A tour of duty in India is worth at least one book for every journalist from the exalted community of foreign correspondents. The decade of globalisation, and particularly the last four years of the so-called war on terror, have stoked worldwide interest in what goes on in these dark and distant corners of the world where the majority of humanity lurks. The nature of the flourishing marketplace for books about the developing world provides testament to the fact that the cash value of any experience gathered here lies in its vulgarisation.
Daniel Lak has parlayed his many years in India as correspondent for the BBC into a racy narrative. Anybody imagining that he is embarked on the grandiose enterprise of identifying and capturing the inner dynamic of social change in India will be quickly disabused by his secondary title, which pitches the ambitions of the book at a more modest level. Lak’s aim is to record his own experiences as a journalist covering the wide and complex canvas that is India. He does this by presenting a sequence of snapshots which help describe the social dynamics that have worked a major transformation in recent years. What Lak seeks to avoid is very clearly stated in his introduction: he does not want the reader to believe that she “will be able to understand fully the process of change in this huge, syncretic, fissiparous and utterly unique democracy.”
Disarmed by this introduction, the reader is free to join Lak as he travels up to the “achingly beautiful” environs of Kashmir. She can share his frustration at the relentless role-play a journalist has to engage in in the troubled valley. Most encounters in Kashmir, Lak records, are shrouded in layers of camouflage, since everybody is practiced at dealing with the media, and deeply conscious of the need to live his role as the victim, caught in the crossfire of an epic struggle for identity and legitimacy.
Later, Lak engages one of India’s leading demographers in a stimulating breakfast conversation. He learns that the abysmal state of India’s welfare indicators hides deeper and more unpleasant truths in its folds. He learns that ‘bimaru’ (or sickly) – an insulting reference in normal circumstances – has become quite commonplace when discussing the performance of those states that drag down the national average. His initial discomfort with the term is dispelled when he is assured that it has acquired an entirely neutral, social-scientific connotation since its coining.
These revelations lead the author to make the obligatory trips to the software boomtowns of Bangalore and Hyderabad, where he encounters a different sensibility: an unapologetic attitude towards the enrichment of the individual as the engine of social change. Lak comes away aglow from these encounters, but then finds his spirits slump at the sight of the civic fiasco outside the scrubbed campuses of the IT industry.
Lak journeys to the disaster zone that was Orissa after the cyclone of 1999, and despairs that anything can improve where the human spirit itself seems defeated. In Orissa, those stricken by calamity seemed to have no recourse but to wait passively for deliverance from a paternalistic and benevolent government, which then fails spectacularly in meeting its most basic obligations. In earthquake -affected Gujarat in 2000, on the other hand, he experiences a different spirit – one of ‘can do’ self-assurance and determination to make the best of a bad situation, even when the government’s response is lukewarm or worse.
The 50-year anniversary of India’s independence was an occasion for the international media to engage in much peripatetic wandering about the country. It was a context that allowed Lak and his peers much latitude, since that anniversary celebration was strictly de novo. It had no rules, and every media organisation was free to set its own template. Unsurprisingly, the themes of democracy flourishing amidst grinding poverty and world-class science taking root in an environment blighted by blind faith and superstition, became quite the dominant motifs in international media coverage.
The following years brought India the notoriety of being presumptuous enough to break into the exclusive club of nuclear powers. Soon afterwards, there was the trauma of rejection by the world’s single superpower, which had arrogated to itself the authority to determine the destiny of all nations. But fast on the heels of this disappointment came the benediction of a US presidential visit and an effusive reception into the intimacies of the global hegemon. India had, in a sense, arrived, and the poster-boy of that new global status was Chandrababu Naidu, the long-serving chief minister – or, as he would have preferred, chief executive – of Andhra Pradesh.
It is a mystifying aspect of Lak’s work that after ranging widely over the Indian landscape, commenting on changing sexual mores, environmental degradation and the blindness to reality that faith often induces, he should end his book with a distinctly apologetic postscript. It is quite likely, he concedes, that the reader would be seriously discomfited by the enthusiasm he displays for the man who was chief minister of Andhra Pradesh during his many visits to the state. By the time of the book’s writing, Naidu had lost power, “a victim of his perceived obsession with information technology and the rich of his state capital, to the detriment of the many poor people among his electorate.” Perhaps this short recantation of faith was penned by Lak in a mood of journalistic ire at the fact that he had allowed a politician of rather shallow convictions to overwhelm a robust reportorial judgment acquired over years of practice. Perhaps, but Lak remains convinced that Naidu’s path is the way to go.
Change does not take place through the incantation of mantras, mystical spells that carry humanity along in an ineffable divine purpose. The social change Lak sees in India is driven by agents who work with a defined purpose and an implicit vision of their own role and position in the wider domain. The economic reforms of which Naidu served as the perfect embodiment were born out of the rising expectations of the Indian middle class, itself a creation of four decades of economic dirigisme, when the state served as a valuable buffer against the depredations of both national and international capitalism. At a certain stage in its growth, however, the cosseting embrace of the state proved all too irksome. The middle class had to break free to achieve its full potential and in that moment of revelation, it launched into a scathing denunciation of all the principles from which it had long drawn comfort.
In other words, having ascended to a higher stratum, the middle class chose to kick away the ladder rather than allow other segments the opportunity to emulate its climb. Once coddled by the state and given every opportunity to acquire the skills that would enable it to take on the world – even at the cost of depriving the masses in poverty the basics of health and education – the Indian middle class has turned against the hand that fed it. Reading between the lines of Lak’s book, it is clear that he finds the confluence of private wealth and public squalor, the isolation of islands of enlightenment in the vastness of the country’s decrepitude, one of the most dis-quieting features of modern-day India. The way ahead, he believes, lies in forging a new civic compact between the upwardly mobile segments and those who live out of sight in the morass of official neglect.
Perhaps Lak saw this philosophy incipient in Naidu, and realised from the latter’s chastening electoral defeat that it was not even halfway complete in its conception. Perhaps in future years, there will still be occasion for other actors to enter the political arena and introduce the necessary changes to the paradigm of governance and accountability. Nobody would like to believe that the grim realities of Indian society are an encumbrance that will inevitably snuff out the ongoing awakening amongst India’s elite. Lak evidently believes, after his maddening and mystifying excursions through India, that there is still a sliver of hope to cling to.