July 15th 2017

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COVER STORIES Liberal discontents take internal struggle to Shakespearean heights

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Cardinal Pell charged: the process is the punishment

EUTHANASIA What Boudewijn Chabot can teach Victoria

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Taiwan's 'friends' make the Beijing cut

FREEDOM OF CONSCIENCE NT abortion law oppressive towards health professionals

HEALTH Gardasil(R) and the man upon the stair, Part I

AFRICAN AFFAIRS Special force deals with scourge of poaching

MUSIC Andrea Keller: transpositions of death and grief

CINEMA Cars 3: On ageing without rusting

BOOK REVIEW Biggest democracy makes big strides

BOOK REVIEW A refinement of the Industrial Revolution


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Biggest democracy makes big strides

News Weekly, July 15, 2017

SUPERFAST PRIMETIME ULTIMATE NATION: The Relentless Invention of Modern India

by Adam Roberts


Profile Books, London
Hardcover: 312 pages
Price: AUD$32.99

Reviewed by Bill James


India achieved independence in 1947. Despite its regional, ethnic, linguistic, economic and religious diversity, a number of broad generalisations can be made about the world’s biggest democracy during the first four or five decades of its existence.

Unlike other post-World War II new nations (such as its neighbour, Pakistan) India maintained the liberal-democratic, pluralist principles of its constitution.

Politics were dominated by the centre-left Congress Party, and its dynasty: prime ministers Jawaharlal Nehru, his daughter Indira Gandhi, and her son Rajiv Gandhi; Rajiv’s widow Sonia was later puppet mistress of the 2004–14 Congress government.

The country’s population grew inexorably (it will outgrow China’s before stabilising), so challenges such as famine, poverty, disease and illiteracy were dealt with only slowly.

Social traditionalism strongly dominated issues such as caste, family life and relations between the sexes. The economy, restricted by protectionism and a ubiquitous bureaucracy, demonstrated only patchy growth.

In foreign relations, India preached peace and non-alignment, while pursuing friendship with the former Soviet Union, intervening in the Pakistan/East Pakistan/Bangladesh imbroglio, and acquiring nuclear weapons.

During the 1990s, things began to change. This reviewer worked in India during the 1980s, and here are a few examples of such change that struck me:

One: the Ambassador, an Indian-produced 1956 Morris Oxford, used to be almost the only car found on the roads, but now a variety of modern Japanese models is available. My son tells me that on a recent visit to the town where we lived, his motor rickshaw was held up behind not a bullock cart, but a Maserati!

Two: it is now common, at least in the big cities, for young couples to go out on unescorted dates – and this in a country where my wife and I used to refrain from holding hands in public to avoid giving cultural offence!

Three: in 2014, the opposition centre-right BJP’s Narendra Modi, son of a chai wallah (tea-stall owner), with a reputation for nationalist and religious conservatism and economic dynamism, was elected prime minister.

Adam Roberts was bureau chief for The Economist in Delhi, and he focuses on developments of the last few decades in general, and the last few years in particular. His book’s title reflects the Bollywood-style hyperbole that is employed not just in entertainment and the media, but also in electioneering and advertising. The terms Superfast, Primetime, Ultimate and Nation refer, respectively, to: India’s economy, politics, international standing, and internal stability.

First, the economy.

India is still struggling to liberate development from the constraints of its ubiquitous, corrupt and inefficient bureaucracy, which is known as the “licence Raj”. Modi and his predecessors have steadily opened up opportunities for both domestic and overseas investment, and sought to modernise the country’s antiquated infrastructure, such as its 19th-century railway system.

The flourishing electronics and IT sectors have not only provided employment, but put many government processes (for example, land records, applications to government departments, tax procedures, welfare measures) online.

This has improved India’s “human capital” (though there is much to do in the areas of health and education; India ranks globally 130th in standard of living) as well as business efficiency.

The proliferation of television, and ownership of nearly 500 million mobile phones, has promoted both national unity and economic enterprise. Manufacturing still lags other developing countries, but companies such as Ikea, GE and Apple have recently set up shop in India.

Modi promoted all these policies when chief minister of Gujerat before moving into federal politics, and his success in that state won him the 2014 election.

His theatrical determination to confront corruption in the form of “black money” (and risk chaos in the process!) was demonstrated in 2016 by his overnight de-legalisation of 500 and 1,000 rupee banknotes, which had been hoarded by tax avoiders.

His populist demagoguery and technological boosterism can be found in his claim that the elephant-headed god, Ganesha, is evidence that ancient India pioneered plastic surgery – along with television and aeroplanes.

Second, politics.

It is sometimes asserted that democracy, in contrast to its neighbour China’s ruthless, can-do authoritarianism, is a disabling imposition on India. Roberts argues that, on the contrary, “Indian democracy is potentially a huge advantage rather than a curse”, and, though not perfect, has delivered “the relative peace, tolerance and stability that have distinguished India from all its neighbours”.

Its resilience was demonstrated by its recovery from the republic’s worst ever threat, the 1975–77 Emergency declared by Indira Gandhi, when she suspended democracy and the rule of law.

