In this interview, Patrick French tries to get his arms around a country, in a flux of change.
What do you think binds India as a nation?
I’d say that India is tied together by two principal forces: one is the modern political force, which is the constitution, giving at least in theory equal rights and opportunities to all citizens. It might be a little optimistic or utopian but fundamentally India has a very impressive constitution. In other words, on paper, Indian citizens have very strong democratic rights and that creates a feeling of unity throughout India. Of course there are exceptions, for example in the North East and Kashmir. But overall the vast majority feels unified by that idea. The other force is the ancient link: It is mostly different faith traditions, which we now call Hinduism. Certain religious links to do with deities, and sacred places, goes back for many thousand years. People who do not claim to be Hindu, that still provides this underlying unity to the subcontinent. In London, or anywhere outside India whenever you’re going to a party, public event or a shop, Indians can always spot, recognise other Indians. One might be from Andhra, the other from West Bengal but they instantly know this is another Indian and feel some link or bond, even though they might speak different languages at home.
Speaking of England, how does the ethnic diversity vary from that of India’s?
In India, people have been used to ethnic or cultural diversity for hundreds, even thousands of years. Say, the way somebody from Kashmir, Bengal, Tamil Nadu looks is going to be different, as well as their religious practices, food and language. People are very familiar with this, though there can be conflict sometimes. But in general, people are quite good coping with these variations. Say if someone from a certain religious tradition might say “let’s finish at four o’clock due to this religious festivity”. That kind of flexibility is inherent here very much. In Britain, it is a very new idea. At the end of World War 2, there were 25,000 non-white people in London, where today the majority of people in London have grandparents who are not from England. This great demographic and social change in such a short time is still trying to be worked out in Britain.
With the result of many people living in pockets…
The problem with the way it has been handled since World War 2 is that people tend to self segregate. Only now, politicians are recognising that failure to integrate has been a massive mistake.
Whereas in India, Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel saw it coming much early on.
“Economic change in China is centrally organised and orchestrated. Hence it is fair to say that it is working better, in general.”
In your book, India: A Portrait, you have taken poverty issue heads on. The strongest criticism has been that monetary reforms aggravated poverty…
There are a large number of people who have gained no benefit from financial liberalisation. You can’t ignore it because the figure is so big. But it is really the middle-class revolt that interests me the most.
One thing you have not written about, which is the concern of liberals, is the rise of right-wing elements in the Indian polity. Was it of much concern to you?
My view is that liberal elements tend to exaggerate it. Amartya Sen has said that it is sort of coincidental that there are a lot of followers of Hinduism in India. But that seems to be a complete red herring. The reality is that in a very large country of different languages and different cultures, Hinduism is undeniably a major unifying force. Maybe there are political ramifications. What I have tried to do is talk to people who represent those political corollaries. In a way, that was disappointing. So much of it was connected to a mythical ideal of India’s past rather than how it is going to help us in going forward. I don’t feel that the Hindutva movement is as important as it was before. I don’t think it is possible to rally large numbers of people to issues like Ayodhya because people have moved on.
You’ve travelled to China. How is economic change and growth handled in India compared to China?
Economic change in China is centrally organised and orchestrated. Hence it is fair to say that it is working better, in general. Whereas in India it is more diffused, with a series of quiet minor economic reforms in the 1990’s and a little bit of tinkering around the edges since then. With the result that some people got very rich, and a lot getting a little better off, but still many structural problems remain. The organisational changes necessary to let more people benefit have not been implemented effectively.
Is the Indian middle class too slippery compared to other middle classes who stick to some principles or some currents of thought?
I think so. There is a willingness to shift around. In a book written on India almost a thousand years ago, Alberuni says: “There’s a concentration on philosophy and mathematics.” It is still there. People are willing to talk about philosophy, even mathematicians, which is certainly not the case in other countries. As Alberuni puts it, “The utmost they would do is fight with words, but they will never stake their soul or their property on religious controversy.” One thousand years later, it seems to be true. People who come for the first time would not see how pragmatic people tend to be. You could call it principled pragmatism.
You call yourself the Biographer of a nation. Which biography of a personality in Indian history would you chose to do?
In a way, I put the line of the biographer of a nation to promote the book because of my experience in writing biography, be it VS Naipaul or Francis Young husband. I believe in focussing on individuals and tell a larger story about this person. But I don’t think that necessarily means they would be the right person to do a biography with.Currently I’m more interested in a larger national idea, what makes India tick. When reading India: A Portrait you can tell, there are some people, like Dr Ambedkar who fascinated me a lot.