Book(s) Reviewed: India's Broken Promise

Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo
The Beautiful and the Damned, by Siddhartha Deb

India's political and business elites have long harbored a desire for their country to become a great power. They cheered when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh finalized a nuclear deal with the United States in 2008. Indian elites saw the deal, which gave India access to nuclear technology despite its refusal to give up its nuclear weapons or sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, as a recognition of its growing influence and power. And Indian elites were also encouraged when U.S. President Barack Obama announced, during a 2010 visit to India, that the United States would support India's quest to gain permanent membership on the United Nations Security Council, which would put the country on an equal footing with its longtime rival, China. In recent years, such sentiments have also spread to large segments of the Indian middle class, which, owing to the country's remarkable economic growth in the past two decades, now numbers around 300 million. Nearly nine out of ten Indians say their country already is or will eventually be one of the most powerful nations in the world, an October 2010 Pew Global Attitudes survey revealed.

Symbols of India's newfound wealth and power abound. Last year, 55 Indians graced Forbes' list of the world's billionaires, up from 23 in 2006. In 2008, the Indian automobile company Tata Motors acquired Jaguar and Land Rover; last year, Harvard Business School broke ground on Tata Hall, a new academic center made possible by a gift of $50 million from the company's chair, Ratan Tata. And in 2009, a company run by the Indian billionaire Anil Ambani, a telecommunications and Bollywood baron, acquired a 50 percent stake in Steven Spielberg's production company, DreamWorks. Gaudy, gargantuan shopping malls proliferate in India's cities, and BMWs compete with auto-rickshaws on crowded Indian roads. Tom Cruise, eyeing the enormous Indian movie market, cast Anil Kapoor, a veteran Bollywood star, in the most recent Mission: Impossible sequel and spent a few weeks in the country to promote the film. "Now they are coming to us," one Indian tabloid gloated.

But even as Indian elites confidently predict their country's inevitable rise, it is not difficult to detect a distinct unease about the future, a fear that the promise of India's international ascendance might prove hollow. This anxiety stems from the tense duality that defines contemporary India, an influential democracy with a booming economy that is also home to more poor people than any other country in the world...

Of course, staggering poverty and crippling inequality at home do not necessarily prevent countries from trying to project their power abroad. When India won its independence, in 1947, it was even poorer than it is today. Yet Jawaharlal Nehru, the country's founding prime minister, sought to raise India's international profile, providing significant political support to independence movements in British colonies in Africa and Asia and helping found the Non-Aligned Movement. Throughout the Cold War, Indian leaders sought to use their country's victory over British colonialism to inspire other subject peoples in their own struggles for self-determination -- and, in the process, to gain more global influence than otherwise might have been possible for an impoverished country. In this way, India's Cold War-era foreign policies, although primarily concerned with national interests, contained an element of idealism, and the country's growing international profile during those early decades of independence served as a powerful symbol of freedom and autonomy in the Third World.

Over time, however, India has exchanged idealism for realism, as the country's leaders have gradually abandoned an anticolonial distrust of hegemony and embraced great-power ambitions of their own. Thus, although India has made admirable progress in many areas, it is unclear whether an ever-growing Indian role in global affairs symbolizes anything more than the country's expanding definition of its self-interest. It is therefore hard to avoid feeling a sense of ambivalence when considering the prospect of India's ascent, especially when one scrutinizes the poverty, corruption, and inequality that suffuse Indian life today -- as do two recent, revealing books: Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo, and The Beautiful and the Damned, by Siddhartha Deb...

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