Indian politics, at the local, state and federal levels, are fiendishly complex and, it has to be admitted by its warmest admirers, breathtakingly corrupt. Violent prevention of voting; stuffed ballot boxes; multiple voting; voting on behalf of dead voters; running dummy candidates with identical names to genuine candidates in order to divide the vote; and bribery of both voters and the media with monumental creativity; are regular features of all elections.

Modi has been accused of exploiting both caste prejudice and Hindu anti-Muslim bias in his electioneering. However, he says he became prime minister in 2014 by promising economic growth, jobs, prosperity and efficient public services, and observers tend to credit his success to disillusionment with the tired old Congress hegemony.

As for India’s women, at one level the situation is dire, with female infanticide (before and after birth); health and educational disadvantage; forced marriages; dowry deaths; harassment (“eve teasing”); and rape, still shockingly prevalent. Roberts declares flatly: “South Asia was arguably the worst place anywhere to be born female by the 2010s, at least if you were born poor.”

But here, too, there are promising portents. More and more women are educated, employed, financially independent, and assertive. They are marrying later, and are prepared to walk away from abusive husbands and in-laws.

The global, as well as Indian, outrage over the appalling gang rape and murder of a young woman on a Delhi bus in 2012 galvanised an outspoken repudiation of the prejudice that independent young women “ask for it”.

Modi, to his credit, has described Indians’ preference for sons over daughters as a “psychological illness of the entire country”.

Roberts also deals with pollution. This topic begins with cultural factors, such as Indians’ propensity to maintain spotless homes, but blithely deposit mountains of rubbish everywhere else, in the street outside their houses, and even in beauty spots and historical sites.

The resultant devastating health consequences are exacerbated by water pollution (particularly that of major rivers) and the air pollution resulting from lorries, cooking fires, stubble-burning, and the widespread use of coal in industries such as electricity generation and brick-making. Roberts: “India is on track to becoming the single biggest emitter of carbon dioxide on Earth.”

Third, foreign relations, in which Roberts focuses on Pakistan, China and the United States.

Since Partition in 1947, there has been continuing tension between India and Pakistan, particularly over the disputed territory of Kashmir. The 2008 Mumbai attack was the most spectacular in a list of continuing terrorist incursions into India. Both countries possess nuclear weaponry, leading “various commentators to judge the India-Pakistan border to be the world’s most dangerous”.

Both Modi and Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif profess a desire for peace, but Sharif is hamstrung by the interlinked dominance of the army and extremist Islam in his country.

There has been continued tension between India and China also, over disputed territory along their Himalayan border, and over their broader rivalry for regional cultural hegemony. Bad feeling persists over the 1950s Chinese invasion of Tibet and the presence of the Dalai Lama in India; the 1962 border war; and China’s cultivation of India’s neighbours such as Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Both countries have huge populations, but China leads the way in terms of economic and military strength, infrastructure, education, health and nutrition.

Modi visited China in pursuit of better relations in 2015, but is simultaneously reinforcing border defence, and extending Indian naval influence, particularly in the Andaman Islands.

India and the United States are both large, English-speaking democracies and, after a flirtation of India with the USSR some decades ago, the relationship is now healthy. Modi himself is warmly pro-American, and has visited the U.S. a number of times. It augurs well for the India-America connection that both he and U.S. President Donald Trump – who has voiced pro-Indian sentiments – are larger-than-life populists.

Other factors favouring the improvement of the relationship include India’s growing consumer market; common suspicion of China; common opposition to terrorism; and the Indian diaspora (26 million globally, 3 million in America), many of whom are ambitious young professionals.

Finally, national coherence.

Roberts sees the greatest threat to a secular, inclusive Indian unity as emanating from Hindutva, the extreme nationalist proposition that only Hindus are “real” Indians. Hindutva is propagated by the RSS, the pro-BJP and quasi-fascist organisation in which Modi grew up, and is primarily opposed to India’s Muslim minority, as well as being anti-Christian.

About 80 per cent of Indians are Hindu, and 15 per cent Muslim, though this minority numbers 180 million.

India’s Muslims are generally moderate, and have shown little inclination to support Islamist terrorists such as ISIS, al Qaeda or the Taleban. It is worrying, however, that increasing numbers have returned from working in the Gulf states professing stricter versions of their faith, such as Wahhabism.

Also of concern is Modi’s alleged propensity for exploiting communal tensions for personal political gain, and Roberts’ account contains a long discussion of the ambivalent role he played in the murderous 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujerat, when he was chief minister.

Under Modi’s prime ministership, too, what Roberts calls “crude cultural bullies” have used violence and intimidation to enforce measures such as teetotalism, vegetarianism, protection of cows (including plans for a “university of cow studies”), along with censorship of online pornography, maps questioning the fiction that India controls all of Kashmir, and any criticism of Hinduism.

The book’s concluding chapter warns of the danger of intolerant nationalism, and of the imperative for increased liberalisation of the economy and improved infrastructure, to provide jobs and prosperity for the millions moving from rural India to the cities.

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