Disoriented In Flight


Dipankar Gupta’s new book pokes holes in the accepted narrative of India’s growth story, says Devangshu Datta

Dipankar GuptaLIKE ‘GAY’ or ‘liberal’, Orientalism is not used in the original sense anymore. After Edward Said’s eponymous work, the word has become a pejorative. It used to mean the study of various aspects of Eastern cultures. Now it means the perversion of such studies by the toxic residue of colonial prejudice and condescension.

Dipankar Gupta’s premise is that orientalism is endemic amongst the social scientists who study modern India. Instead of trying to render India explicable by rational means, they cop out by saying India is unique, exotic and inexplicable.

So he sets out to examine the glaring paradoxes of modern India in a book that combines some rigour and rationality with a lot of anecdotal evidence and some speculative empiricism. Why has India’s growth not led to commensurate poverty reduction? Why do services dramatically outpace manufacturing and agriculture? How large is the middle-class? What are the 21st century issues of caste ? What is happening in the rural hinterland? Does India have the political leadership it deserves? Should the State play a larger role?

He devotes a chapter or so to each of these weighty questions. Most of the mindshare is devoted to debunking accepted wisdom. For example, as he points out, the vast majority of the rural workforce is not solely employed in agriculture. What he calls the “hollowing out of rural life” is because the quality of life and earning opportunities in the worst city-slums are better than in villages.


The Caged Phoenix Dipankar Gupta Penguin 322 pp; Rs 550
The Caged Phoenix
Dipankar Gupta
322 pp; Rs 550

This is not surprising. Economic development everywhere is associated with urban transfers of population and labour shifts out of agriculture. Gupta asserts these are occurring faster and are more widespread than acknowledged.

India is unusual due to its small organised manufacturing sector. Most of the growth is in services and in smallscale, unorganised sweatshops. There are huge labour surpluses. Wages are low so growth is not inclusive. Hence, the middle-class is smaller and much lower-income than generally assumed.

He also points out the low quantum of public investment in health and education. In instances like public hygiene, orientalism has contributed to apathy. Indian cities (and villages) are filthy. This is similar to Europe and the US a century ago. It only changed when civic bodies started to enforce stringent policies of garbage and sewage disposal. In India, policy-making has been retarded by the belief ‘we are like that only’. And yes, he does believe that state should play a much larger role.

The analysis of caste is interesting. He thinks the affirmative actions of 1947-1989 have outlived their utility. Modern urban life blurs and obliterates caste difference, (he says it’s happening in villages as well). But post-Mandal reservation policy is designed to reinforce caste differences in damaging fashion.

From caste to politics is a natural progression. While highlighting the hypocrisy of political consensus in the first section, he takes the example of the Bahujan Samaj Party’s evolution to indicate that voting patterns are not easily broken down in terms of caste dynamics. Also, as he says, Narendra Modi is popular due to his reputation for good governance rather than for promoting Hindutva. Modi can therefore only be challenged by a rival that delivers better governance.

Along the way, he offers a breathtakingly simple explanation for the dynastic nature of politics. The ability to deal in violence is a necessary qualification for a successful politician. Only people reared in a family tradition of violence are comfortable handling it. These assertions are controversial but then, all and any assertions about caste and politics tend to be.

The book is light on policy prescription since Gupta is more focussed on the debunking of popular myths and the seeking of rational explanations of paradoxes. Perhaps, however, one can draw on the embedded metaphor of the title. The phoenix renews itself in fire. Is that the way for India to go?


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