India, In A New Light

Suddenly, India is on everyone's mind. Hardly a day passes without some public discussion about jobs being outsourced there, the growing shortage of hotel rooms in Bangalore, Indian firms seeking to buy European competitors or an Indian novelist who has snapped up a hefty advance from an American publisher. Yet less than 20 years ago, the few stories about India published in major Western outlets were bemoaning its economic woes, diplomatic isolation and political turmoil. Indeed, some latter-day Cassandras were predicting its imminent dissolution, conjuring for India the same fate that had engulfed the other large-scale multiethnic experiments in the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. Not only has India defied these dire predictions, it is poised on the brink of major power status.

Edward Luce goes a long way toward explaining India's almost inexhaustible resilience in his knowledgeable, witty and sympathetic account, "In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India" ( 383 pages. Doubleday. $26 ). Though Luce's views of India's emerging social, political and economic landscape are hardly revolutionary, the former South Asian Bureau Chief for The Financial Times deftly weaves together keen observations, telling anecdotes and scrupulous reportage. From the tale of a lone, imaginative bureaucrat struggling against the forces of a callous bureaucracy to Hindu zealots professing the therapeutic properties of cow dung, Luce's India is endlessly fascinating.

His account highlights aspects of the country that explain its recent spurt of economic growth and continued political stability, such as the ability to hold fair elections and cope with alternations of power--rare in the developing world. Yet he rightly emphasizes that India's prosperity was hobbled in part by the government's own flawed economic policies, which strangled innovation, stifled entrepreneurship and stunted rapid growth. And thanks to a state-led economic strategy, more than 26 percent of its population is still consigned to abject poverty, more than 50 years after India's independence.

While lauding India's ability to survive--indeed thrive--as a multiethnic and multireligious society, Luce exhibits little patience for virulent Hindu nationalism. He pointedly tracks the rise of the BJP over the past 15 years, underscoring the danger that this ethnic nationalist party poses to the stability of India's plural society.

Luce's book, however, does not confine itself to matters of high politics and economics. He devotes considerable time to describing the hope that democracy, with all its shortcomings, offers to India's poor and otherwise marginalized lower castes. In relating the story of Aruna Roy, an upper-caste former government administrator who left behind a comfortable life to lead a peasant advocacy group, Luce vividly illustrates the growth of much of India's social movements. Groups such as Roy's Organization for the Empowerment of Workers and Peasants have galvanized India's upper castes in tackling myriad social ills and failures of governance. Though the scope of their efforts may be limited, they have nevertheless helped spawn a form of citizen activism that puts to shame many advanced industrial democracies.

Is India finally out of the woods? Or is the triumphalism so evident in its gleaming upper-middle-class enclaves premature? Luce's book, despite its mostly upbeat outlook, strikes a cautionary agenda: India must tackle its seemingly endemic poverty, maintain ethnic peace domestically, prevent environmental collapse and improve relations with its nettlesome neighbor, Pakistan. As the author cogently argues, India has repeatedly managed to confound even its most dire critics. Quoting Indian politician Arun Shourie, he writes, "Governance is not golf; that we are a democracy does not entitle us to a handicap." If it can rise to the challenges it still faces, India will have bested the gods.