In The Armchair

In Spite of the Gods

Posted in Books and Literature by Armchair Guy on June 20, 2007

Until the early 1990s, India was an economic backwater which attracted almost no international interest. Economic reforms led by P. V. Narasimha Rao in 1991 led to the rapid economic growth of the economy. In recent times, overzealous publicity and reporting have made it appear as though India is on the brink of “superpower” status, and this has spawned a spate of books trying to explain the character of the country to Western audiences. “In Spite of the Gods” by Edward Luce, a British journalist and former Financial Times New Delhi Bureau Chief, is another book is this category.

I will review three aspects of the book: 1. Its character, or what it tries to be; 2. How well it is written (how interesting it is), and 3. its accuracy. The book itself covers so much ground that this review will need to be a little lengthy.

Luce’s main interests are the political and economic arenas in India. Each of the Eight chapters consists of several “patterns” that Luce has noticed in collective Indian behaviour: sycophancy, criminalization of politics, Hindu fundamentalism, the State oppressing the poor, and so on. To shore up the argument for each of the patterns, Luce relies on interviews (with a surprising number of very prominent people), events (historical and current), anecdotes, and other cultural observations. These patterns all form evidence for some small-scale themes that appear throughout the book, such as the fallacy (in his opinion) the Indian nationalist perception that progress lies in developing the villages and decentralizing political power. These smaller scale themes, in turn, are tributaries to his recurring largest scale theme: the condition of the poor in India. Luce writes a lot about the intersection of politics, economics and culture, and how each of these shapes and interacts with the others.

Luce does all of this a trifle haphazardly, with a slight lack of organization within chapters, revisiting themes and patterns throughout the book. But he manages to make it all very interesting. His patterns provide novel viewpoints on familiar topics (familiar, at least, to Indian). His anecdotes and event summaries are piquant. The interviews are often with very important political figures, in interesting situations, and that makes for entertaining reading. But they are usually humourous or otherwise interesting, even apart from the importance of the interviewees. His travels through India allow the reader to interact vicariously with a wide spectrum of aspects of the Indian ethos that are not directly accessible to even Indians.

The style of the book gives the impression that Luce put some effort into telling all sides of a story, and that he was trying to report unbiasedly about all of his topics. He also seems to have benefited from advice from people like Ramachandra Guha, a very prominent Indian historian. The bigger picture that emerges from this book is reasonably accurate. For people unfamiliar with India, the book would be great: a concise yet fairly comprehensive introduction.

On the negative side, the book’s biggest problem is that it simply collects common opinions about India that the author agrees with. The lack of true scholarship means that the book lacks the accuracy in detail that comes from thorough study. Almost every other page has a debatable assertion. Luce has a penchant for hyperbole and sensationalism, perhaps as a result of his journalistic background. Luce frequently contradicts himself or tells only half the story.

For example, he (rightly) cautions against using the all-India 2001 census figures to conclude that Muslim fecundity is on the rise. But he himself commits this fallacy when he uses the overall census figures to claim that Christian missionary activity is not on the rise in India. There are many reasons why the figures should be taken with a pinch of salt. Most new Christian converts are advised by their church not to admit the conversion so that they continue to receive backward class benefits; this severely distorts the reported figures. In very recent news, the Christians in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh alone have claimed they form up to 15% of the population of that state — or 1.1% of the all-India population. (This claim was made to support a demand for job reservation for Andhra Christians.) This belies the national percentage according to the 2001 census (2.3%). Luce tells only the side of the story that supports his thesis. On child labour, another of India’s gigantic social problems, Luce omits mention on both sides of the problem. He fails to connect it with bonded labour, and he also fails to explain how hard it is to fix the problem. The biggest obstacle is not the four mostly academic arguments that Luce claims some people put forward to justify child labour. Most Indians are interested in ending it, but there are problems. First, it is very low on the list of political priorities, which is dominated by things like caste, religion, reservations and subsidies of various kinds. Second, most of the children are working so that they can eat; simply taking their labour away will starve them. Providing free food or sending them to school is hard because of bureaucratic corruption. Removing bureacratic corruption, again, is low on the list of electoral priorities. Perhaps Luce would have seen this if he had tried to suggest a solution.

