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From Biography to Political Economy

India: A Portrait by Patrick French (New Delhi: Penguin Books), 2011; pp xii+436, Rs 699.





India and China are, of course, the only

From Biography to Political Economy

two billion-plus economies, and between them, they account for about 37% of the world’s population. And most importantly, Pulin B Nayak even though the per capita income of

his is an ambitious book on the contemporary political economy of India by an author who has already written on India to considerable acclaim. Patrick French’s 1997 Liberty or Death: India’s Journey to Independence and Division was a proficient and nuanced account of the end of British rule and the Partition of the subcontinent. In 1994, he published an award-winning biography of Sir Francis Younghusband, a colonel in the British army who was one of the foremost players of the so-called Great Game between the British and the Russians for control of central Asia, and who also organised some of the early assaults on Mount Everest. More recently, he wrote The World Is What It Is: The Authorised Biography of V SNaipaul, acclaimed as one of the most engaging examples of the genre.

The jacket cover of India: A Portrait has the following description: “An Intimate Biography of 1.2 Billion People”. This indeed is what this book is about. There are stories of lives ranging from that of Suneetha Kukka, a surrendered Telugu militant, whose parents were landless labourers and who loves revolutionary songs, to Amrit Kaur, daughter of Beant Singh, the assassin of Indira Gandhi; from a Sonia Antonia Maino from the poor industrial suburb of Orbassano on the outskirts of Turin who at the age of 18 went to Cambridge, England,

Economic & Political Weekly

august 20, 2011

India: A Portrait by Patrick French (New Delhi: Penguin Books), 2011; pp xii+436, Rs 699.

to attend a language school to Sunil Bharti

Mittal, the present-day high-profile tele

com czar, who is now worth $8 billion.

These are all diverse and seemingly dispa

rate stories about innumerable actors, but

together they are all about a land where, in

the words of the author (p ix), “Some sort

of unleashing was taking place, the effects

of which were not yet clear, and the coun

try appeared to be passing through epic

and long-awaited changes”.

French writes with felicity and acuity;

the background research for this work

must have involved much painstaking care.

The text is divided into three parts: “Rash

tra”, “Laxmi” and “Samaj”, seen through

the prisms of the political, the economic

and the sociological. The book has arrived

at a time when world attention is centred

on India, not least because the Indian

economy during 2004 to 2008 was able to

sustain a gross domestic product (GDP)

growth rate of more than 9 percentage

points. This occurred when most advanced

capitalist countries in Europe and North

America were experiencing a relative slow

down in their economies. Along with Chi

na, India was the only other major economy

that was recording such unprecedented

high growth.

vol xlvi no 34

China is considerably ahead of India’s, they both are low-wage economies that possess the potential for substantially altering the structure of world trade and payments, as has already been evident in the recent international financial turmoil. Seen from this perspective, the interest on India should therefore be understandable, especially for a historian who has written about the sequence of events leading up to the Partition.

Reading through the book under review, it becomes clear that the author has been travelling within India for a fair length of time, at least since 1986. He was present at one of Sonia Gandhi’s first public rallies in 1998 in the Ram Lila Ground in Delhi after she decided to make an entry into active politics, several years after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. Around 80,000 people, the author included, waited for five hours as a qawwal entertained the crowd; giant cut-outs of the late Rajiv striding forward with his arm in the air reposed besides a huge portrait of Sonia doing namaste.

Sonia Gandhi arrived, accompanied by Rahul and Priyanka, then in their mid20s; the crowd swelled forward against the bamboo barriers. Sonia began her speech in heavily accented Hindi, telling the story of her life and how she had sacrificed her husband for India, going on to say that she had arrived in India with a return ticket, but now the ticket, like her


past, was lost in the mists of time. Delhi was now the place of her second birth.

The author visited Andhra Pradesh in 2002 to meet the then Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu, as also Maoists in Warangal and other destabilised parts of Andhra. He met Gummadi Vittal Rao, nicknamed Gaddar, a bank clerk turned balladeer who drew thousands of people to his concerts, as well as one Madhu, a “squat and stunted man with a look of terror on his face” (p 182), physically destroyed by poor nourishment, who had joined the Maoists after being beaten by his landlord. The author also met Suneetha Kukka, all of 19, after she had surrendered in exchange for the Rs 20,000 bounty that was on her own head, and agreed to abandon Maoism. In more recent times, in 2009, French met Kobad Ghandy in Tihar jail. His guide on the visit was S A R Geelani, earlier charged with involvement in the attack on the Indian Parliament and later acquitted.

Yet later, French met Sunil Bharti Mittal, the hugely successful telecom tycoon, whose manner he describes as “direct, unpretentious”. The author writes with candour and balance about such meetings, making a number of rather perceptive and penetrating observations.

