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An Interesting Passage To India

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A picture is a factual depiction on film, while a portrait is the conceptualisation of the image that is objective, compared with a caricature which legitimately exaggerates the subject. Patrick French's India: A Portrait is insightful as it traces our rajya, lakshmi and samaj with their idiosyncrasies. The narration is a delight and reminiscent of other non-Indian authors such as Mark Tully, Edward Luce, Christopher Kremmer and William Dalrymple. French is not patronising like Naipaul and, in fact, presents India in a balanced way, highlighting successes with limited qualifications without being judgemental. It is left to the reader to draw inferences, especially where he brings in seemingly incongruously a section on the rise of the Maoists in the chapters on economic progress. Or the way of life of quarry workers show the darker side of the progress.
A lot of research and conversation has gone into sketching this portrait, which stretches from India's independence to the present. The political journey is crisp. French is rather frank about the Nehru family and traces the rise of Indira Gandhi and the more gauche Rahul Gandhi, raising déjà vu. An interesting political chapter is an analysis on the age profile and lineages of politicians, which conclude if you are a young member of Parliament, you should have an ancestor who is a politician.

The section, Lakshmi, is written with panache. French explains how, economist John Maynard Keynes who had worked on India during the Raj found it illogical that Indians were hoarding gold except for the fact that there was no banking. Maybe now, he would have changed his view. The legendary Mahalanobis model has been described as being an imaginative piece of Bengali creativity with an implausible vision leading to contradictions. One classic example was how the Heavy Engineering Corporation, Ranchi, made things which no one wanted. And what industry wanted, such as coal, could not be had. The coal sector blamed the railways for not giving wagons, which turned to the steel sector for not providing the material. And, you can guess it, the steel sector points to the coal sector for not providing the raw material.

French recounts the development of enterprise despite the many frustrations. The lawyer, T.V.S. Iyengar, started making bus parts and diversified into making car parts and then, logically, the two-wheeler. To get an imported prototype, he had to export a certain amount to unknown markets, which was ridiculous as he could not produce the product without the imported part! Finally, he had to set up an office in Delhi for lobbying. Another interesting story is of Sunil Mittal's evolution from dealing with import of generators to VCRs, push-button phones to the Airtel empire. At a different level, C.K. Ranganathan showed amazing enterprise to make the famous Chik shampoo sachet. The author lauds the imprint of Indian industry in the global arena, with the final frontier being foreign acquisitions. Major innovations are seen in Cadbury's adaptation to the Indian mithai concept or Rajeev Samant's tryst with making wines from wasteland.

This was a new India, which arrived with entrepreneurs moving into the ‘no-strings generation' where economic reforms unleashed opportunities. The author, however, misses the point that economic reforms may not have been an Indian brain wave, but a compulsion on account of the International Monetary Fund loan. 

French's description of the other side of India Inc. is lined with subtle humour — when talking of the symbiotic relation of Swaraj Paul and John Major or his obsequiousness with Indira Gandhi. His description of Mukesh Ambani's 27-storeyed building or Mrs Lakshmi Mittal's ‘movable assets on ears, neck and fingers' does provoke a smile. He smartly juxtaposes this with the cases of philanthropy exercised by corporates.
French discusses the caste system and how there is a reversal with the ascendancy of people such as Mayawati. Indian society has also become progressive where gay rights are accepted and more women are working, but he cannot digest the concept of servants who "move around without assurance, and the expectation is that they will always be there to facilitate a certain way of life". Quite hard hitting really, when we look at our own homes. Finally on Hinduism, he says that it can be understood only by seeing how it is lived. How true! 

Author's Details:
Patrick French
is a British writer and historian. He is the author of Younghusband: The Last Great Imperial Adventurer, Liberty Or Death: India's Journey To Independence And Division, Tibet, Tibet: A Personal History Of A Lost Land and The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V.S. Naipaul. French studied at the University of Edinburgh.Sabnavis is chief economist at CARE Ratings

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 14-03-2011)