India: A Portrait, By Patrick French

Along journey across India can be at once tiring, exhilarating, frustrating, inspiring, and thrilling. As with the country, so with Patrick French's India: A Portrait. Here, French combines his lifelong passion, India, with his scholarly interest in the way that Sir VS Naipaul operates as a writer. Sir Vidia was, of course, the subject of French's absorbing biography in 2008.

Like Naipaul, French has an abiding interest in India. Like him, he talks to many people from all walks of life and listens to their stories. But unlike him, he shows empathy for what they have to say. More importantly, he does not mock them. Like Naipaul, he reads the country's history closely; unlike him, he doesn't bear the burden of post-colonial resentment or a sense of betrayal towards the country of his ancestors that failed to meet his expectations. India, for him, is not an area of darkness, nor a wounded civilisation. There are a million mutinies, but the portrait French offers is more complex.

India today is radically different from the time of its Independence in 1947, which is where French left off his lively account of the country's freedom struggle, Liberty or Death (1998). In the last decade alone India has defied every known cliché: it is no longer the caged tiger The Economist lamented, and its "Hindu Rate of Growth" is an object of envy, not derision. The staging of the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi showed that while India may still be anarchic, it not only functions (to use John Kenneth Galbraith's description of India as a functioning anarchy); the end result defies expectations.

Since the economic reforms of 1991, India has lifted more people out of poverty than at any time in its history while remaining a vigorous, if flawed democracy. Yet its increasing prosperity has not spread evenly.

A vast swathe of the economy remains unaffected by the new wealth, a phenomenon that unreconstructed Maoists have capitalised on. French meets them – both in the forests and at Delhi's Tihar jail - and shows their fossilised world-view, in which even a Western-educated Maoist can dismiss the millions of deaths under Mao as merely "some mistakes were made". To make an omelette, you have to break some eggs. French describes them, remaining unimpressed with the rhetoric.

He has divided his book into three parts: Rashtra (nation), Lakshmi (wealth), and Samaj (society). While that's a neat division, a multi-everything nation like India can be sub-divided in many different ways. The deeper question is: does it hold together and form a coherent narrative? That depends on the reader's expectations.

French's portrait is confusing for the reader in a hurry who wants a primer on India for his first flight to Delhi. But accept India's confusing complexities, and it is stirringly accurate. India is the place where all generalisations are true, but so are the exceptions; and those exceptions matter – they present the vital alternative that bucks the prevailing narrative. Each thesis has an antithesis, but India is the land of synthesis.

Take parliamentary democracy. The dominant narrative is of the Congress Party which ruled India uninterrupted for 30 years and returned to power after a short setback. But the last time a single party got an absolute majority was in 1984, in extraordinary circumstances (Indira Gandhi had been assassinated, and the nation rallied round the Congress). Coalitions are now the reality; India look less like a post-colonial state governed by the party that won Independence, more like a mature European nation with compromises and alliances - albeit with a lot more colour and, indeed, violence. So is the era of dynasty over, despite the dominance of the Nehru-Gandhi family?

Here, French offers a fascinating analysis, revealing a deeper truth. Breaking down the members of the current parliament, he shows that almost all political parties have MPs there because of family connections. The stark finding: all Congress MPs under 30 are the children of politicians. Other parties are culpable: the younger the MP, the greater the likelihood that he or she has inherited the seat, joining the family business. In future, this could mean a parliament entirely made up of children of lesser and greater gods.

With the assistance of local journalists and (who else?) a smart Indian software engineer, French has created a fascinating website with the raw data and offers statistical analysis of Indian MPs. The importance of this data for students of political science cannot be over-estimated – not because one out of six people in the world is an Indian, but because, as French notes, one out of every two people living in a democracy is an Indian.

Studying global democracy while ignoring India is a fundamentally weak analysis. French's database will go a long way in explaining who governs India to the world. He doesn't say that hereditary MPs are bad, nor that they should not stand for election. Rather, he shows how political success depends on who your parents are.

Next, consider the socal rigidity of caste. The conventional narrative is that Indians only marry within their religion and, then, within their caste. The anecdotal evidence is strong: take a look at any newspaper's matrimonial advertisements (or even wedding websites). More colourfully, French introduces us to an Indian who is able to predict accurately the caste of people he sees randomly in a public space. His record – three out of three right.

Yet French takes us to a low-profile Indian scientific research institute, and presents early, tentative but incontrovertible evidence that Indians have been mobile. They have intermarried for years, and caste-based rigidity is a relatively recent phenomenon. This evidence will not end centuries of oppression, nor necessarily change stubbornly-held views. Nor will it dismantle the culture of entitlements that prevails in the country. But if India ever manages to promote the scientific temper that Nehru wanted, then there is evidence to back the modernisers.

Finally, agriculture. The overriding narrative is that liberalisation has hurt farmers, with tens of thousands committing suicide as they have not been able to bear unsupportable debt. With more than half the people in India calling themselves farmers, and agriculture accounting for a diminishing share of India's gross domestic product, it would seem that farmers are doomed.

But the story is more complicated. While French does not talk about farmers' suicides, he introduces us to Dattu, a man from a socially disadvantaged and historically discriminated-against tribe. He has learned to grow fine grapes and is now a wine master, providing his crop to make Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc at a continuously improving Indian wine estate.

Dattu earns more than he had imagined; he is part of the globalised world that India has embraced; he has moved upward socially; and he has done this without touching a computer keyboard or working at a call centre and adopting a fake accent. He doesn't even speak English. And he is a prospering farmer.

That's the future; that's the real Indian revolution. There are many such stories in this book. Not all are heart-warming; not all are optimistic. The Indian reality, as always, is complex and nuanced. But the anarchy is no longer merely "functioning"; it is thriving.

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