, later, of visits he had had from Indian lobbyists who made the case."

To be eligible for the award, the prime minister would have to establish a lasting peace accord with Pakistan and resolve the Kashmir problem. Over the years, Modi's views on Pakistan had changed, says Roberts, who had spoken to Modi in 2012 when he was chief minister of Gujarat and later, when he was prime minister. In the 1960s he used to patrol "his home town, Vadnagar, against imaginary Pakistani invaders." Before the 2014 general election, he condemned then PM Manmohan Singh for his moderation. But Modi now wanted a place in history.

Yet, this is not a book about Modi, though he does figure prominently in it. It's about the wonder that is India (with apologies to A.L. Basham), about Gujarat, India's economic growth, the debate about development, the Manmohan Singh years, Indian women, Hindu nationalism and everything you may or may not want to know about the country.

A debate about the Gujarat model of development had raged before the last general elections. The state's economy almost tripled in the Modi years of 2001 to 2014; it built considerable infrastructure, and accounted for 16 per cent of industry in India. "He (Modi) once bragged to me, exaggerating somewhat, that every village in Gujarat got uninterrupted power, implying he could make that happen nationally." But as a survey showed, Gujarat has a poor record on health and the decline of hunger. The government of India did not release the survey's results because they were embarrassing for Gujarat but The Economist reported them in June 2015.

The debate is important for India's future. Should the country push for more industry and quicker growth first and only then pay more attention to the welfare of people? Or should it first invest in primary and secondary education and health. Economist Jagdish Bhagwati, who taught at Columbia University, was a votary of the first line, while Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen represented the second school of thought. Modi, for his part, chanted the development mantra, praised Singapore patriarch Lee Kuan Yew and said he was turning Gujarat into Singapore. Sen was scathing. He told Roberts, "There are two things that Modi should have learned from Lee Kuan Yew: the value of human capital and the value of a multi-ethnic society where all groups are treated equally... I don't think Modi in a thousand years would get close to Lee Kuan Yew or Margaret Thatcher."

Though Roberts is an India sympathiser, he pulls no punches, delivering a jab here and a swipe there. On the army's action strikes against Pakistan, he writes: "The main purpose of the operation, it appeared, was to reassure India's chest-thumping television hosts that some sort of military retaliation had taken place." And billionaire Mukesh Ambani "showed questionable taste: he built an enormous, twenty-seven-floor home in Mumbai for nearly $1 billion, earning widespread scorn"

Roberts is critical of Modi, too, though he often gives the prime minister's side of the story. In a chapter on the Gujarat riots of 2002, he implies that Modi did not exactly cover himself in glory.

Still, this remains a book about India by a foreigner - much of what he has written is not new to most Indian readers. Nor does Roberts know quite what to make of Manmohan Singh. He describes Singh as bright, kind and timid, and mentions a belief that he advocated liberal economic change but lacked political guile.

But Singh was never a fervent reformist. A Narasimha Rao aide told me that the late prime minister picked Singh for the finance minister's slot partly because he had better credentials as a socialist than economist I.G. Patel, the other candidate for the post, and so would be more acceptable to the Congress party.

Why also pick this horrendous title? Roberts does explain that his book has four broad themes the title represents. Still, a book's name has to grab the reader's attention. This one won't quite do that.

Finally, the very comprehensiveness of the book is its weakness. A media baron I worked for discouraged the commissioning of what he called macro or broad stories - always do stories on a slice of life, he'd say. He was right. Had Roberts not written an omnibus book on India but a more focused one, who knows what the outcome may have been.

The reviewer was resident editor of two financial newspapers

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