Book Review: India unleashed

A senior journalist tells a lucid story of how reforms played out in a diverse, democratic country

The past 25 years have witnessed an upheaval in the global political and economic order. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of former Soviet socialist republics proved to be a major catalyst. This is an era that also saw the rise of a new category of nations called “emerging markets”, which differentiated them from the earlier, somewhat-pejorative Third World classification. Nothing can be more dramatic in this period than the rise of China and India, two dissimilar Asian neighbours sharing a contested and uneasy border.
After the 2008 trans-Atlantic financial crisis, these two countries contributed to world economic growth in large measure. The subsequent slowdown of China’s frenetic growth, and a re-assessment of its position as the world’s manufacturing shop-floor, has shifted focus to India and its economic growth potential. Indeed, India’s attempts to showcase itself as a global economic and political power — it is the fastest growing economy in the world today, albeit from a lower base — has its fair share of sceptics.
There are many who have been stung by India’s hesitant steps in the past; a disappointed international investor had once commented sardonically how India will perennially remain a “potential”, always looking to fulfil its destiny.
This book comes at a time when India’s hopes have been rekindled once again, even though the country finds itself at strategic cross-roads. Shifting power templates and uncertain economic currents have forced India to rethink its priorities.

Turning Point 
All existing equations have been re-arranged: old friends have turned lukewarm, past indifferent relationships have become super-charged. In the midst of all this, a change in the political leadership also saw old rules rewritten. While economic policy is still work-in-progress, fresh energy has been invested in foreign policy. The world is once again looking at India with new eyes.
The author’s long and successful career as a journalist, first in India and then in Singapore, has afforded him a ring-side view of history as it unfolds; his perch at Straits Times has provided a unique vantage point for the south and south-east Asian theatre. The author has attempted to encapsulate India’s transformation over the past 25 years in 350-odd pages. He crisply outlines the grand aspirations, highlights the transformational moments and unabashedly shows up the warts.
The narrative begins with the notion of India shining, the redemptive features of a diverse and democratic republic that continues to defy disbelievers. The high point of India’s emergence as an emerging power, the author feels, came during the country’s swift and capable response to the December 2004 tsunami. Caught unawares by nature’s brutal and devastating fury, India refused all external help and marshalled its own administrative and defence capacities to provide relief to affected areas. In fact, India went a step further and provided disaster relief – both in terms of material as well as capacity — for many neighbours equally ravaged by the rising sea waves. This event marked a turning point; it heralded the arrival of India as a mature and capable republic that could not only take care of itself but was willing to support its neighbours in times of need. India was no longer dependent on hand-outs or external support for coping with natural disasters.

Change Comes
Beyond this unfortunate but symbolic event, the author writes that India’s reputation was also burnished by its armies of software engineers and the resilience of its populace. This is also a chronicle of India’s increased engagement with the world, emerging from its self-imposed exile and re-establishing its position in trading and strategic negotiations. Beginning with former Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao’s prescient “Look East” policy, helped in some measure by Singapore, to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Act East” policy, an on-going high-octane engagement with the US or the balancing act with China, India’s strategic imperatives are much more dynamic and challenging. In the midst of all this the usual suspects — corruption, bureaucratic inertia, scams, turf wars, terrorism, internal schisms and faultlines, diplomatic mis-steps, political expediency trumping good governance, among others — keep tripping up India’s chances.
The author leavens his account with numerous anecdotes, some of them experienced first-hand. These makes the reader an almost unwitting observer as events unfold. The author also calibrates expectations by stating that the book is not an academic work. Yet there is a gnawing and empty feeling in some places that could have used some research to highlight India’s on-going battles.
For example, the chapter on the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement, signed between India and Singapore in 2005 after years of haggling, probably deserved some more details. This is important because some of the issues have gone on to define India’s stand in subsequent global multilateral negotiations, or in on-going plurilateral talks. The readers would have definitely benefited from the author’s simple explanations and lucid style.
This book provides an account of India’s travels and travails over the past 25 years. Readers wishing to figure out the troughs and crests of this journey should pick up the book. It is exceedingly well written; even for those wishing to explore issues in depth, this book provides a good starting point. It is an enjoyable slice of India’s post-reforms history.

India Rising: Fresh Hope, New Fears
Ravi Velloor
Konark Publishers
Rs 530
The review originally appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine. It can also be read here.
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