Edward Luce was the bureau chief of the London-based Financial Times based in Delhi between 2001 and 2005. He is happily married to an Indian. He insists in his preface that this book is ?not about a love affair with the culture and antiquities of India?. He admits that ?some of what is contained in these pages is of a critical nature, occasionally very critical.? He further voluntarily concedes that ?with amazingly few exceptions, Indians have been unreservedly kind, open, hospitable and tolerant of the interrogations of an intrusive foreigner? and ?quite without meaning to do so, India has also taught me how inhospitable we in the West?and especially in Britain?can often be?.
He is grateful to his parents-in-law Aparna and Prahlad Basu whose encouragement of his interest in India ?was equalled only by the insights and experience they were always ready to share, Aparna having been a historian and professor at Delhi University for many years and Prahlad, a senior civil servant in New Delhi. Their assistance in sharing their knowledge and wisdom is clearly apparent in this work. Luce is certainly critical of the many things he has noticed in India but he is fair and on the whole, objective. He spares neither the Congress nor the BJP and his observations of Indian society have the stamp of understanding. Even when he is starkly critical, he concedes India'sstrength as when he says that ?India'saffirmative action programme is the largest in the world (and) is ?far larger and more extensive than that of America? or when he says that ?the rest of the world could learn a lot from India, among which tolerance, the management of diversity and the rooting of democracy in a traditional society loom large?.
Sometimes he is wide off the mark as when he asserts that ?Gujarat is also the most Hindu chauvinist state in India?. That is ?pure stuff and nonsense? which he must have picked up from some of his ?secular intellectual? friends who teem in Delhi. He clearly has not understood the Hindu psyche. He is critical of the RSS and speaks of the ?bloodlust of the BJP'shardcore supporters?.
It is clear that he has no concept of Indian history and even less of the India?call it Hindu?psyche. He reports that the ?twin theories of Ram'sbirthplace and the missing temple only gathered momentum after India had gained Independence? when, in fact, the issue is over a hundred and more years old going back to the eighties of the 19th century. Someone, he says, once told him to ?remember, India always wins? and notes that India ?has a way of confounding? everyone, ?perhaps the most important reason why India has remained a democracy being it is so diverse?. While China is also diverse, Luce explains ?it has one script, one official language and very little religious division? whereas ?India has eighteen official languages, several different scripts and deep religious and caste divisions?.
If he shows a little less understanding of Gujarat, one can give credit to Luce for being severe against his own country, Britain for withdrawing from India ?in a great haste and with much ineptitude? and for taking revenge, following the 1857 mutiny by ?laying waste much of northern India, burning villages and leaving hundreds strong stung up from trees along the main highways?.
He doesn'thave too much of admiration for Sonia Gandhi. He admits that he has ?little doubt about Sonia Gandhi'ssincerity in her support of secularism but adds: ?But she often appears to be a prisoner of the Congress Party'snetwork of advisers, courtiers and carpet-baggers whose efforts have helped to destroy her party'scredibility in large tracts of India over the last generation??and no truer words were said.
Of Indira Gandhi, too, Luce has some harsh things to say. As he put it: ?The inefficiencies of Nehru'sstate contributed a great deal to India'srelatively poor economic performance in the decades after Independence. But even more of the blame for these failings should be directed at Indira Gandhi, whose policies led the country to the precipice of bankruptcy. It was she who tarnished the neutrality of the civil service when she called for a ?committed? bureaucracy that would be openly socialist?.
Indira, as Luce saw it, ?handed control of finance to an unreformed civil service?. While Luce come down very hard on the BJP, he is by no means accommodative of Congress which he claims ?opposes any radical change in the nature of the India State?, that Dr Manmohan Singh does not ?have the power to make the changes he wanted? ?nor has the Congress-led government made any attempt to improve the performance of state-owned companies whose losses give large swaths of the public sector a net negative value?an extraordinary measure of their inefficiency.?
Furthermore, Luce says: ?Congress'slove affair with the state is no longer strictly about socialism to which few Congressmen now-a-days pay much lip service. It goes deeper than ideology. It is partly about status. But it is also about preferential access to a wide range of public goods, including free first class plane and rail tickets, the opportunity to jump queues the ability to pull strings and the provision of free service for which the poor have to pay. Corruption afflicts important public services…. if you are rich and important (in New Delhi) you rarely pay. If you are poor, you usually pay through your nose?.?
One might say anything about Luce, but one cannot charge him with partiality to one or other social group. Importantly there is not the slightest whiff of racial arrogance or the kind of usual talking down that western correspondents indulge in when they write about India. Even when he writes about Jammu and Kashmir he shows a sense of balance as when he says: ?Almost every Kashmiri I met disliked the Islamic radicals and blamed Pakistan for their presence. But they also bitterly resented the Indian security forces.? He quotes one Kashmiri lawyer as saying: ?We are stuck between a rock and a hard place?. Luce sees tectonic changes taking place in India. He says: ?There are potential obstacles to the parallel rise of India (as compared to China). But the odds are that it will overcome most of them, not least because the United States now explicitly desires the rise of India.?
One can readily agree with Prof Amartya Sen when he says that this work is ?a deeply insightful account of contemporary India, a fine introduction for unacquainted outsiders and a mature scrutiny that is bound to stimulate insiders?. For all one knows an Indian writer himself could not have done a better job.