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A Tale of Modern India

Friday, March 30, 2012

Anand Giridharadas. India Calling: An Intimate Portrait of a Nation’s Remaking. Times Books. 288 Pages. $25.00.

Edmund Burke never set foot in India, yet he dedicated almost two decades of his life to managing Indian affairs as an mp in Britain’s Parliament. Not only did he oversee the impeachment trial of Warren Hastings, the first governor general of India, but Burke also acquired an in-depth knowledge of arcane political and historical issues in the British colony, from the debts of the Nawob of Arcot to the invasion of Tangore. It is even believed that he considered his work on India more significant than the Reflections on the Revolution in France.

As Rutgers University Professor Michael Curtis observes, the “stability, harmony, and antiquity” of India must have appealed to Burke’s conservative disposition. The society he encountered was deeply traditional, and India’s caste system provided a source of social hierarchy conducive to preserving order and balance. In 1786, he made the bold statement that though the Magna Carta was not present in India, its people lived under the law of nature and nations. It reflected a view of the East quite unlike that of many of his counterparts and even his contemporaries. Instead of the exoticism with which many Western observers perceived India, Burke saw a sense of structure and respect for tradition. It stood in stark contrast to the then-unraveling social structures of Europe. Taking the Indian system into account, Burke found British rule in the colony to be arbitrary and often despotic, and in all of his dealings on the issue, he insisted that colonial government follow the precedents of Indian society.

Burke would not live to see the Indian Mutiny of 1857 and the homegrown political movement that would eventually lead to India’s independence almost a century later in 1947. But it is a curious thought experiment to imagine what he would have thought of the whole venture. Of course Burke’s view of social revolutions was mixed: He famously opposed the French Revolution yet supported America’s schism from the crown.

Burke may have opposed India’s independence because of Mahatma Gandhi’s anti-establishment rebelliousness and other founding fathers’ desire to redraw borders of the independent nations. No doubt the Partition of India and the bloody religious conflict that followed would have reminded him of another reign of terror. But he could have also championed a free India that would remain in many ways as traditional and hierarchical as he first encountered it.

Perhaps Burkeanism left its mark on the polity for many of independent India’s nascent years. The country’s ruling elites were most often high-caste Brahmins with a distinctly Anglicized culture. And from the statist tendencies of Nehruvian economics to the slow-moving, almost Dickensian nature of Indian bureaucracy, a true revolution was hardly evident.

But in the decades that followed, India slowly broke away from its Anglo-Indian heritage, as Anand Giridharadas encounters in his first chapter of India Calling. Looking at a family photo from a wedding in the 1960s, the author is fascinated that men are wearing “crisply cut Western suits” rather than the “kurtas, sherwanis, [and] Nehru jackets” prevalent in India today. He is equally amazed by the contrast between the refined British accents of his grandparents’ English and the heavy accented “Hinglish” of today’s Indian yuppies. It is a curious reversal. While India is now known for its rags-to-riches entrepreneurs, double digit economic growth rates, and the adoption of an almost American taste for consumption and material wealth, it has in many ways become more traditional. Bangalore is now Bengaluru. Mumbai’s Victoria Terminus train station was renamed the Chhatrapaji Shivaji Terminus after the 17th-century Maharata king Shivaji. And the country’s fastest growing political party is the conservative, Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (bjp). Giridharadas puts it best: In today’s India, “millions of Indians strove to learn English, but fewer and fewer strove to be English.” Even as it reinvents itself into a modern, capitalistic economy, the country appears to embrace an even purer form of Burkean conservatism — a traditionalist culture that predates British rule itself. Victoria’s crown is gone, but is Ashoka’s crown replacing it?

An Indian-American who returns to his parents’ homeland as a junior McKinsey consultant, Giridharadas encounters this world and its contradictions firsthand. With a wide-eyed tone of a bildungsroman, India Calling sifts through the new realities of today’s India and “old facsimiles of reality” in Giridharadas’s mind, revealing the tensions of a society wavering between the world of conservatism and progress.

Over the past 30 years, many authors, Indian and Western, have contributed books on modern India. From Ramachandra Guha’s historical primer India after Gandhi to Edward Luce’s journalistic In Spite of the Gods, breathlessly narrating “India’s rise” has become a literary fad in its own right. But rather than attempting a sweeping narrative of six decades of history, Giridharadas’s account lacks ambition and subsists on a short series of anecdotes and personal encounters. Ultimately, the author reaches no definitive conclusion and in fact remains as ambivalent about India’s contradictions at the end of the story as he is at the beginning. And as expected with a coming-of-age story, the book’s conclusions are often melodramatic. It ends with a stale platitude that while “chasing the frontier of the future” Giridharadas instead found the “frontier of [his] own past.” But such tropes do not detract from the significance of India Calling.

The crudeness of enterprise the author bemoans in India is not unlike the bourgeois culture and lack of “taste’ critiqued by many socialists. De Tocqueville praised an American “taste for material well-being’ that many in Europe scorned.

