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Saturday, December 29, 2012

Review of "India Grows at Night"

Every passing year, I find I am more interested in the Whys and the Hows, the historical context of why we are the way we are. Especially when it comes to India, I am all agog to understand, why this country and its people are, as so many people in Dilli keep saying, so ajeeb-o-gareeb!
So it was a given that I would read Gurcharan Das' latest India grows at Night - a Liberal case for a strong state. It is a rivetting read though I am assured it is not the author's best work. Das starts his argument by presenting several examples of India being a land of tremendous public failure and private success. This is fundamentally true though not all of his examples to prove this point are. For me, the case of Faridabad vs Gurgaon struck close home as a classic case of how Govt mismanagement and apathy contributed to the marginalization of one and private enterprise and infrastructure contributed to the glittering (if messy) success of another. However he also mentions the case of the IT industry in India which grew without Govt intervention which is patently incorrect - if the Govt had not established STPIs, given tax breaks etc the Indian IT industry may have stayed a mere fledgeling.
The basic premise of the book is that traditionally India has always had a weak state and a strong society (several warring kingdoms in ancient times, followed by independent princely states during the Raj that morphed into linguistic divisions post-1947). However the society was always well-organized and powerful. Compare this to China which has always had a tradition of strong central empires and a very weak and non-cohesive society. 
Das points out that India is the only country in the world that embraced democracy before it embraced capitalism. Every other country has done the reverse. Therefore (this I found utterly fascinating) Indians learnt about their rights much before they learnt about their duties! If we take this argument as plausible, then it explains so much about why we are the way we are...why we keep our homes spotless and our streets filthy, why we vehemently protest against a gangrape yet will not step up to take an accident victim to the nearest hospital...
Das blames weak governments for India's massive public failures - I agree. He thinks we need to move away from a tradition of weak states to a strong central state (not dictatorial) - I agree, but is this even possible? He finally links the two and proposes a new political class, largely drawn from the middle-class and a party modelled on Rajaji's Swatantra Party.  His arguments are compelling except for one fatal flaw  - his vote of confidence in the middle class to step up to do something for this country. I personally do not share his confidence but wish I am proved wrong! 

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