Politics and Economics

One of the points that French hammers in with force is the extent to which family politics has seeped into the core of the Indian party system. This is not an original argument but one that needs to be periodically reconsidered to understand the extent of the malaise. Every once in a while lately, some major functionary of the Congress Party will suggest that Rahul Gandhi now be called upon to take over the reins of government. But the Jawaharlal, Indira, Sanjay, Rajiv, Sonia, Rahul trail is not the only one. There are others: Lalu, Rabari and their sundry nephews; Charan Singh, Ajit Singh; Govind Vallabh Pant and K C Pant; Karunanidhi and his extended family; Deve Gowda and his son; Biju Patnaik, Naveen Patnaik; Mulayam Singh Yadav, Akhilesh Yadav, and many, many more.

The hereditary system goes beyond politics, into music, sundry professional callings like carpentry and fishing, and even Bollywood. Possibly, the phenomenon has something to do with the Indian setting. (The author observes that the Bollywood movie, Luck by Chance, about young actors who make it on merit rather than family connections, itself starred Farhan Akhtar and Konkona Sen Sharma, children of famous parents.)

In politics, the dependence on the family system seems to have progressively increased over the past 50 years. Examining the present Lok Sabha, French notes that “of the thirty-eight youngest MPs, thirtythree had arrived with the help of mummydaddy” (p 120). Of the 208-strong contingent of Congress MPs, 23 are women. This works out to a low percentage, barely 11%, but the interesting fact is that 19 out of the 23 are either wives or daughters of earlier Congress worthies. Of the remaining four, Chandresh Kumari Katoch is the daughter of the erstwhile Maharaja of Jodhpur. There is merit in the author’s fear that India’s house of representatives might ultimately turn out to be not a Lok Sabha but a Vansh Sabha, a house of dynasty.

French devotes considerable space to the economic vision of two of the key figures of India’s planning, namely, Jawaharlal Nehru and Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis. However, the second part of the book, entitled “Laxmi”, opens with the economic vision of John Maynard Keynes. Keynes did have an India connection, though he never set foot in India. After graduating in mathematics from Cambridge, he sat for the civil service exams in 1906 and took up his first job, at age 23, at the India Office, where he stayed for two years. He worked in the revenue, statistics and commerce department but seems to have had enough spare time to finish his Cambridge dissertation on probability theory. Much later, in 1913, Keynes wrote his first major work in economics, Indian Currency and Finance, a defining theoretical exposition on the gold exchange standard. He later accepted a seat on a royal commission to enquire into Indian currency and finance. He strongly suggested the setting up of an Indian reserve bank, an idea that was to be taken up more than 20 years later, in 1935.

Keynes’ fundamental economic project, of course, was directed at making capitalism work, but his focus was entirely on the working of mature capitalist economies, like those of England, Germany and the

august 20, 2011

United States (US). His other major contribution, to which he had devoted the last years of his life, was to comprehensively alter the system of international payments by setting up the Bretton Woods institutions, which began functioning just on the eve of India’s independence. No few ideological battles have been fought in India through the past half century and right up till the present time on the extent to which Indian economic policymaking should or should not abide by the prescriptions of these venerable institutions.

Why did the Indian economy go wrong in the decades after Independence? French holds the view that it was the kind of dirigiste dogma propagated by the likes of Nehru and Mahalanobis that caused the difficulty. Nehru was attracted to Fabian socialist ideas propagated by Sidney and Beatrice Webb, H G Wells and G B Shaw. French thinks that Nehru’s economic thinking was a “hardened version of the social democratic outlook of Clement Attlee’s postwar Labour government” (p 137). Nehru did not believe in Gandhi’s idea of village industry and a spinning wheel in every hut; he believed in new, fast, scientific progress. A visit he paid to Soviet Russia in 1927 left him much impressed, and he wanted to introduce the same approach of medium-term econo mic planning, with the state to play a central role. After January 1948, Gandhi was no longer in the political firmament and Nehru’s views therefore held untrammelled sway.

Nehru’s ideas were to later find resonance in the work of a Cambridge compatriot, Prasanta Mahalanobis, who took a first in physics from King’s College a few years after Nehru. Mahalonobis later gained stature as a front-rank statistician while fancying himself more as an economic planner. Nehru was impressed with his knowledge

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Economic & Political Weekly


of mathematics and his self-confidence. Mahalanobis in the mid-1950s suggested a mathematical model of economic planning in which the growth rate of the economy at large is driven by the share of investment being channelised into the capital goods sector of the economy. This was to form the theoretical basis of the Second Five Year Plan (1956-61).

Mahalanobis was widely known to be a product of the Bengal renaissance, and close to Rabindranath Tagore. He had pursued subjects like the pseudo-science of eugenics and in particular, the racial origins of Bengalis. In matters economic he had great faith in large-scale input-output matrices, the bigger the better, to precisely map out the development path of large complex economies like that of India. Elaborating on his ideas in the mid-1950s, he was confident that full employment would be ensured within 10 years. He even proposed the creation of a Labour Reserve Service, with a giant pool of surplus workers on half-pay basis to be shifted around the country from project to project.