The book begins with the story of Ravindra, a dynamic young entrepreneur from the poor village of Umred. His tale is not quite one of rags-to-riches, but emblematic of the new India nonetheless. Otherwise destined to a laborious life of crushing oil seeds, the traditional task of his family’s caste, Ravindra finds a way to learn English and go through a series of finishing schools in subjects ranging from electrical work to desktop publishing. He first becomes a teacher, then works up to a job at a travel agency, and eventually returns to his village to set up a roller-skating school and an “event management” firm. Only a few years later, he finds himself flying to Hong Kong as the manager of the Indian national roller-skating team and buying a new house for his parents and three siblings.

Giridharadas notes that Ravindra’s favorite book is Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. He also has a taste for material wealth, buying himself a motorcycle — the first motorized vehicle in his family’s history — on his 21st birthday soon after he had become a teacher. “I will change my destiny. I will be good. I will be rich,” he asserts. And his worldview stands defiantly against the fatalistic views of karma and reincarnation prevalent in much of Indian society. “Many Indians believe in a rebirth system,” he tells Giridharadas, “but I believe that life is only a one-time chance.”

Giridharadas finds something quite crude in Ravindra’s transformation. Amidst the fervor of entrepreneurship and reinvention, Ravindra cannot seem to get himself to articulate the most basic of emotions, conveying them instead through a flurry of text messages filled with “trite proverbs, made-up sayings, [and] quotations from people [he] scarcely knew.” There is no such thing as a cultured life in this world — people like Ravindra stopped reading history or literature and cared little about being “well-rounded,” the author notes.

Giridharadas laments that these new Indian entrepreneurs were filling their heads with “swot analysis and ways to win friends and influence people,” and “not with the tolerance of Ashoka, the poetry of Kabir, the universalism of Tagore.” He sees India becoming a country of “how” and not “why,” where people were “all motion and no reflection.”

But there is nothing out of the ordinary in this experience, and the crudeness of enterprise that Giridharadas bemoans in India is not unlike the bourgeois culture and lack of “taste” critiqued by many socialists. In his travels through America, Alexis de Tocqueville himself found and praised a “taste for material well-being.” It was a tendency scorned by the European aristocracy yet appropriate to a society in which men were able to move from lower to upper ranks, unhindered by the immobile wealth of inheritances.

In fact, Giridharadas diagnoses the wrong problem in Ravindra’s story. The unrefined, seemingly irreverent thirst for enterprise that he finds in Indian society should be expected as opportunity expands and people grow in affluence. More unsettling, however, is the story of an entrepreneur who has already “made it” — Mukesh Ambani, chairman of Reliance Industries and one of India’s wealthiest tycoons. Through the course of his interviews with Ambani and those close to him, Giridharadas encounters a peculiar moral code distinct from the one he is accustomed to in the U.S. Among other things, he finds that Reliance maintains a network of “moles” that provide the company intelligence from government ministries. Journalists who cover the company often receive dvd players, mangos, or even cash as gifts. And the company regularly finances the American college tuitions of Indian bureaucrats’ children.

It would be one thing if these findings were part of a broader exposé of corruption and unethical behavior at Reliance. But they are not. Ambani and his colleagues are rather open about these practices, declaring that his company is merely building “relationships.” There is a familial nature to Ambani’s business dealings. Once you are in his circle, “you are friends for life,” as one of Ambani’s friends tells the author. The problem is not that Reliance operates unethically but that these practices are not considered unethical at all. In fact, they are generally accepted and often expected.

Giridharadas deftly explains this incongruence through a clever though partially flawed thought experiment. He presents a morality test in which the reader is asked to decide whether he agrees or disagrees with four statements:

  1. It is wrong to cut ahead of someone in line when you’re in a hurry.
  2. It is wrong to let your parents spend their last years in a nursing home.
  3. It is wrong to use your influence to help your nephew get a job in your company.
  4. It is wrong to let relatives visit your home without serving them a meal.

In general, Giridharadas argues, a Westerner (and most Anglicized Indians of the post-independence years) would find statements one and three wrong while contemporary Indians like Mukesh Ambani (and perhaps Ravindra) would find two and four wrong. It is a clear distinction between the idea of universal fairness embodied in the Western Judeo-Christian tradition and the relativism and sectarianism of the Hindu worldview, the author notes. It is the difference between a society which has a clear notion of universal human nature and natural law and an Indian, “context-sensitive” moral code.

Giridharadas’s experiment is flawed because it insinuates that the Western moral code generally expects parents to spend their last years in a nursing home or that relatives that visit one’s house shouldn’t be offered a meal. Instead, the question should rightly center on the Golden Rule. Does one do as he would have done unto him, or does he do based on particulars, asking “who did what, to whom and when”?

