ACK in 2015, in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, the government advertised for 369 low-level clerical posts. In response, 2.3m people applied.
Yes, you did read that correctly. That’s just one figure in Superfast Primetime Ultimate Nation that jiggles the mind, and a perfect illustration as to how India, which will become the world’s most populous nation over the coming decades, will also become one of the key players in how the world develops over the next century.
The title mimics the kind of hyperbolic and enthusiastic sales pitch beloved of vendors right across the Indian economy, and author, Adam Roberts, explores different aspects of the country to forecast where it might be headed.
Roberts was South Asia bureau chief for The Economist and so his writing is brisk, precise, intelligent, and just a little light on colour. Given The Economist’s noted reputation for accuracy, and Robert’s excellence as a writer, it also has something of a collector’s item — a spelling mistake in my copy, on page 222 (‘sisty-two’, rather than ‘sixty-two’).
Pedantry aside, this is an intriguing snapshot of a country of extremes, and one whose international standing could soar alongside its booming population. We could be witnessing the onset of the Indian century and the sheer scale of the country is mind-boggling.
India has 25m landlines, but more than one billion mobile phones. It has a huge and growing diaspora and a blossoming reputation for tech enterprise, plus an undoubtedly entrepreneurial spirit, bolstered by improved education and a greater desire to be a player on the world stage.
But, then again, there are the toilets, or, rather, the lack of them. As recently as 2015, 130m Indian households lacked toilets and, according to Roberts, “nearly three-quarters of villagers still relieved themselves behind bushes or in fields”.
There are also disparate poverty rates, child malnourishment, racism, and the caste system, an under-explored tourism industry, scary pollution levels, and legitimate concerns about violence against women.
Roberts pinpoints the environment and the situation of women as two big issues the country will need to address in the coming decades, even as it becomes more of an influence on the world stage.
The fact that India’s population will peak late in the 21st century, at an incredible 1.7bn, is a product of lingering poverty. As Roberts points out: “Had India cut poverty earlier, its population might, instead, have been heading to a peak nearer 1.4bn or 1.5bn, roughly equal to China’s.” Yet, as he argues with some purpose, later in the book, it is India’s commitment to democracy and open markets which might well place it at an advantage, compared to its communist neighbour, China, as the century progresses, even if it is currently still short of diplomats to truly swagger on the world stage.
He also astutely highlights issues closer to home, not least the rise of Hindu nationalism.
Donald Trump was far from the first electoral candidate seeking high office to ride a wave of populism, as others accused him of stoking up division. Current Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, was way ahead of ‘The Donald’, and this charismatic, but flawed, politician has something of a chequered past.
Roberts skillfully gives a potted history of Indian politics and how, for many years, those in power pursued wrongheaded policies to boost the country’s economic chances, but managed to navigate its way through numerous roadblocks — often involving its neighbour, Pakistan — while pursuing a democratic system. The Nehru-Ghandi dynasty supplied the prime minister
for 37 of the first 69 years of independence.
Then, Modi arrived as “a figure who champions himself, as opposed to the elite or the establishment” (sound familiar?).
Bribery, corruption and a suffocating level of bureaucracy had been the bane of the economy for so long that pledges to tackle “grafting” resulted in high levels of support, with Modi at the forefront.
But there’s a dark history here, too, and one which shows how India can sometimes seem like a kettle on the hob, one that could boil over at any minute.
Some 15 years ago, when Modi was the chief minister in Gujarat, ethnic violence exploded. Hindu nationalists clashed with Muslims, There were massacres, a pogrom, and a least 1,000 people were killed. According to Roberts, “Modi acted late and did too little”, failing to douse violence from Hindu nationalists.
Roberts has interviewed Modi and raised questions directly with him about his conduct in 2002, noting how he became prime minister without offering explicit regret or explaining his actions. In a peculiar analogy, Modi once “compared his reaction to the mass slaughter to feeling sad if a car ran over a dog.”
All this matters, because, while the Muslim population in India is a minority, it is still roughly that of neighbouring Pakistan, and, as Roberts points, out is exceeded only by that of Indonesia.
Any sabre-rattling can have explosive repercussions, which, in turn, highlights the restraint shown in the aftermath of the Mumbai terrorist atrocity of 2008. Modi’s role in keeping nationalist groups in check is vital, but not guaranteed.
To add a more recent layer of weirdness, in May the Washington Post reported that India’s largest Hindu far-right organisation said it was now working with expectant couples to produce “customised” babies, with the intention that they will be taller, fairer, and smarter than other babies. The plan was slammed by critics as ripped from the Nazis.
Back to Modi, and another astonishing fact about this driven man, who rose from the poorer classes to run India.
It was always assumed he was single. There was occasional gossip, but little else.
If anything, it seemed he was tied to public office and the job of leading the country, but, actually, he was married all along.
He wed his bride when he was a teenager and then left her in the family home so he could pursue a public life — it was only in 2014, when running for national parliament, that he was forced to admit that he was married at all.
It’s another tale of the unexpected from a country that continues to thrill and confound. For anyone with an interest in where this juggernaut nation will take us, this book is an essential read.