The Mahalanobis model was based on some heroic, and rather unrealistic, assumptions. For example, it was presumed that all factories would work at full capacity, that all entrepreneurship could be brought under government auspices, and that prices could be fixed. All of this was in sharp contrast to the Keynesian vision of accepting risk and potential failure to be an intrinsic part of economic reality. The Mahalanobis model was supposed to run on a command structure, by pure administrative fiat, where the central planners were supposed to be endowed with full information on the tastes and preferences of consumers. There was no scope for mismatch of demand and supply or possible waste. The chief contention of French seems to be that this kind of economic and planning regime suppressed the latent potential of the Indian entrepreneurial class. This can hardly be disputed.


It is when French delves deep into the interiors of the country to explore the precise form of the economic and social exploitation that some of the horrors come starkly alive. There is the story of a certain Venkatesh, a dalit who worked in a quarry

Economic & Political Weekly

august 20, 2011

in Karnataka, and took a loan from his sheer intellectual calibre and attainment,
employer, which he was unable to repay. Ambedkar was decidedly not second to
To ensure that the man and his family did the stellar range of pre-Independence fig
not run away, the boss’ goons took him to ures, not excepting Gandhi and Nehru. At
a welder in Mysore and had a pair of fet- Columbia, Ambedkar had come in close
ters made to his size, linked by a bulky contact with Edwin Seligman, a well
metal chain. The cost of the fetters and known figure in theoretical public finance
welding was added to the debt burden of of those times. Ambedkar was of course
Venkatesh. The bolts were welded over, so one of the chief architects of India’s
that they could never be undone. “They Constitution. Yet as Omprakash Valmiki,
wrapped a cloth around my ankles, put on the well-known dalit poet remarks to
the cuffs, bolted them and welded the bolt”, French, on events like the Republic Day
Venkatesh told French (p 236). “The thing in the 1960s, one heard about Gandhi,
about wearing chained fetters is that you Nehru, Tagore, Patel, Rajendra Prasad,
can’t put on underwear or trousers. You Vivekananda and so on but hardly ever
can only wear a lungi and you must take about Ambedkar.
tiny steps.” Venkatesh remained in that The last chapter is no exception to the
state for 21 months, till a group of farming stories that abound throughout the book.
activists chanced upon him and secured It starts off with the story of the dabbawallas
his release. of Mumbai, who transport 2,00,000 dabbas
When French asked Venkatesh why he containing fresh home-cooked food from
did not report to the police, he laughed. home to office in Mumbai, without fault,
The police and the tahsildar were in the rain or shine. Their motto is “war against
pay of the boss. At the time French met time”. Business schools the world over
him, Venkatesh and his wife had become treat them as a unique Indian business
beggars outside a temple, and lived in a model, but they are also a unique social
row of bad houses given by the government. model, Hindu Marathas, from the warrior
Venkatesh’s neighbours, French found, were caste of Maharashtra. When French meets
less sympathetic than one might have Gangaram Talekar, the secretary of the
expected. One woman said that people dabbawalla association, he is asked to pay
kept running away from the quarry and Rs 5,000 to watch them in operation, the
did not do their work. “The owner had no first time that he had to pay to do an inter
choice but to chain them”. view in India, he confesses.
Even a cursory look at Indian society, The book ends with the poignant and
considered in the last four chapters of tragic story of the great Tamil brahmin
French’s book under the section heading mathematician S Ramanujan, who died of
“Samaj”, would point to deep-seated tuberculosis prematurely at the age of 32.
social and economic inequalities. During Ramanujan’s case merely symbolises the
the first decade of the 20th century, some great potential the country could tap if it
83% of sub-judges were brahmin though were to ensure adequate nutrition, health
they comprised barely 3% of the popula facilities and education for its vast masses.
tion. At the end of the first world war, 72% There is plenty more in French’s wonder
of the brahmins were literate, against less ful panorama on the Indian society, econo
than 4% of the Paraiyars, or Pariahs. The my and polity. The author delves deep into
Dravidian ideologue Periyar E V Ramas the serious anomalies and deep fissures in
wamy believed upper-caste Hindus to be a the Indian samaj, in its arthaniti and rajniti,
greater threat than the British. eschewing prescriptive value judgments.
If there is one epochal new feature in In the best tradition of contemporary re
the social and political firmament in India portage, French records situations and
in the past quarter century, it has been the events as they are, or as he finds them to
rise of the dalits under the leadership of be, without judgment. This is a rather dif
the late Kanshi Ram and Chief Minister ficult balance to achieve, but French pulls
Mayawati. The intellectual progenitor of it off splendidly.
the dalit movement in Maharashtra and
also in north India is unquestionably Pulin B Nayak ( is at
Bhimrao Ambedkar, a Mahar. In terms of the Delhi School of Economics.
vol xlvi no 34 33

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