Emergency Chronicles: Indira Gandhi and Democracy’s Turning Point
by Gyan Prakash
India for the last five years has been in a state of internal siege. The radicalization of its public sphere has barely been noticed in the West. Indeed, Barack Obama, writing about Modi in 2015 for Time’s list of the world’s hundred most influential people, claimed that he “reflects the dynamism and potential of India’s rise” and that he is “determined to help more Indians follow in his path.” Many of the Indians who follow in Modi’s path have seemed more like a lynch mob, hunting in both real and virtual worlds for various enemies of the people. The scapegoats for Modi’s economic failures can include Muslims suspected of eating or storing beef, writers and journalists critical of the regime, and anyone deemed insufficiently patriotic.
Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India
by Sujatha Gidla
Sujatha Gidla’s Ants Among Elephants, which records the life of a Dalit family in the central Indian state of Andhra Pradesh and spans nearly a century, significantly enriches the new Dalit literature in English. Gidla grew up in India and now works as a conductor on the New York City subway. She knew firsthand the poverty and discrimination that several generations of her family had suffered. Defiant in the face of endless cruelty and misery, and tender with its victims, she seems determined to render the truth of a historical experience in all its dimensions, complexity, and nuance. The result is a book that combines many different genres—memoir, history, ethnography, and literature—and is outstanding in the intensity and scale of its revelations.
Why Growth Matters: How Economic Growth in India Reduced Poverty and the Lessons for Other Developing Countries
by Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya
Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya claim that India has been transformed “from a basket case into a powerful engine of growth.” They are convinced that faster growth and freer markets remain the best remedy for poverty, inequality, pollution, and ill-health. A contrasting view—that “there is something defective in India’s ‘path to development’”—and a very different list of priorities appear in Amartya Sen and Jean Drèze’s An Uncertain Glory: India and Its Contradictions.
“Let some people get rich first,” the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping proclaimed a generation ago, inaugurating a strange new phase in his country’s—and the world’s—history. It now seems clear that nowhere has capitalism’s promise to create wealth been affirmed more forcefully than in post–World War II Asia. Three new novels examine the deeper perils and fantasies of an economic system that Asians themselves deem mandatory across the continent.
Watching Sri Lankans parade the Tamil Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran’s mutilated corpse, Rahul Gandhi wondered, “Why they are humiliating this man in this way?” It was this merciful vision that Gandhi, after years of grief and righteous rage, expressed recently as he forgave those who killed his father, Rajiv. Rahul Gandhi may turn out to be another self-seeking dynast. But there is dignity in his dissent today from a worldwide culture of cruelty; and it is a rare reminder that many frozen seas of pity will have to melt before we regain a semblance of civil society.
It is imperative to ask why and how this obscure Canadian academic, who insists that gender and class hierarchies are ordained by nature and validated by science, has suddenly come to be hailed as the West’s most influential public intellectual. Peterson rails against “softness,” arguing that men have been “pushed too hard to feminize,” like other hyper-masculinist thinkers before him who saw compassion as a vice and urged insecure men to harden their hearts against the weak (women and minorities) on the grounds that the latter were biologically and culturally inferior. Peterson’s ageless insights are, in fact, a typical, if not archetypal, product of our own times: right-wing pieties seductively mythologized for our current lost generations.
Donald Trump’s election last year exposed an insidious politics of celebrity, one in which a redemptive personality is projected high above the slow toil of political parties and movements. As his latest tweets about Muslims confirm, this post-political figure seeks, above all, to commune with his entranced white nationalist supporters. Periodically offering them emotional catharsis, a powerful medium of self-expression at the White House, Trump makes sure that his fan base survives his multiple political and economic failures. This may be hard to admit but the path to such a presidency of spectacle and vicarious participation was paved by the previous occupant of the White House.
Growing up in India in the 1970s and 80s, I often heard people in upper-caste middle class circles say that parliamentary democracy was ill-suited to the country. Recoiling from populist politicians who pandered to the poor, many Indians solemnly invoked the example of Singapore’s leader Lee Kuan Yew. Here was a suitably enlightened autocrat whose success in transforming a city-state into a major economic power was apparent to all: clean, shiny, efficient, and prosperous Singapore, the very antithesis of squalor-prone India. Such yearnings for technocratic utopia may seem to have little in common with the middle class protests against “corruption” that recently gained much attention before abruptly losing steam at the end of the year. In fact, all along, there was little about Anna Hazare and his conspicuously middle class followers that suggested support for greater democracy.