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'Superfast Primetime' & modern India: Adam Roberts assesses country's future under Modi

Neeraj Thakur | Updated on: 26 July 2017, 19:15 IST

In 2014, politics in India took a definitive turn when the world's largest democracy voted Narendra Modi, a controversial politician, to be its Prime Minister.

Modi's ascendance to power got the media as well as political commentators divided along political lines, making it difficult to judge his performance without having any kind of a bias. In a scenario like this, a political-economic commentary by a foreign journalist, Adam Roberts comes as a balancing force in the din. As the former South Asia bureau chief of The Economist, Roberts' views matter to the policy-makers around the world. And as he interprets it – here you are either with Modi or against him.

The title of the book Superfast Primetime Ultimate Nation: The Relentless Invention of Modern India encapsulates everything that India has been in the past and wants to be over the next 30 years.

The title also is a reality check on the exaggerated sense of the country's existence. What may look normal to Indians but can perplex an outsider – the 24x7 news channels that run every story as breaking story, no matter how insignificant they are.

The title is about Indian policymakers' dream of having a bullet train run in a small corridor – as a trophy – even as the rest of the country travels on trains that got outdated in the first half of the 20th century.

Roberts in his book has brought out the contradictions and confusions that are emblematic of a teenager's life – of one who is high on testosterone and low on experience. Who is full of energy but knows not how to channelise it. The determination to rule the world, but lacking the confidence to sit in the company of experienced adults.

This is what Indians in the 21st century are going through. Belonging to a $2 trillion economy that has found the place in the group of top 20 nations, but still holds the lowest rank in the hierarchy.

The youth of India have many questions to ask. For starters –

Has India achieved what it deserves in the past seven decades of its independent existence or has its leaders, represented by the Nehru dynasty, squandered the opportunity by choosing to make India a secular, tolerant country?

Write right

Roberts' strength lies not in what he tells his readers, as the book is a course revision in post-Independence politics and economy of India or sorts. The author's tight and interpretive writing provides the reader the eye to appreciate, as well as question, the most basic and taken for granted details about their everyday existence.

And Roberts does it in the typical westerner's style. He starts his book from Govindpuri – a small colony in South Delhi – with a visit to a soothsayer's house. He asks the soothsayer to predict a number of outcomes in world politics, of which only one comes true, and that is about Modi's victory in the 2014 elections.

That one prediction is enough for the soothsayer to find a place in the book that encapsulates India's journey so far, in about 300 pages.

History lessons

The book does not follow a chronological order of India's history, rather it moves to and fro, like a man's memory into past, present, past and future and not necessarily in that order.

It touches upon India's 'tryst with destiny' that began the moment the British left India, narrating the wonders and blunders of India's first prime minister, Jawahar Lal Nehru's polices that shaped the country till the 90s.

It mentions in great detail, Indira Gandhi's rule – how she let her father Nehru's democracy down by resorting to an Emergency, her assassination following Operation Blue Star, the anti-Sikh riots in north India. This is followed by Rajiv Gandhi's short-lived accession to power and his assassination.

Robert's narrative is not just about India's economy and politics. He has made an attempt to decipher the complex thread of the Indian social structure. The nature of Indian festivals, the joint family system, the social ills like dowry, female foeticide, Indian entrepreneurs and the pushes and the pulls of the Indian democracy in the form of graft, work culture and power of the cult.

A central theme in the book is about the great shift in Indian politics that has taken place with Modi's ascension to power. Modi, the Hindu nationalist, who promises a great future for Indians under the umbrella of a Hindu-centric form of government.

The economics of it

On the economic front, too, a shift has taken place in the country, within the liberal market ecosystem, which is represented in the debate between India's two renowned economists – a Bengali (Amartya Sen) and a Gujarati (Jagdish Bhagwati).

While Sen, who lost after reigning over government policies for several decades, kept human capital ahead of development, Bhagwati on the other hand, whose influence oozes from Modi's policies, calls for an unrelenting focus on growth. The rest, as Bhagwati says, will follow.

Bhagwati's theory was implemented in Gujarat by Modi and the Gujarat Model was publicised, largely through the press and political rallies ahead of the elections. That is what paved the way for a definite victory to the Gujarat model and to the two Gujaratis.

But is the Gujarat model actually a winner? Not, in Roberts' analysis.

Gujrat is not winning...

On economic indicators, Gujarat did better than the rest of India. But when it came to social indicators, the Gujarat model was found wanting on almost all fronts.

Across the whole of India, 30% children are underweight. And 33% of Gujarat's children are underweight.

Against two-thirds Indian kids receiving 'universal basic vaccinations' only about half of those born in Gujarat received them.

Gujarat, in Roberts' eyes, has failed to develop its human capital, thanks to Modi's extreme focus on infrastructure. The state-of-the-art hospitals exist, but they have nothing for the people. Roberts narrates an incident where an international health official made an unannounced visit to a clinic of tribal women in Gandhinagar.

There was no warm water, the taps were dry and there was no soap. “This medical center with its poorly trained staff was not in a remote desert or forest. It was around the corner from a massive concrete convention hall where billionaires gathered to brag about showering hundreds of billions of dollars on Gujarat...” Roberts writes.

And to hide these unappealing facts about this state's model, Gujarat's government, much like China's, has kept health data unpublished.

“In the dispute between Sen and Bhagwati, it was clear to me that the humane argument – that India's most grievous problems are its failures to see people properly nourished, cared for, and educated – it is the more powerful one. In this regards, Gujarat is far from a model for others to follow,” says Roberts.

But then...

But Modi is now India's PM, with the same model being implemented across the whole country, where states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Orissa are historically poor. The first three years of Modi's rule raises questions on his ability to boost India's economy. Modi's fetish of launching new schemes and then forgetting them did not escape the author's observation either.

But there is much more on Modi and his model of remaining in power. The book discusses at length his divisive policies from the time of his chief ministership in Gujarat when he was accused of not doing enough to contain the pogrom of Muslims.

Modi came to power at a time when Indians were discussing government scams with every breath. The Coal scam, the 2G scam...the list was endless.

Manmohan Singh's indecisiveness, all lent support to the candidature of a PM who boasted of a 56-inch broad chest. The writer has pitched the effeminate Manmohan Singh against the 'macho' Modi. He forces the reader to ask whether communalism should be the answer to corruption in a democracy.

The colour saffron

If Modi wants to be seen as that historic PM who propelled India into the orbit of greatness, he has used a very risky path of invoking the regressive sentiments among India's majority – in the form of Hindu nationalism.

A similar majoritarian politics played by those in the neighbouring countries left them burnt and parched despite having begun their independent journeys on a similar road, seven decades ago.

Roberts has travelled the length and breadth of India as well as other parts of South Asia. He holds Indian democratic institutions in high regard and believes that the Indian democracy, in the long run, is likely to score over the authoritarian rule in China.

It is another matter that the Indian elites, as well as policy makers for long, have envied the structured, no-protest and human-animal-natives-rights-concerns model of the communist party of China.

What will happen to India's human capital indicators in Modi's reign? Will they go from one of the worse in the world to worst? Will India achieve its true potential?

Roberts has avoided taking up the role of the soothsayer, he met in Delhi.

But, the way Roberts sees it, the outcome of India's tryst with destiny in the 21st century will depend on who has the last laugh – Sen or Bhagwati?

Edited by Jhinuk Sen

First published: 26 July 2017, 19:08 IST
Neeraj Thakur @neerajthakur2

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