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April 28, 2011

India Now: the Fireworks and the Fears - Lincoln Allison on why Indian enterprise will triumph and why it will be a triumph of globalisation

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Travelling south through Rajasthan towards Udaipur the tedious semi-desert mercifully gives way to a more intricate and interesting landscape of wooded hills and neat little fields. The car stops abruptly because our companions have spotted something they wanted to spot: a Persian wheel, two bullocks parading in circles and driving a shaft which draws up water in leather buckets from a deep well. The water then flows away in neat little channels into fields full of cereals and fodder crops. Let us shelve scholarly questions about whether the technology is really "Persian" and how many millennia old it is because it is an undoubted opportunity for photography, a picture of Eternal India to put alongside those of the gleaming new shopping malls, airport terminals and state-of-the art hotels. Also, perhaps, a reminder that more than half of Indians still live on the land.

The farmer, a man whose age I cannot estimate, dressed in traditional white Rajasthani costume, seems glad to see us, proud of his wheel and pleased with the way things are going. When I suggest a small tip, he says I should give it to the boy, about fifteen, dressed in jeans, seated behind the bullocks. The 50 rupee note (about 75p) is trousered with a blank stare and a hint of head wobble. I joke that he is thinking that it will take him an awful lot of such notes to buy him his first Ferrari because I see this incident as a kind of cliché of development which raises living standards, but also expectations and resentments, leading to the kind of uprising which Thailand, for example, has experienced, but India has not.

Twenty five years ago an Economist report on South Asia reported on a vibrant Pakistan and a stagnant, hopeless India. As prediction it could not have been more wrong; whereas contemporary Pakistan has problems of every possible dimension, India has consistently had one of the world’s highest growth rates in the twenty first century – this year expected to be about 8.5%. The change in fortunes is casually observable in relatively smaller slums, improved infrastructure, less ridiculous bureaucracy, modern cars and motorbikes replacing more ancient forms of transport. (As a rider to these observations I must add that we were mainly in Rajasthan and the Punjab, two of the richest states - and that it really makes no more sense to say that you've been to India than it does to say that you've been to Europe.)

There is also a palpably higher sense of national self-esteem. Everyone was quoting an international report that the country was now the fifth most powerful in the world: meaningless, perhaps, but very well received. I watched India win the cricket World Cup on a big screen in the castle courtyard in the small town of Mandwara. It was the icing on the self-esteem cake, with the sleep-threatening fireworks to follow.

India is a miraculous paradox, a competitive parliamentary political system and a high level of economic growth in one of the largest, poorest countries on earth. On the one hand it is projected to become the world's third largest economy by 2020; on the other, it has slums on a larger scale than anywhere else and considerable doubts about the limits of future progress. One obvious set of fears concerns the difficulty of such a diverse society holding together. Of course, there is glory in diversity: in the dusty streets of some Rajasthani town (I forget which) I briefly met a most exotic figure, handsome with a jet black beard and rather dirty green robes and turban. A shopkeeper gave him 50 rupees and he swayed away; apparently, he was a mystical sufi Muslim who found God through alcohol. This was a new one on me, but in a country which contains Sikhs and Jains and Parsees as well as the world's third largest Muslim population and countless varieties of Hindu and tribesman it was no real surprise.

But every time one finds this diversity charming, one should, as antidote, read some of the history of India's communal violence, including, of course, Partition, but also the story of the massacre of Sikhs after the assassination of Indira Ghandi in 1984. I think of this as "Sarajevo syndrome" following the widespread perception of that city's rich and inclusive multi-culturalism when the Winter Olympics were held there, also in 1984.

The only conclusion must be that you never know; there are layers of which you only normally see one. Most Indians will tell you that relations between Hindus and Muslims are better than they were despite the Mumbai killings in 2007. But there are mutterings about the Muslim birth rate and about Pakistani sympathisers which may be something and may be nothing. Pakistan itself seems less threatening than it did and Indian attitudes to the country more level-headed.

The "spirit of Mohali" is invoked, referring to the World Cup semi-final when approximately 5,000 Pakistanis were allowed visas to watch the match and most were entertained in Indian homes, Punjabi being the common language. It might have been different had India lost. We attended the utterly bizarre flag-lowering ceremony on the Pakistan border, nicknamed the "Ministry of Silly Walks", but there seemed to be no real fear or hostility on the Indian side. One Indian friend, seeking to explain the change in terms he knew I would understand, said that India-Pakistan was like United-City in Manchester: the other lot were just "noisy neighbours" (to use Sir Alex Ferguson's phrase) and best ignored.

Of course, lest this be thought of as a Muslim problem, it must be added that there are also all kinds of "right wing" Hindus out beyond the Bharitya Janata Party and even the Rashtriya Swayamsevat Sangh, peddling an ethnic mythology of Aryanism and the origins of India and Hinduism and seeking to ban cricket, Christianity and the English language from "India" - a name I put in inverted commas on this occasion in recognition that most of what was regarded as "India" is now in Pakistan and Congress originally announced that it was going to call the country “Bharat” after one of the more notable Aryan civilisations. And there are, as well, Maoists and assorted separatists up in the hills.

But these are not the issues worrying most Indians. Cricket apart, the biggest news item of the last few weeks has been the hunger strike of an elderly sage and "activist" in the (Mahatma) Ghandi style. His name is Kisan Baburao Hazare, but he is normally referred to as Anna and his protest was against corruption and in favour of the strengthening of the powers of a Lokpal (very roughly, Ombudsman) to deal with the problem. Indians are fed up with and concerned about corruption at every level of society.

