Poverty remains endemic, illiteracy prevails, public health is shambolic, already misused public spending has been cut; meanwhile, political leaders continue their farcical capers. Yet today India, or at least urban India, is in the grip of a feverish hopefulness about the future. A large class of "new rich" have emerged, behaving, in Ved Mehta's words, "as if they saw themselves as a new `master' or `super' race", spouting globalisation-speak and sporting all the insignia of western consumerism. What will emerge out of this juxtaposition of two worlds is uncertain.
The pattern established at Independence in 1947 - gradual growth in a mixed but largely state-regulated economy, the exclusion of religious conflicts from national politics, a commitment to the idea of some egalitarianism, punctilious observance of the procedures of parliamentary government, above all an exemplary and proud austerity - this pattern, which was designed to give some coherence and durability to a very unusual political Union, and which had held until Nehru's death in 1964, has now completely lost its shape. Shades of Nero, not Nehru, seem today to hover over the capital city, New Delhi.
Ved Mehta, in this fine and characteristically wry collection of essays about India since 1982, which together with his earlier reports on India add up to an "informal journal of political events in New Delhi - and, by extension, in India" (although thateasy "extension" begs questions), aims at explaining contemporary India. This is a pretty tall task, and the truth of the matter is that no one - intellectual or journalist, politician or activist - quite knows how to understand this garrulous, densely textured and deeply paradoxical country. This poverty of understanding is astonishing: with a population nearing one billion who, unlike the Chinese, enjoy a real measure of political freedoms, what happens in India is not of merely parochial interest. It matters.
Imagination is certainly needed in the face of the tumult of contemporary India, and it's no surprise that some of the most striking efforts to discern a shape to it have surfaced in the novel form: led by Salman Rushdie, a generation of younger writers living inside and outside India, and including authors like Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh, Rukun Advani and Mukul Kesavan (whose novel centred on Partition, Looking Through Glass, is due to appear shortly), have tried to make sense of the unities, divisions and meanderings of post-Partition history through the novel. Another rich vein has been high-quality reportage, in the pages of the wonderfully independent Indian press as well as in the longer form established by writers like Ved Mehta and V S Naipaul, and by journalists like Mark Tully. Guided by their own obsessions, each has tried to tell India through stories: Naipaul with his biographies of ordinary lives in India, Tully with his parables, Mehta with his "probing stories" or "analytic narratives".From his New Yorker eyrie, Mehta has been filing his punctual reports on India for 30 years now. This book is the latest in a trilogy which he began in the 1970s with a series of stories on Indira Gandhi's Emergency Rule, when democracy was suspended for 22 months (the only such period in independent India's history). After this traumatic hiatus, normal democratic service was supposed to have resumed in the 1980s, but Mehta's sober dissection of the soap operatics of Indian politics reveals that over the past dozen years things have moved to a quite new complexity.
Mehta has an admirable ability to unpick and simplify the byzantine opacity of Indian politics, and especially the to-doings of New Delhi - still an imperial city, with its courts and courtiers. The studiously cultivated poise of Mehta's prose, even whe n he recounts absurdities that beggar belief, lends a low comedy to his descriptions of the activities of political leaders, of their relatives and in-laws, and of what he has termed "sundry other collat-erals". He covers the domestic wranglings between I ndira Gandhi and her daughter-in-law, Maneka Gandhi (wife of Sanjay Gandhi, who was killed in 1980 when the plane he was piloting crashed), and Maneka's disinheritance from the family profession, the crises in Assam and Punjab, the assassination of MrsG andhi by her Sikh bodyguards, the succession to her office of Rajiv Gandhi and the period of hope which surrounded this, the Bhopal gas disaster, Rajiv Gandhi's assassination by Tamil terrorists, and the rise of Hindu nationalism, resulting in the destru ction of the Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya.
But this sparely rendered narrative is always filtered through the spectacles of New Delhi, and that is a limitation. In fact, the machinations of New Delhi have become more a symptom than a cause of the much wider changes sweeping the subcontinent. The r e are at least three facets to these changes. Democracy in India has struck deep roots, though it is hardly a liberal version of democracy. In this country of minorities, each subject to its own distinctive inequalities, democracy serves as a language fo r forging new identities, expressly designed to yield fictitious permanent majorities - monster castes (which bring together "Backward Castes" with "Other Backward Castes" and so on, in pythonesque variation), mythic leviathans like a "unified" Hinduism (a nonsense in a religion which has always flourished through a proliferation of observances and practices). These transient couplings can generate enormous political effects, and have undermined the power of the political elite, as well as the security of those who are excluded. The notion of political equality has seeped deep and wide into this profoundly fissured society: more and more are now pressing what they see as their legitimate claims - against one another, and against the state - with greater energy.
