Sunday, September 07, 2008

The Indian Renaissance

Book Review

The Indian Renaissance—India’s Rise after a Thousand Years of Decline by Sanjeev Sanyal, World Scientific, 2008, US$ 29.95.

Did you read the title of the book under review? Read it carefully. Because when I received the email to review this book and saw the book’s title, I felt a little daunted. The Indian Renaissance—India’s Rise after a Thousand Years of Decline! Whew! In my mind’s eye, I imagined the book to be heftier than Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indians. But when I finally got a copy of the book in my mail, I was relieved to see its manageable heft. In this timely treatise, Sanjeev Sanyal has made his point in less than 250 pages. That itself says a lot about the author’s prudence given the challenge he had in his hands.

Writing a thousand pages would not have been impossible for Sanjeev (the topic would have justified it) who is an Indian economist based in Singapore. He is currently Deutsche Bank’s regional Chief Economist and Adjunct Fellow of the Institute of Policy Studies, Singapore.

The book’s central thesis, which is largely about India’s economic resurgence, is very straightforward at its core: During the “golden age”, prior to the 11th century, India was a country that encouraged innovation and change. By virtue of that, India exercised huge influence, both economically and culturally (the author calls the India of those days as the United States of today), in the entire known world, especially in South East Asia (through the Silk route and the Southern Spice trade route). According to Angus Maddison’s estimates, India accounted for 33% of the world economy in 1AD. Between 1000 and 1820, India’s share of the world gross domestic product (GDP) fell from 29% to 16%. The author concludes that “India’s position was long in decline well before the colonial period. The industrial revolution and colonial occupation only sped up the process.”

The question Sanjeev asks is this: why did this decline in the thriving Indian civilization set in?

Even though Sanjeev seems to agree with V S Naipaul’s “India—A Wounded Civilization” thesis, he argues that per se it was not the Muslim invasions or the British colonialism that that set India back on the path of backwardness. “A change in cultural attitudes by the 11th century created a fossilized society obsessed with regulating all aspects of life according to fixed rules,” he posits. “Not surprisingly, this discouraged the spirit of innovation and led to a long and painful decline. India fell behind not just as an economy but as a civilization.”

Even after India’s Independence in 1947, India’s potential was not unleashed due to the Nehruvian policies, says Sanyal. According to him, the turning point came in India’s destiny in 1991 when India was forced to open itself out to the world. By opening up, Sanjeev means not just the opening up of the economy but all aspects of life—and how it coincided with the communications revolution: cable TV, mobile phones and the Internet. This change was heralded, if you will, by Bengal reformers like Ram Mohun Roy and others in early 19th century when the country witnessed important social reforms and the introduction of the English language.

In the backdrop of a glorious past, Sanjeev provides an analysis of what happened after Independence and how the 1991’s liberalization unleashed India’s entrepreneurial potential. Especially interesting is a chapter on the great Indian middle class in which Sanjeev debunks the myth of the Indian middle class’ size. He claims that the “300 million” size of the Indian middle class is exaggerated, which is quite convincing. What he does not examine is whether this BPO and KPO spawned middle class is solid in its base or will it be washed away by the wave of global economic depression.

To buttress his claims and arguments, Sanjeev quotes a lot of research throughout the book, from ancient text to modern-day research papers, from Kautilya to Surjit Bhalla. Luckily, he has kept the use of footnotes to the minimum and despite the parading of statistics (which is necessary for a book of this nature), the reading is not hampered and there are hardly any digressions.

Towards the end of the book, Sanjeev paints a bright picture for India’s future. He points out that India needs institutional reforms to cope with the changes brought about by economic prosperity but perhaps he relies too heavily on the moral courage of the middle class to make it happen. He also does not invest much thought into the social divisions that beset today’s India.

Even though Indians can rightfully take pride in its current ascendance, there is no point quarrelling with the past except perhaps in drawing lessons for charting the future course. Perhaps that’s what Sanjeev is trying to do in this book.

However, this is not a new idea. All civilizations, as Edward Gibbon had noted, go through cycles of rise and falls. Centuries ago, India went through it and before it many others such as the Greek, Persian and the Islamic civilizations. Even today, as India and China are rising, one could see many already heralding the end of the Pax Americana.

Even though this is an intelligently written book, it skips many historical facts especially from the last thousand years. The consolidation of India under the Mughals and the administrative set up that followed, honed by the British with their laws and technology (Railways, Telegraph) was significant for India’s journey into modernism. Except for the early Mongol and Afghan marauders, the Mughals did not take away the wealth of India. The British did, and hence the drain of wealth of theory, to finance their industrial revolution. Before they built Calcutta and Bombay, it were the British who caused the de-urbanization and de-industrialization of India—otherwise Indian manufactured calicoes were famous the world over. Therefore, to ignore the achievements of the last thousand years flies in the face of history. If the last thousand years were a black hole in India’s history, many of India’s current cultural achievements would not have come about: How else can you trace the origins of the Taj Mahal, Hyderabadi Biryani, and the songs of Taare Zameen Pe? And could the Vikram Seths and Rushdies and Arundhati Roys be possible without the influences of the last few centuries?

Also, while the author flogs Nehru and his advisor Mahalanobis for their “inward-looking cultural attitude” and socialist policies, some credit should be given to them for having the vision to found the IITs and IIMs—the educational institutions that irrigated the field of India’s resurgence.

Besides the book’s core arguments, what impresses me most are the author’s astute observations about the modern developments in India—the way he has described the decline of Calcutta and the emergence of unplanned ‘planned’ townships such as Gurgaon is honest and courageous (Dazzled by the glitz and glamour of the high-rises and malls, quite often the upper middle class Indians tend to overlook underlying problems that mainly affect the hoi polloi—it takes a Sanjeev to write about the lack of municipal waste disposal systems and lack of pavements in Gurgaon, for example).

Whether one agrees or disagrees with Sanjeev’s propositions, the book is worth one’s attention for its sheer intelligence and historical sweep. Subjects like history and economics might not turn everyone on, but believe me, this is one book that can make every Indian heart race—with excitement and pride, and hope in India’s future.

An edited version of this book review appeared in India Se, September 2008.

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