A report from India at a point of enormous transition—and the news is never really good.
As the Economist’s former South Asia correspondent, now based in Paris, British journalist Roberts (The Wonga Coup: Guns, Thugs and a Ruthless Determination to Create Mayhem in an Oil-Rich Corner of Africa, 2006) offers a kind of resigned love letter to his adopted country of five years, taking India’s fondness for hyperbole literally with an ironic focus on the four terms it often uses to regard itself: “superfast, primetime, ultimate nation.” Breaking these down, the author equates “superfast” with the economy; “primetime” with politics; “ultimate” is its relations with others countries like China, Pakistan, and America; and “nation” means how the country sees itself. The diversity of the world’s largest democracy is both a boon and a drawback, and the economic enrichment since the 1990s is scattershot. Roberts explores both the poorest area, the rural northeast (“landlocked on the wrong side of Bangladesh”), where tea-pickers make less than $1 per day, and the most affluent, Gujarat, home to the highly motivated nationalist Hindu prime minister Narendra Modi. Despite the progressive steps the nation has taken toward its citizens’ well-being and national health, the author must drop caveats at every milestone: while the youthfulness of the country points to a dynamic future workforce, one-third of India’s population is stunted and underweight; family dynasties like the "Sonia-and-Singh Show” clog avenues toward liberal promise; tech dreams are derailed by corruption and faulty infrastructure; 120 male babies are being born for every 100 females, pointing to the most alarming demographics in South Asia; the egregious treatment of the environment and dearth of basic health services (in 2016, “130 million Indian households lacked toilets”), electricity, and education; and Modi’s government’s abysmal sectarian relations. Ultimately, there is no comparison to China, already eons ahead, and India’s need for political will is crying out. So what next for the Asian juggernaut that has not quite delivered?
Alternately engaging and exasperating dispatches from a conflicted nation.