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India: The Rise of an Asian Giant

Review by: Shashank Joshi, Harvard University

Dietmar Rothermund, India: The Rise of an Asian Giant, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).

Dietmar Rothermund opens this wide-ranging study of India by setting out his qualifications. Arriving in 1960, he interviewed the country’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, after a year in the country. From 1968 to 2001, Rothermund taught South Asian History at the South Asian Institute of Heidelberg University. He possesses a list of publications of intimidating length, and his historical writings are interdisciplinary. It is apparent that his credentials as an Indianist are impeccable. This volume, for an educated but general audience, has the goal of “tracing the rise of India as an Asian giant” (ix). Too late for publication, this ascendance was crystallized in October 2008 with the conclusion of American efforts to legitimize the Indian nuclear arsenal. In actuality, much of the book is preoccupied not with India’s strength but instead the prehistory of this newfound stature, and the familiar shortages, failures, and threats that continue to plague the country.

The eighteen slim chapters that make up this book are more extended vignettes than comprehensive surveys, offering a short narrative built around a handful of examples and statistics. The effect is not unlike reading a slightly drier but more careful version of the stories found in the weekend supplements of broadsheets, in which the growth of, say, the Indian software industry will be feted amongst extensive quotes from corporate figures like Nandan Nilekani or Narayan Murthi. This thematic flitting deeply fragments the text, while simultaneously enabling Rothermund to traverse an incredible number of topics.

The topics covered might be grouped into the five areas of domestic politics, foreign security and economic policy, emerging and declining industries, demography, and culture. On each, Rothermund outlines a micro-history of the issue since independence, followed by a reasonably colorful account of some salient aspects of the contemporary situation. The approach is relentlessly balanced, detailing both the opportunities and “challenges” presented to the country. The epithet of “Asian Giant” is obviously incongruous with some of these problems. Rothermund paints the ascendance of multiple regional parties and national coalitions as well suited to a heterogeneous nation, but this optimism conceals the sometimes paralyzing consequences of fractionalization. Few such problems hinder the other Asian “Giant” to the North. But Rothermund does not demur from his judgment that India is indeed a giant, growing rapidly, more assertive in world affairs, displaying considerable political adaptability and enjoying growing reserves of “soft power.”

Rothermund’s chapter on Indian political parties is superb. It concisely describes the pre-independence roots of the Congress Party, its long entrenchment and domination by Nehru, its eventual decline, and the very recent phenomenon of caste-based parties in the North. This historical overview captures both the grand sweep of Indian politics and the ossification of power and fracturing of alliances, but also the iconic moments and individual decisions that punctuate that long-term change. I have seen no better short introduction to the often arcane details of Indian politics, with its litany of acronyms and dynastic cast. Similarly, Rothermund is clearly at his strongest when constructing a historical narrative. The first substantive chapter creatively draws on historical sociology (Barrington Moore) and prior scholarship to give a persuasive account of why Indian peasants supported constitutional democracy rather than revolution, and how communal faction was both indigenously formed and externally exploited. The book’s conclusions are anodyne but sage: India needs universal primary education, better infrastructure, cleaner water, land reform, and political devolution to villages.

The book has defects. First, I am not persuaded that any overarching point emerges. There are notes of optimism throughout, notably in Rothermund’s conviction that post-Nehruvian openness is an opportunity to be seized. But these are tempered by the prefatory insight that “democratic process can give rise to new political constellations in a fractionalized society” (p. xiii). Throughout the book, Rothermund stresses that the possibility of transformational endogenous change is ever-present, and its trajectory is not linear but complex. Some reviewers – such as William Leith writing in The Spectator – have labeled Rothermund the anticipator of a great future for India. The epilogue, upbeat in tone but bleak in its recitation of India’s most serious problems, does not bear this out. Though this equivocation is unsatisfying, it would be undesirable to see a sort of futurology replace the sober analysis Rothermund attempts.

Second, Rothermund’s style is terse. A few cautious metaphors appear in concluding paragraphs, but the writing reflects economy rather than any noteworthy eloquence. Many paragraphs comprise reams of statistics, unassisted by tables or charts. These are difficult to parse. Moreover, the book suffers from a lack of detailed maps. Without these, many readers will fail to locate the “Mahandi and Pennar valleys”, or “Kathiawar” (p. 137). For a study that acknowledges enormous geographical variation (in particular between the largely poor, caste-ridden and uneducated North of India and the conversely thriving South) this is a regrettable omission.

Finally, the nature of its audience – educated and perhaps academic, though non-specialist, readers – means many arguments are poorly cited. We are told President Johnson “betrayed” India (p. 78), but there is no explanatory footnote to justify such an assertion. Rothermund says that Friedrich List was widely quoted by Indian nationalists (p. 76). This is fascinating, and I do not doubt the veracity of the claim, but specialists will be frustrated by the thinness of references. There are also absurd forays into unnecessary technical language: “vector-type sequential processing” and “lattice gauge theory” in a chapter on supercomputers, for example (p. 112). It is perhaps in comparison with some of the most recent general writings on India that the book suffers most. Rothermund’s conclusions are undoubtedly the product of many decades – nearly half a century – of scholarship on the country. On matters of social science and historical narrative, this is apparent. Slow-moving causes are not the provenance of journalism, and Rothermund’s academic analysis of Indian demography stands out. The history of Indian parties likewise benefits. But this is not so when the author engages in cultural analysis, and his insights into the film industry, the middle class Weltanschauung or print journalism are neither buttressed by serious data nor especially pithy or original. Edward Luce’s In Spite of the Gods or Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City – to name two of the finest books by journalists – capture the Indian sensibility and its kaleidoscopic variation with much more sensitivity and certainly possess a considerable aesthetic edge over Rothermund’s circumspect prose.

Around six months after the publication of India: The Rise of an Asian Giant, terrorism in Mumbai and the subsequent sharpening of Indo-Pakistani relations – redolent of the 2001-2 standoff – brought to the fore India’s centrality in world affairs and its precarious internal cohesion. Then, as before, the political and social entropy failed to spread. Rothermund’s book underscores why the details of that instability, and the possibility of its mitigation, are so important. As a profile of a country, it is surpassed by other texts, but it sits in an important niche between reportage (which is situated at the cutting edge of writing on India) and academic rigor. Few journalists incorporate such scholarship, and few scholars cover such a range of material in an accessible manner. It is for this reason that the book warrants priority amongst the burgeoning volumes documenting India’s rise.

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