In one respect this is odd because the research evidence might be taken to suggest that India is not an especially corrupt country. Transparency International, which amalgamates thirteen sources of research on corruption into a single index, actually has India just in the top half of all countries in this respect, in 87th place. It is cleaner than nearly all of Africa and the former USSR and most of Asia and about on a par with Greece.

Another way of looking at it would be to say that it is doing pretty well for a poor country, but rather badly for a stable democracy. Given that more than two thirds of adult Indians can recall bribing a public official – and that friends tell me this seems an implausibly low figure – this makes the world a pretty corrupt place.

However, one must stress that corruption is a very complicated concept which can go far deeper than the mechanics of baksheesh, dash or the oiling of palms. The meaning of corruption varies between cultures and in India it has a seemless border with a number of other aspects of life and economy forming a syndrome which might reasonably be called the Indian Disease.

One important factor is a mind-boggling labour intensity; in the fertile fields of the Punjab you catch sight of the occasional combine, but then a thousand brightly clad ladies with sickles. Of course, most people would accept E. F.Schumacher's argument in Small is Beautiful that it would be bad to bring in vast numbers of combines overnight. The trouble is that labour intensity blends into something which should not properly be called labour at all, but mini-rent-seeking which is based on an underlying – and self-fulfilling – assumption of utter poverty and hopelessness. On the new road you stop at the Midway Services and go to the toilet, but when you wash your hands you have to receive the towel to dry them with from a young man who wants money and who gives you the same mixture of head wobbling indifference and mild hostility as the boy on the back of the bullocks when he is given some.

In most Indian offices you can't do your own photocopying, but must hand it to the appropriate wallah. All of this poses moral dilemmas for the non-Indian visitor and my response is to give as little as possible to those whose job, I think, does not really exist and to be as generous as I can when you need people and they serve you well. The most obvious example of the latter is your driver since it is really out of the question for someone brought up in Europe or America to drive in Indian conditions.

That India only began to progress from these debilitating conditions in the 1990s is largely due to the attitudes of political elites and the Congress Party in particular. India was "socialist", but it was a pathetic, worst-of-all-worlds, kind of socialism. When it came to public services or the redistribution of wealth the country was a good deal less socialist than the United States. But when it came to the bureaucratic restriction of any kind of investment or activity it was Soviet. The legacy is still there, but why do they need so many forms and ridiculous details before you can do anything?

The answer at one level lay in elite attitudes. I gave some papers and lectures on globalisation in India in the 1990s and I could more or less set my watch by the first mention of the East India Company and an argument to the effect of, "You're not catching us out like that again - we'll drown you in a sea of forms". They were like so many old generals, preparing for the last war rather than the next and I always wanted to say, "It's not a zero-sum game and, even if it were, you'd probably win it".

So there are two Indias, as there have always been two versions of Italy. One bristles with enterprise, the other with Soviet stupor. There are the hotels which cannot do enough for you and the tailor who will do a perfect alteration in ten minutes flat. And there is (or was) the guy who sold me my first Indian railway ticket. I slowly and dismally became aware that there was nothing in it for him if I reached Pune, but a certain amount of power satisfaction and schadenfreude if he could stop me. Of course, he probably just wanted a bribe; the more complicated the form or procedure, the more likely you are to make a mistake which you will have to pay for as atonement or rectification. And seen in its broad context corruption is not a redistributive mechanism because the big guys do it big, the little guys do it little and the poor don't get to do it at all.

I think Indian enterprise will triumph in the end, but I'm an optimist. For me, this is much more than a matter of intellectual interest because I care about India. I have always felt curiously at home there, like many other English people. This is not, in my case, the attraction of oriental spirituality, which fills places like Pushkar with young westerners; it is far more basic and has to do with the historical intertwining of the two countries, but it is also because the impenetrable exoticism and complexity of India makes you feel like an additional component rather than a foreigner.

I don't buy the idea that India has put the Raj behind it, an idea which is dutifully trotted out by many western writers, including the otherwise estimable William Dalrymple (in City of Djinns, which is about Delhi). I'd have liked them to sit with me on the Shatabadi Express lat week, Delhi to Amritsar, first class compartment, with four English-language newspapers to choose from, all stuffed with IPL cricket reports, all to be digested with the free Indian Railways Morning Tea biscuits as you listen to the English conversations going on between Punjabi and Hindi speakers.

It may not be the India that the post-1858 full imperialists imagined? I don't know. But it is surely a world that more Liberal or earlier, less racist, imperialists would have happily conceived. It involves the greatest cultural exchange in history because they got cricket and we got curry, without any of us losing what we had in the first place. Globalisation at its best and anybody who tells me that curry is un-English should get as short shrift as anyone who says that cricket is un-Indian.

In any case, I now have an additional interest in the matter because I have a granddaughter who is "dual heritage" as the correct expression goes and I think it would be very sad if she were to grow up unable to feel at home in both countries.

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career at the University of Warwick in 2004 - and again in 2008 - to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton. His latest book is My Father's Bookcase: A Version of the History of Ideas.

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"they got cricket and we got curry, without any of us losing what we had in the first place"

Other than the native inhabitants of parts of London, Birmingham, Manchester and larger parts of Leicester, Bradford, the Black Country and the former mill towns of the Pennines. Over the last 30 years I've been able to observe first-hand massive demographic change in Bradford and Birmingham.

During the Raj there were doubtless similar demographic changes to a few very small areas of India and Pakistan - I have a 1902 Guide to Simla with maps which show large areas of housing which could, from the names, be in suburban Surrey. But these involved very small numbers of people in a vary large country - and were substantially reversed after independence. The demographic changes in England (and a few towns in Wales and Scotland) involve the movement of very large numbers into a very small country, and reversal is very unlikely.

Posted by: Laban Tall at May 22, 2011 11:53 AM
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