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A Rising India sans Faith

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In spite of Gods — read Hindu nationalist hysteria, mystical mumbo jumbo and occultism — India, a nation of one-billion plus people and one of the world’s fastest growing economies, is set to shun its habitual diffidence and shine forth on the global stage as a major power. In essence, this is the central argument of Edward Luce’s sympathetic but critical analysis of a rising modern India.

Based on his four years of peregrinations and research as the New Delhi-based South Asia bureau chief of The Financial Times, Luce has essayed an “unsentimental evaluation of contemporary India against the backdrop of its widely expected ascent to great power status in the 21st century.”

The only problem with his argument is that the author finds it ‘strange’ that despite the baggage of religion and its uniquely metaphysical civilization India is growing and making its presence felt in the world’s leading capitals.

“I wanted to know why India exerted such a powerful spiritual pull on so many foreigners, since it had not had that effect on me. Over the centuries, and particularly during the era of British colonial rule and its aftermath, many Indians endorsed in one form or another the view that India was a uniquely metaphysical civilization,” writes Luce, preferring skepticism to the temptations of exoticizing India.

For all his skepticism and mordant wit, the idealist in Luce has not dimmed despite repeated journalistic encounters with disorienting realities of contemporary India. “It can still live up to the dreams of Nehru and Gandhi and become a political beacon to the world,” he says.

“I wanted to know why India exerted such a powerful spiritual pull on so many foreigners, since it had not had that effect on me. Over the centuries, and particularly during the era of British colonial rule and its aftermath, many Indians endorsed in one form or another the view that India was a uniquely metaphysical civilization,” writes

Luce, preferring skepticism to the temptations of exoticizing India.

Instead of viewing India “through a purely religious lens,” which, he says, can lead to a “basic misreading” of dramatic and far-reaching changes the country is experiencing in diverse areas, the author chooses to decipher India through “its deep-seated and dynamic culture of politics.” In fact, a better title of his critique of rising India would have been “In Spite of Politics and Politicians.”

Luce, a perceptive observer with a highly developed sense of humour, is merciless in lampooning and vivisecting antics of India’s venal and exhibitionistic political class and what such excesses of power and wealth mean for an India, which many believe, is on the verge of superpower status.

And during his four-year sojourn in India, Luce has met some really dazzling specimens of India’s political class like the bumbling entertainer Laloo Prasad Yadav, a former chief minister of one of India’s poorest states and now the railways minister in the coalition government, and the unflappable Amar Singh, a politician known equally for his incestuous bonding with India’s corporate elite and Bollywood. No wonder Luce concludes his tour of political India with an ironical observation: “In India if you are the wrong sort of person there is a reasonable chance you will end up in politics.”

That’s why in his prescription for a rising India in the concluding chapter of the book, Luce recommends raising the calibre of politicians and the quality of debate and scrutiny in parliament as a prerequisite before the country realizes its great power destiny. “India is a paradox: it has an impressive democracy that is peopled, for the most part, by unimpressive politicians,” Luce writes.

But for all his prescience and good judgment, the author appears to be prejudiced against what he calls Hindu nationalism as epitomized by India’s former ruling party Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swyamsevak Sangh (RSS), and it shows in his caricatures of RSS activists.

Consider this account of his visit to the Cow Product Research Centre near the central Indian city of Nagpur, run by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a right-wing organisation that is dedicated the ‘reform of the Hindu religion’.

The first room hit me about 20 metres before we arrived. It contained hundreds of bottles of cow’s urine. Next we were shown cow-dung products. My favourite was cow-dung soap. “God lives in the cow dung,” Luce’s guide explained. “All of these recipes are contained in the holy texts.”

Such lampooning apart, there is a touch of paranoia when Luce calls Hindu nationalism “the most coherent threat to India’s liberal democracy” without making a sincere effort to understand the roots of the Hindutva resurgence in the early Nineties and its continuing relevance and power. This tendency to regard religion as an albatross smacks of a deliberate refusal to consider religion as a powerful force of nation-building.

But then Luce is unapologetic about his visceral distrust of religion and religious politics. The future, Luce says, lies in India discarding politics of the hate and intolerance and strengthening India’s liberal democracy.

“India can teach Europe, Southeast Asia and other parts of the world a great deal about how to keep a multi-national, multi-ethnic entity together without imposing uniformity on its people and denying them basic freedoms.”

The canvas of In Spite of the Gods is variegated and all-encompassing. Luce is lucid and engaging in his perceptive accounts of India’s ‘schizophrenic’ flourishing economy; its caste chemistry; the feudal dynastic nature of its politics; its relationship with Pakistan and its Muslim minority; its equations with the US and China; the country’s experience of grappling with modernity and urbanisation.

For all his skepticism and mordant wit, the idealist in Luce has not dimmed despite repeated journalistic encounters with disorienting realities of contemporary India. “It can still live up to the dreams of Nehru and Gandhi and become a political beacon to the world,” he says.

And the biggest hope for an emerging India, Luce says, lies in its insatiable hunger for knowledge as epitomized by the ten-year-old boy who kept him literally awake the whole night during one of his train journeys in the country with his relentless questioning and unflagging curiosity. If knowledge is power, India is already there.


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