Giridharadas’ assessment is essential to the broader question of modern India. As he sentiently observes, “these different emphases define the fault line between the Indian and Western minds.” As India broke away from the remnants of its British heritage and emerged anew in the world, here was another way in which it regressed to an even more traditional way of life. There is nothing contemporary about Mukesh Ambani’s moral code. In fact, it simply rehashes the hierarchical, caste-based mores of precolonial India. And it grates against the image of reinvention and enterprise that is often portrayed as the “new India.”

Patrick French, a British historian and author of the new book India: A Portrait, finds further evidence to corroborate Giridharadas’ findings. In a chapter entitled “Family Politics,” French delves into the nepotistic roots of India’s political class. He finds that 100 percent of Indian mps under the age of 30 and 65 percent of mps between the ages of 31 and 40 have entered politics through some sort of family connection such as taking over a father’s seat or having a brother in politics. And while the problem is prevalent across all political parties in India, the ruling Indian National Congress — the party of India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, his daughter Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and her daughter-in-law and current inc president Sonia Gandhi — is most culpable. Eighty-eight percent of Congress Party mps under the age of 40 are there because of some hereditary connection. French ends his chapter with an incisive observation:

The Indian republic was founded on the truth that power should not be handed over by the colonial rulers to the princes. India’s [next] general election was likely not to return a Lok Sabha, a house of the people, but a Vansh Sabha, a house of dynasty.

What will become of an emerging India in which self-made entrepreneurs and aspiring political leaders continue to play by the rules of Mukesh Ambani and the Indian National Congress, providing favors and dividing wealth and opportunity only among their kin? Will it foster a sense of civic vibrancy and charitableness that Tocqueville found in emerging America?  Perhaps more importantly, will a culture of enterprise and individual opportunity continue to survive in a relativistic moral framework?

In India Calling, Giridharadas seems to find few answers to these questions, instead resorting to professorial ambivalence. His conclusion is filled with platitudes about Indians’ “possibility of greatness,” “self-definitions,” and “escapes from the past.”

The reality, which Giridharadas fails to identify, is that a sectarian moral system cannot coexist with a vibrant democracy and competitive market economy. It is an issue that continues to be played out in the political culture of Indian society. Consider the recent middle-class movement behind the Gandhian activist Anna Hazare, who fasted in protest of widespread corruption across Indian civic life. The movement gained significant media attention and generated a buzz across the country. Yet it was naïve and wrong-headed in its ends, vying for a likely-futile parliament-formed independent commission to investigate corrupt practices. But there is indeed a path out from India’s current ethical dilemmas. It is not legislation from the top down. It is a moral reformation from the bottom up.

In his 1982 The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, Michael Novak argued that a successful democratic and free market society stands on three legs, not just two:

Without certain moral and cultural presuppositions about the nature of individuals and their communities, work and savings, about self-restraint and mutual cooperation, neither democracy nor capitalism can be made to work.

Today’s India already achieved its political transformation, which began in 1857 with the Indian Mutiny and culminated in 1947 with independence. It is the world’s largest democracy and a vibrant one to boot — the mass mobilization of humanity during an Indian general election is a sight to see. As well, India achieved its economic transformation, at least in structural terms, when a cadre of technocrats began to dismantle India’s statist regime in 1991 and open the market to the world and to its own entrepreneurs.

It is an unprecedented experiment for the developing world. Democratic capitalism is risky, and as Americans and Europeans know all too well, it is fragile. Yet Indians are bold enough to attempt self-government and an open economy in a society where more people live in poverty than in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Yet as Anand Giridharadas discovers in India Calling, the country’s robust economic and political system cannot seem to resolve some of the more profound human questions of free society. The either/or questions — Should Indians either reinvent themselves or continue in their familial traditions? Should they read classic literature and poetry or the self-help books of enterprise and progress? — yearn to become both/and questions. Can Indians respect both progress and precedent? Can they help their family and their neighbor?

This requires not just a political or economic transformation — it needs a moral and cultural transformation. The moral-cultural system that Novak presents as the third leg of free society is not relativistic. In fact, it is not unlike the Western Judeo-Christian morality that Giridharadas presents in India Calling, one based on a general acceptance of natural law and universal human nature. One centered on the Golden Rule.

Even though he comes from a world that has reconciled the ideas of precedent and progress, Giridharadas continues to operate within this false dichotomy. He flirts with the realization that in America, his family can preserve its Indian mores and traditions while at the same time starting anew, yet fails to realize that such a reality wasn’t a mere accident of history.

Ultimately, it comes down to a question of human nature. Are there some essential ways (but not every way) in which all humans are alike? Or does it all depend on context and circumstance? If it is the former, then society can be ordered based on those universal truths, allowing humans to then distinguish themselves by their unique strengths and dispositions. If it is the latter, then nothing is for certain except within each individual’s tribe.

India Calling is an important book because it poses this question in raw detail, even though the author cannot realize as much. Despite its innocence and an ultimately misguided (one could even say inconclusive) conclusion, Giridharadas’s book sets the parameters for modern India. It is not the question of Edmund Burke. It is the question of Alexis de Tocqueville.