How Do you Write When You Write About India?

Basharat Peer in The Caravan:

ScreenHunter_08 Feb. 04 10.26 As its title might suggest, Patrick French’s India: A Portrait—An Intimate Biography of 1.2 Billion People takes the form of a broad survey, but its most powerful sections come when it shifts from a wide canvas to the detailed stories of individual Indians. The heart of French’s book is the tangled story of India’s contemporary politics and the country’s rapid economic transformation in the past two decades.

One of the main critiques of economic liberalisation in India has been that although the reforms provided economic opportunities to millions and created a new middle class and a new elite, hundreds of millions remained left behind. The most visible sign of this incomplete economic miracle has been the crisis in the agricultural sector, painfully visible in the shocking epidemic of farmer suicides (now immortalised in the figure of Natha, the protagonist in Anusha Rizvi’s Peepli Live). The indisputable scale of the crisis led the government to introduce the landmark National Rural Employment Guarantee Act—one of the most laudable applications of John Maynard Keynes’ idea of government spending as a force for economic stimulus.

French uses Keynes’ personal engagement with India—including his stint at the India Office in London, his early writings on India and the effects of his ideas on India’s first generation of policymakers—to tell the backstory of the nation’s economy. Jawaharlal Nehru and other leaders of independent India believed, with good reason, that the draining of India’s resources by the colonial administration had impoverished India. “They disliked the way that for nearly a century India had been importing large quantities of foreign manufactured goods rather than making them indigenously,” French writes, “and Nehru himself thought that international trade was a ‘whirlpool of economic imperialism’.” But after two decades of independence, India’s economic problems were not going away: the new order evolved into a labyrinthine and corrupt bureaucracy, and even the most ambitious state-run enterprises were making colossal losses.

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