Emerging India 101

Written by Dhiraj Nayyar | Updated: Sep 28 2008, 05:40am hrs
Daniel Lak is a familiar face to Indian audiences from his many years, and countless reports, as South Asia correspondent for the BBC. His latest book on India is aptly titled India Express, for he describes a country on a move, almost at fast forward. The book is optimistic in its narrative about India but doesnt hide the many warts. In that sense the book, on the whole, strikes a good balance between over-exuberance and deep pessimism that characterises a lot of the discourse on emerging India.

Not surprisingly, Lak starts his book with a reference to Indias famous IT industry and how it commanded the worlds attention at the turn of the millennium remember the feared Y2K bug. The success of IT and names synonymous with it Infosys, Wipro, the more generic BPO etc crop up at other points in the book. This new, prosperous economy is, of course, juxtaposed with the life of misery lead by Indias poor, particularly in urban slums. The book manages to squeeze in a brief and critical analysis of Indias colonial past, while complimenting Indias democracy and growing decentralisation of political power to different political groups from the traditional national parties, and to the states and local authorities from the centre. The problems (and contradictions) of population, under-education, militant Hinduism, the nuclear bomb are other topics Lak covers in this wide ranging book analysis nicely coupled with anecdotes from his travels and interactions.

The chapter before the conclusion is where Lak tries to make his big point that India can be Asias America or the worlds next liberal superpower. One could, conceivably ask questions about Americas liberalism when it comes to exercising its power outside its borders. And indeed questions about whether any superpower can be truly liberal towards others India doesnt have a very impressive record of interventionism in its South Asian neighbourhood. It also doesnt have anywhere near the military prowess required to be a superpower. Nor is it, with a per capita income of just $1000, rich enough to be considered in that league. Lak acknowledges some of these points but they dilute his case. India would do well enough to retain its liberal core within increasingly under threat from radical Islamism and radical hindutva in the near future. By venturing into superpower territory, even if tempered by the liberal adjective, Lak over extends his optimism about Indias position in the world, and under-estimates the threats to Indian liberalism from within.

In the final analysis, one cant help but feel that something is missing from this book. India Express would certainly make great introductory reading for those who need a crash course in Indias political economy and recent history in all fairness the Penguin, Canada original is probably written for such an audience. In India, perhaps those who havent been completely clued in to the politics and economics of the last two decades may find the book a useful primer. For the knowledgeable reader, this book hasnt got much to offer in terms of original insight even if some anecdotes from Laks extensive travels may be of curious interest.

Still, the book will, on the whole, disappoint the average Indian reader who could have hoped that Lak would offer some original reflections on an India that he knows so well. Lak would also have known that this emerging India has already been much written about, by Indians and foreigners. And that repetition gets boring.