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Old June 26th, 2011, 12:42 AM
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Exclamation India: A Portrait - Review: How to Get Ahead in India

This is a review of the book

India: A Portrait
By Patrick French

How to Get Ahead in India

In 1990, V.S. Naipaul published "India: A Million Mutinies Now." Of the three books that the Caribbean-born author has written about the land of his ancestors, it is his most insightful and sympathetic. He sensed the profound changes under way in the country that were only accelerated with the liberalization in 1992 of what had been a planned economy. Now, with India becoming a major economic player on the world stage, books taking the pulse of the country arrive with some regularity.

The latest entry comes from Patrick French, the author in 2008 of the Naipaul biography "The World Is What It Is," a remarkable, unsettling book that showed its subject as a man who is mercurial, even brutal, in his personal relations—and was written with Mr. Naipaul's cooperation. In "India: A Portrait," Mr. French, the author in 1998 of "Liberty or Death," about India's drive for independence from Britain in the 1940s, looks at what the past six decades have wrought. He tells us that he has tried to write about the country "both from the inside and from the outside—or from a distance." He divides the book into three sections: Rashtra, or nation; Lakshmi, or wealth; and Samaj, or society.

The drawbacks of his outsider's perspective are soon apparent in the section about the nation and its politics. Mr. French makes much of his analysis of the Parliament's demographics, reporting the "shocking" news that in the Lok Sabha—the lower house, its members directly elected—every member under the age of 30 was the offspring of a member of Parliament and that two-thirds of those under 40 were also "HMPs," or hereditary MPs. "India's next general election," Mr. French writes, "was likely to return not a Lok Sabha, a house of the people, but a Vansh Sabha, a house of dynasty."

Shocking? Not really. An average parliamentary constituency in India numbers around a million voters. It is improbable that an unknown candidate younger than 30 could transit from local politics to the stage where he or she is electable by a million voters. A family name is one obvious shortcut for getting past this constraint. It would be reasonable to expect that the proportion of nonhereditary MPs would rise with age—exactly the result that Mr. French's number-crunching yields. In any case, his conclusion seems misguided: If nonhereditary MPs begin to enter Parliament's ranks in significant numbers once they have passed the age of 40, it's hard to extrapolate a worryingly dynastic future for the country's governance.

India does have a predilection for nepotism in choosing its leaders, as the generations-long success of the Nehru-Gandhi family attests. But there is a rising opposition to hereditary MPs—a resistance that Mr. French seems not to have noticed. I would be glad to wager that the proportion of MPs with a family history in politics will not rise much beyond its current level before tapering off. Elsewhere in the book Mr. French, assessing modern Indian political campaigns, concludes that they "demonstrated in their complexity and illusion, in their duplicity and seeming chaos, that Indian elections were a self-balancing ecosystem." The self-balancing metaphor could easily apply to the proper proportion of hereditary MPs, whether or not Mr. French realizes it.

The book's Samaj section, about Indian society, is similarly problematic. Proceeding from the simple truth that "India has a deep religious impulse, which is rooted in Hinduism,'' Mr. French says that the impulse "can only be understood by seeing how it is lived." His apparent aim is to locate an Indian way of thinking. "In the past, singular stories from India . . . had only entertainment value or a local relevance, but Indian methods were now extending to other parts of the globe."

This absurdity is the result of trying to find significance in conversations such as one where a techie conflates eastern mysticism and technology. Mr. French quotes the man on designing computer microchips. "There's no actual chip at this stage," he says of work that these days can involve manipulating electrons. "You can simulate a chip, the fluctuations, the hot and cold, but none of it is real. It's all in your imagination, here in your head. You can look out of the window and see that hotel and think it's real, but in Hindu philosophy the reality is in the ultimate concept . . . you are taught there is no duality between you and the Brahman, and that what you believe is physical and hence 'real' is really all maya. So designing a chip can be a bit like maya." All very impressive till you pause and try to make sense of it. The conclusion does not follow, but even if it did, designing anything would be a bit like maya—and so?

"India: A Portrait" is at its strongest in the Lakshmi section about wealth, tracing the trajectory of Indian economics after the country won independence. When the book was published several months ago in India and Britain, it caused a stir with its optimistic views of the liberalization of the Indian economy. Mr. French has argued, with some justification, that whatever one thinks of capitalism, India today is certainly better off than it was in the pre-liberalization era.

Mr. French depicts the country's economic journey rather well by focusing on the figure of P.C. Mahalanobis, a statistician who was given a large say in running the economy, beginning in the 1950s, by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Mr. French's Mahalanobis is at times a caricature of a rather complex and brilliant man, as is the author's caustic characterization of the Nehruvian economy. (It is by no means certain that liberalization would have met with the sort of success it now enjoys if it had been introduced in the 1960s.) But he has done a good job of detailing the statistical delusions that drove the Indian planned economy.

Mr. French seems to try to temper his glowing depiction of corporate India today by telling us a few stories of deprivation, but his critics—even if they are motivated primarily by ideology—are not wrong to complain about his largely uncritical views of business in India. Mr. French's portrayal of Sunil Bharti Mittal, the head of the Bharti telecom company and one of the world's richest men, plays down the fact that his father, Sat Paul Mittal (who died in 1992), was a powerful member of the dominant National Congress Party and one of its major financiers.

While Bharti's growth has occurred in the post-liberalization era, the company was already a success at the time of liberalization. In a controlled economy where every license to import or export had to be sanctioned by the government, Mr. Mittal's political connections seem to have done him no harm. Somehow the very hereditary tendency that so alarms Mr. French when it gives an advantage to politicians appears not to worry him where business is concerned.

Last year a major scandal unfolded in India involving the telecom sector, the very area in which Bharti operates. Bribery and corruption in the sale of wireless spectrum licenses resulted in a loss of at least $15 billion in revenues to the government. Investigators' phone taps revealed cozy links between corporations, cabinet ministers and journalists. Many members of the public, disgusted by the corruption, have embraced a self-styled Gandhian and Hindu mystic named Baba Ramdey, who doubles as a yoga guru on television. Too late for Mr. French, India's national politics, wealth and society have come together in a most extraordinary way.

—Mr. Bal is political editor of Open magazine and co-author of "A Certain Ambiguity: A Mathematical Novel."

-Loud and Proud Desi Opinions
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certain ambiguity, hartosh singh bal, india a portrait, open magazine, patrick french

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