The rapid entry of ever more people into the political process has recently received further impetus: the weight of the Constitution has been put behind the project of Panchayati Raj, adopted by Nehru and revived in the 1980s by Rajiv Gandhi. This is pr o bably the single most important initiative aimed at decentralising power in India, at creating structures of local government in what has historically been a hugely centralised system. Seats have been reserved for poorer groups, and a Constitutional amen dment stipulates that a third of all seats must go to women. If these local assemblies are given real financial autonomy, this promises to deepen India's identity as the most exceptional and bristling democracy anywhere. But this entry of new groups into the political process is occurring at exactly the moment when the organisations supposed to support public demands are buckling. The Congress Party, which has ruled for 43 of the 48 years since Independence, is in long-term decline, and the state bureau cracy is mired in corruption.
For Ved Mehta, part of the elusiveness of India's politics lies in the conjunction of a democratic political system with a rigid hierarchical social structure in which lineage and ancestry remain close attributes of power. The result is, as Mehta terms it, something like a "democratic monarchy". But this too is changing rapidly, though with unexpected results. Greater democratisation of the social structure has actually had the effect of further personalising and centralising power, and has spawned populist varieties of power. Power has become free-floating, its moorings to institutional structures - ancestry, caste, party, office - looser than ever before, and more directly a function of personalities. A striking example is the current in cumbent of the office of Election Commissioner: he has made himself the Hector of Indian democracy, accruing considerable political power and deciding - generally to perfectly good effect - when or whether elections can take place in certain states.
The Indian economy too is rapidly reshaping itself. It is a country with high savings rates (but low literacy: it is the combination of high savings and high literacy which some see as the important springboard for the economic leap of the Asian "tigers"); this has, however, provided little opportunity for productive private investment. The dismantling of the haphazard accretion of economic controls - the notorious "Licence Raj" - has released a flood of consumer goods that has transformed the look andfeel of urban India: cities glitter with neon adverts for international brands, streets are choked by thousands of new vehicles. The phenomenon of the 100 million-strong Indian middle classes has caught the attention of global conglomerates, and foreigninvestment is rising rapidly. In parts o f the countryside, too, farmers enriched by the new farming technologies are now able to take home their desires.
This surge in spending power has placed enormous demands on India's feeble infrastructure, with chaotic consequences for housing, sanitation and electrical power. Mehta has an amusing essay on the telephone system (in fact much improved) which brings outhow, in an odd hybrid of object and image, a kind of simulacra third world has emerged. All the ornaments of western consumerism are in decorative circulation, but their instrumental uses are restricted - as Mehta reports on Indian telephones, they "look like the real thing until one tries to use them".
For Nehru, "India" was a naturally given fact, a culturally unified entity awaiting "discovery". That settled view no longer convinces. The constituency of "Indianness" is now in dispute, and these arguments will cut deeper as the different regions and groups in the country begin to pull away on different routes and rates of economic growth. In many cases the turn will be inwards: to the local consolations of a common language and religious fraternity. Such lines of separation will place pressures on the idea of the Union. State culture, never particularly successful with its messages of "national integration", has lost its prerogatives. The electronic media are now open to all comers, and bizarre cultural mutations are emerging, paraded continuously on the fast-multiplying TV channels - ironically, their greater seductive powers will probably work to homogenise audiences more effectively.
Yet, fundamentally, the issues and problems that face India have not changed. Economic liberalisation, essential as it is, does not in itself address them, and the euphoria of urban India is a mere anaesthetic. The scale of what needs to be done in the areas of health, education, economic and gender inequalities and a fast-worsening environment is awesome, a real challenge to nerve and concentration. But the problems are not beyond solution, as is clear from the striking successes of some Indian states.Bengal and Kerala, for instance: the latter has managed to achieve near-total literacy, deliver good public health services and reduce inequalities. With a population of 29 million, it is larger than many sovereign nation-states, so one should not underestimate the extent of what has been done. Sadly, there is an unwillingness on the part of other Indian states to learn from this rich positive experience on their own doorstep.
Mehta's silhouettes of political life, which gain definition against this larger background, are edged by sharp insights: about the political significance of martyrdom ("jails in India have proved even better political platforms than temples"), about th e decisive effects of rumour, about the role of honour - and the havoc which can follow when injury is sensed, as in the Punjab. Such aspects are to him signs of a paradoxical gap between the image of modern India held up by Rajiv Gandhi, and the feudal,medieval land of Bharat (the pre-Mughal name for a large region of the subcontinent). This is the kingdom which Hindu nationalists are trying to invent with their celluloid legends of Rama, transfigured by them from his traditional image as a feminised p eace-maker into a muscular Ben Hur, arrows at the ready.
India's modernity, for Ved Mehta, is but a veneer. Yet this is too simple. It is impossible to understand India without seeing how deeply modernity has shaped it; but equally, India has, with a phenomenal energy, re-made notions of the modern world in ways that modernity alone cannot explain.
`Rajiv Gandhi and Rama's Kingdom' by Ved Mehta is published next week by Yale University Press at £14.95