Mihir S Sharma

I picked up this book at Crossword after reading the rather provocative subtitle – “The Last Chance For the Indian Economy”. The author is a well-known columnist and an active participant on twitter. Although I don’t subscribe to the same political views as him, this book is on a different topic (mostly). On flipping a few pages, I found the premise interesting and decided to dive in for a read. restart book review

The crux of the book is how the Indian economy, after many false starts, hasn’t yet made significant progress on becoming a world power. The book starts with introducing the much-hallowed reforms started by Dr Manmohan Singh in 1991, and how they are considered a watershed moment for the country on its path to a better future. The author argues how these “successful” reforms were actually made less effective by the half-hearted attempts of the politicians who had a chance to actually change the direction of the country towards a brighter future. But with the politicians themselves not completely convinced of the reforms, they failed to make the impact that India needed at the time.

A few of the chapters also takes on a important yet neglected topic Рto leave well enough alone. Today people often complain about what is wrong with the country. But such arguments often end with heavy sighs and a resigned acceptance of the good things that have happened till now. Unless the apathy of most Indians towards demanding the best from the government is reduced, the common man is doomed to suffer while the rich 1% (and their political allies) keep off skimming the cream from the top. The examples of how, allegedly, sibling rivalry has held up important infrastructure projects in the city of Mumbai are incredulous. But not impossible.

According to the author, the country also made a risky move by not improving the manufacturing infrastructure and directly jumping to the service industry. Although both banking and Information Technology have made rapid strides over the last couple of decades, the manufacturing industry still suffers in most parts of the country.

The book goes on to explain the spread of that notorious epidemic consuming true innovation in the country – jugaad. What was once a mental model worth Harvard case-studies has stifled real innovation. Where entrepreneurs should demand their government to remove the barriers to business, jugaad has resulted in entrepreneurs making their own way within the box itself. Within the same barriers and bureaucratic nightmares.

The author, as a closing salvo, presents the way India can yet get out of the mess that her politicians have forced her into.

Restart is eminently readable. What is good is that it doesn’t go into a dry monologue filled only with numbers. I’ve read books about India that have made me snore after only few pages. Thankfully, this is not such a book. It is a breezy read for someone familiar with basic economics, or even for someone without that background.

The content of the book is varied and covers a lot of ground, in terms of geography and time. I particularly found interesting the chapter on Mumbai and its chequered history from being a potential world-class cosmopolitan city to a den of petty politicians and crooks.

The only thing I could find fault with was the tone of writing. The book is generously peppered with sarcasm. But just like a good dish can be ruined by an excess spattering of salt, sometimes the sarcasm goes overboard. For example, just how many instances of “no sirreee” in consecutive pages can you smile at? As a result of such repetition, the author often sounds condescending towards the government and its leaders, both past and present. There are two things that the author seems to forget with his excessive use of sarcasm – one, that hindsight is always 20-20, and second, that India politicians are also subjects to human foibles, just like anywhere else.

Another example of a minor flaw in the structure is how the author has a habit of interrupting, sometimes too often, his sentences which affects, to a great extent, the flow and continuity of sentences. Once a while it does break the monotony. But when you find yourself going back again and again to understand what the never-ending sentence is about to say, it becomes formulaic. Again, this should have been the responsibility of the editor.

But these minor quibbles aside, Restart is a very interesting book about India and a must read for entrepreneurs, businesspersons and others alike, who wish to understand why India is in the state that it is, and how it came to be. Who knows, if enough people make an effort, there’s still a last chance for India.

I just finished reading the book “In spite of the Gods – The strange rise of modern India” by Edward Luce. I had eyed this book since a long time and had delayed buying it for some reason. Luckily, I found a second-hand copy of the book in Pondicherry. I had started reading the book on my way back to Pondicherry, and to my utter surprise (and shock), the first paragraph itself had a mention of Pondicherry and the community set up near it, Auroville. The introduction talks about the author’s meetings with people living in Auroville and how India is known mainly for its spirituality. The author seemed none too amused by this impression of India and that is what he sets out to change in the book.

The author, Edward Luce, covers all the major areas of concern for India, which include social, political, religious and economic. The structure of the book itself is such that each chapter focuses on one burning issue from these field. Luce covers India pre-independence, the timeline of the major political parties and the rise of the newer parties. Religion ocupies a central position in Indian households and he focuses on the largest two religions in the country and the problems which have arisen between them as well. He goes on to analyze India’s past relation with the US and the Soviets, and the current equation between India-China and India-Pakistan.

The book ends with the issues India faces and the opportunities the country has to become a major power in the 21st century. According to the author, India would do well not to become complacent of its newfound growth. Only if it deals with the issues in a proactive  manner will it manage to reach the level which is being expected of it. And one of the important ways is by the electorate to vote in such a way which brings the political party most capable of bringing about the change which is required. This endnote becomes all the more relevant in light of the up coming elections.

What I really liked about the book was its comprehensiveness in all the issues it tackles. Luce does not refrain from calling a spade a spade. The interplays between rival political parties especially SP vs BSP is wittitly depicted with Amar Singh again making a fool out of himself. Luce has described the rise of caste politics quite vividly. The book goes beyond slums and spirituality which is all what India is made out to be. I totally agree with the author’s belief that India is much more than a few squalid slums and some old-age Vedic literature. Luce makes the book more interesting by its witty jokes and humourous anecdotes he has come across while living in India.

The cons of this books are minor, yet I’ll list them down all the same. More space could have been devoted to the rise of IT in India. I know this industry has been written to death but in a book about the rise of modern India, IT should deserve a considerable share. Luce could also have researched more about the rise of manufacturing in India which is all set to accelerate in growth once the global economy gets back on track. Also I noticed that the author seemed to have a very critical view on Bollywood where he describes the typical Indian movie as “a blend of brilliantly choreographed titillation.” Agreed that song, dance and rain play a major role in Indian movies, but lately the film industry has also produced very good movies. If anything else, the author would have had good words for alternate Indian cinema. Luce also had a negative view of the nationalist political parties in India, which for all pratical purposes, means the BJP. The author himself admits to this bias.

All in all, I found In spite of the Gods to be a quite comprehensive read about modern India. The book goes beyond a superficial introduction to the country and dives well into some of the major issues affecting the country in recent times. It explains patiently the contradictions which India faces at each and every step of its journey. Luce has painted a masterpiece about one of the fastest developing nations in the world. Which brings me to my next question – Why do foreign nationals, be it Edward Luce, Gregory David Roberts or William Dalrymple make for better writers about India than us Indians?