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Book Review: In Spite of the Gods by Ed Luce

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Edward Luce spent five years in India as South Asia bureau chief for the Financial Times. In his words during that time, Indians were, with few exceptions, "unreservedly kind, open, hospitable and tolerant." In return, Luce has gifted India this book – In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India.

The title suggests the subject matter is full of contradictions – just how exactly is the rise of India "strange"? Those apparent contradictions are explained so well, that Luce makes my job of recommending this book easy. If you can read only one book on India, make it this one.

This is a book about Indian society, politics, and economy. But it starts with history – specifically, the history of post-independence India. Gandhi and Ambedkar are mentioned briefly, but it is Nehru that receives the most attention. To him, Luce ascribes three enduring legacies – secularism, democracy (through universal franchise), and socialism. The first two proved to be propitious for India; the last still retains a vice-like, often tragic, grip on the masses.

In this history lesson, no topic is taboo. Luce expends considerable ink on the caste system, using it to explain contemporary Indian politics. The rise of India's lower castes in politics — and in general — is used to explain much, such as why the state cannot be blind to the identify of its citizens. Caste-based politics strengthen caste identity, thus countering the economic forces of homogenization resulting from upward mobility and economic interaction.

On the economy Luce looks at relations with the US, China and the rest of the world both externally (discussing nuclear politics and energy security) – and internally. But he avoids seeing it simply as a numbers game.

Rather, on economic reform he suggests India chooses stability (through the exercise of democracy). He is not critical of that choice, saying that "India challenges us to provide a clear definition of what we mean by development, which is usually taken to mean economic prosperity and little else. Should it not also mean giving people significant choices in how they express themselves?"

However, Luce can often be critical of India too. In a rare moment of sweeping generalizations he says:

    The rest of the world could learn a lot from India, among which tolerance, the management of diversity, and the rooting of democracy in a traditional society loom large. If world trade were to be conducted purely in cultural products, then India would have a thumping annual surplus. But India continues to lack in practice – if not in principle – the basic condition of genuine citizenship — [Equal citizenship] in practice falls far short of the claims it [the constitution] makes.

Such statements should not be swept aside, least of all by Indians. For while Luce is an observer par excellence — and this is an exceptional book about India — it is a book for India too. It may be humorous (India is described as both a "functioning anarchy", and a "lorry on twelve wheels"), but the challenges it identifies for India's future are very real.

Luce's extended analysis suggests that Indian concepts of ethics, social construction, and political economy have their problems, and often cause inequities that prevent India from achieving its destiny. But he also accepts that the west does not have a monopoly on ideals of modernity, admitting even that it can coexist with tradition.

In dealing with that contradiction, Luce still manages to do what no other western observer has been able to do – view India through a lens uncolored by western conceptions of liberalism, secularism, or development. If this book had nothing else to offer, that itself would be sufficient to recommend it.

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