As another example, Luce rightly spends considerable energy flaying the Narendra Modi government in Gujarat for its blatant anti-Muslim stance and for its failure to provide security to Muslims during the Godhra riots. But his dislike for Hindu nationalism again causes him to exaggerate or cite exaggerations. For example, Luce (and to be fair, many media reports) claimed that “thousands” or “2000 or more” muslims died in the Godhra riots — whereas even the Congress, the state government’s main rival, has only claimed around 800 deaths — of which 200 were Hindu. I don’t mean to downplay the well-known complicity of the Modi government or the horror of the events that took place. But Luce is “selling” a viewpoint. He also succumbs to the temptation to talk only about the negative aspects of that government. For example, Gujarat is the only well-governed North Indian state, and is considered by many to currently be the best governed Indian state, with the most rapidly rising human development indicators. Luce never mentions these positive aspects, surprising in a book that spends almost a hundred pages on human development. On patriotism, Luce can’t see why Indians would get incensed at the the pockets of Indian Muslims who feel more Pakistani than Indian, supporting Pakistan in cricket matches and the like. He likens this to the innocuous support that Indian-origin citizens in the UK have for India when India plays England. This analogy is so misleading it feels almost deliberate. A more apt comparison would be with the USA and the USSR in the cold war era. If there were pockets of Americans in 1961 who vociferously supported the USSR, I wonder how many of them would have escaped being branded communists and thrown in jail. By contrast, most Indians might not like their pro-Pakistan citizens, but definitely don’t do anything about it.

It is also sometimes hard to see exactly what Luce bases his opinions of individual politicians on. He seems to decide beforehand how he will portray each politician. Many politicians (appropriately) get short shrift from Luce. However, he is surprisingly, inexplicably charitable towards Sonia Gandhi, the widow of erstwhile Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and current wielder of the Nehru-Gandhi family power. Sonia is a kingmaker, easily the most powerful person in India and the closest thing to a dictator India has seen since Indira Gandhi 30 years ago. She controls the actions of half the state governments in India through puppet strings, “summons” Chief Ministers (who have to call her “Madam”) to Delhi if she disapproves of something they have done and doles out political rewards for loyalty to her. (To put this in perspective for non-Indians, it is like a politically powerful person within one of the two parties in the USA appointing a puppet president of the United States, and summoning the governors of the states to Washington to explain their actions. India’s Chief Ministers are actually more powerful than American governors.) Luce’s portrayal of her is soft and reads like Congress party progaganda: that of a graceful, tearful, long-suffering widow, humble, patriotic (towards India), pure of motive and gentle of heart, yet blessed with amazing insight into the hearts of the Indian people and electoral politics and motivated by a genuine desire to protect the India her family worked so hard for. She might be some of those things, but there isn’t much evidence cited. Luce ignores her blatant interference in the CBI’s investigations in the massive bribery case that India has spent millions on, in order to get her friend Ottavio Quattrocchi off the hook. Luce’s admiration doesn’t seem to be based on anything she has done. To me, an Indian, it looks like he was just charmed by her Western demeanour.

Luce’s opinions on Bollywood, the Bombay film industry, also hint at his penchant for turning the book into a rant. He believes, incorrectly, that films dealing with social issues are not produced. They are produced, albeit in much smaller numbers than the commercial films. But that is true of every film-making community in the world. He cites an interview with Amitabh Bachchan in which Amitabh clearly favours commercial films. Luce seems not to notice that the glitzy films he is so opposed to are lapped up by the poorer sections of India, whom he is trying to champion. Luce may be surprised to learn that it is the rich in India who criticize the “masala” films and the poor who want more of them. In India, the “art” films dealing with social issues are the exclusive preserve of3B3B the rich. In effect, Luce is unintentionally asking Bollywood to stop making the films that are most appealing to the poor and to make more films that appeal to the rich.

Luce is also subtly insulting towards Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru at various points throughout the book, and tends to take the familiar Western viewpoint that India owes much of its success to the West. Luce has nothing good to say about Gandhi or Nehru. He portrays Gandhi and Nehru as silly, unwise and somewhat unscrupulous people who didn’t really understand how the world works. Gandhi is blamed for the Congress party’s current habit of religious opportunism (this flies in the face of most of the Congress party’s early history). This is the first book I have seen where Gandhi is consistently portrayed negatively.

Most of this may seem like nitpicking, but these issues are (as Luce himself says) heatedly debated in India.  To be fair, Luce covers so much ground that it’s hard to provide a perfectly balanced perspective on all issues.  At the same time, he seems disingenous when he carefully tries to portray his writing as balanced when it is anything but.

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