India: The Rise of an Asian Giant Dietmar Rothermund

Yale, pp.274, 20

William Leith on Dietmar Rothermund’s account of India

If anybody knows about modern India, it’s Dietmar Rothermund. He’s the Professor Emeritus of South Asian history at the University of Heidelberg. He is, as he puts it himself, ‘a witness who has watched India for nearly half a century’. He first visited the place in 1960, and managed to interview Jalaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, twice. ‘I am convinced that India has a great future,’ he says. I’ll get back to that in a minute.

In contrast to Rothermund, I knew virtually nothing about modern India until I opened his book. I’d seen the Attenborough film, with Ben Kingsley as Gandhi. I’d read other bits and pieces about Gandhi, and remembered a few facts, principally that he’d slept in the same bed as underage girls in order to test his resolve when it came to celibacy. I knew that India was full of call centres. In fact, while I was reading this book, I answered the phone several times to Indian voices, wondering if I was interested in this or that. I also knew that, on a flat map, India looks much smaller than it actually is. It looks about twice the size of Spain, whereas in fact it’s more like the bottom half of South America.

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So if anyone is qualified to quibble with Rothermund about his conviction that India has a great future, it’s not me. But still, after reading this book, which is a meticulous historian’s collection of facts, backed by a lifetime’s work, I feel the need to quibble. To me, India does not look like a country with a great future. It looks like an enormous country always on the verge of enormous trouble. If the facts in Rothermund’s book are anything to go by, India seems to be a place of almost unparalleled volatility.

Where can I start? Well, let’s look at some first impressions. India has been a democratic, independent nation since 1950, when Nehru became Prime Minister. Before this, it was run by the British government, and before that by the British East India Company, and before that by tribal leaders called Mughals. In other words, India’s history took a sharp turn when the Brits arrived, at first to milk it of resources, and then, later, to modernise it, for good or ill, along paternalistic lines. And clearly, India has never come close to getting over this.

Think of this: Nehru desperately wanted India to be a stable country, and yet his daughter, Indira Gandhi, and grandson, Rajiv Gandhi, who both became Prime Minister after him, were assassinated — Indira by Sikhs, Rajiv by Tamils. This book is full of assassinations, nasty acts of political revenge, and insanely complex systems of loyalty and enmity. It’s like the Five Families in The Godfather. But it’s not just about internal strife. There’s lots of external strife, too. India always seems to be having bitchy rows with other countries — China, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, even the US.

Since the 1960s, India has been bullied by China, and constantly taunted by Pakistan; meanwhile, India has looked to Russia as an ally, which has annoyed America. In the Seventies, Nixon sent a nuclear-armed aircraft carrier into the Bay of Bengal to make his point: don’t get too close to those damn Ruskies! Meanwhile, Pakistan struts around, claiming to be backed by China. Now India has built nuclear weapons jointly with Russia, just as Pakistan built its nuclear arsenal with aid from America. In this book is a recently taken picture of Indian Brahmos cruise missiles — the name is taken from the Brahmaputra and Moskwa rivers — openly on display at a recent Republic Day celebration. There are civilian crowds in the background. Help!

Meanwhile, most of India is still grindingly poor, with a 35 per cent rate of illiteracy at the last census, and 23 per cent of its urban population living in slums. In one state, Kerala, only 16 per cent have running water. But some people are making vast amounts of money, particularly in computer software, diamonds and textiles. India makes a lot of our training shoe uppers and seatbelts. Incidentally, Indians don’t have many cars, per capita, themselves — in a country of a billion people, just over a million are sold annually. Nine motorbikes are sold for every car. Indians are also the champion texters of the world — millions own mobile phones, but, sensibly, lots of people send texts to save money. And their media is heading for ad-backed celebrity hell faster, and more comprehensively, than ours.

Does all of this make you, along with Professor Rothermund, convinced that India has a great future? I’m not as confident as the Professor. Just looking at Rothermund’s facts, you can see the problem immediately. It’s that India, with its vast, cheap workforce and Westernised elite, depends on First World business cycles for its wealth. This gives it great business opportunities, but also makes it terribly vulnerable. As recently as the 1990s, there was a wave of suicides among cotton farmers when the cotton price took a dive, courtesy of the global market. The main point about the rise of India, it seems to me, is that it’s not based on the rise of Indian things, but on India’s ability to sell stuff to the uncaring, treacherous West. And that can’t be good. But what do I know? I’ve only read one book on the subject.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated