The National Malaise

Article excerpt

Stanley Wolpert writes of the "mixed legacy" of India's history (Review, Winter 2011), but his account suffers from triumphalism. His attribution of India's survival to an essentially permanent civilization is reminiscent of Mark Twain's hyperbolic remarks on his encounter with the ancient city of Varanasi. Despite his summary of developments in India since 1991, his piece retains the quasi-mystical reverence once characteristic of a certain Western reading of India (as opposed to those who bemoaned India's filth and poverty).

Wolpert's article notwithstanding, accounts of India in Western newspapers and books have evolved considerably since 1927, when Katherine Mayo published Mother India, an enormously popular book Gandhi likened to a "drain-inspector's report." These days, views on India can more or less be placed in two camps. One, chiefly held by newspaper journalists, is preoccupied with India's economic vigor, status as a rising power, and importance as an ally for the West. Although founded in reality, this view is often excessively roseate. The opposing account by left-wing Indians who perhaps curiously choose to write for a mainly Western audience castigates the Indian State, accusing it of collusion with big business and foreign governments to transform India into the United States' capitalist tool. Twin "evils" of capitalism and globalization dominate this rhetorical discourse.

A less ideological reading of India's recent history suggests the insufficiency of triumphalism and the falsity of the anti-capitalist account. Professor Jagdish Bhagwati dismissed the anti-globalization writings of Pankaj Mishra, a prominent Indian voice in the Western press, as "fiction masquerading as non-fiction." Wolpert, for his part, bizarrely concludes that the massive corruption scandals of the past few years notwithstanding, India is more prone to "pitfalls of power" than the United Kingdom or the United States.

Here in India, only the deeply declining Left Parties still seriously oppose economic reforms or a closer US partnership. In cities, India's growth profoundly benefited even the poorest. …