A foreign correspondent’s work in a country like India can easily suffer from the Orientalist gaze. Ravi Velloor, an experienced journalist and a senior editor with The Straits Times in Singapore, is a notable exception.
India Rising, Velloor’s hefty chronicle of a tumultuous decade in India—bookended by the elevation of Manmohan Singh as prime minister and the rise of Narendra Modi—is “targeted at the person who has a general idea of India, and is perhaps curious to know more”. It is also a helpful addition to a substantial oeuvre of books written by foreign correspondents during their time in India.
Velloor is a curious journalist and a nimble writer. In this book’s 360-odd pages, part reportage, part memoir, part analysis and part anecdotal, he crams in a lot from his reporting trips and interviews.
India Rising covers a wide-ranging swathe of subjects: the 2004 tsunami, Bengaluru’s outsourcing industry, India’s relationship with its neighbours, the tragic death of Shashi Tharoor’s wife, the murder of Pramod Mahajan, changing sexual mores. He recounts the horrors of the 2008 Mumbai attack. He chronicles the high noon and downfall of Manmohan Singh and the unravelling of his scam-tainted government, and the meteoric rise of Narendra Modi.
Velloor is an admirer of Modi, whom he describes as a technology-loving man of “forceful personality and boundless energy” with a “refreshing absence of humbug”. Of course, he points to his failing as a prime minister to crack down on radical Hindu hotheads who have grown increasingly bold since his rise to power. He correctly believes that there is a real and present danger of Modi’s development agenda being overshadowed by the antics and violence of the radical fringe.
But naiveté takes over swiftly. “The earlier that he cuts loose from the Hindutva crowd, the higher the chances for Modi to be the political emperor of all Indians, and for a longer period of time than his current five-year term. Not only will he cut loose from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, he may need to cut away from the Bharatiya Janata Party too,” Velloor writes. Most believe that Modi is as much a product of the RSS as he is of the BJP, and the fortunes of the party and its ideological fountainhead have always been inexorably tied to each other. One simply wouldn’t exist without the other.
Velloor also writes that the BJP was essentially an urban and mediocre political institution until Modi came along. The first bit is possibly true, but it is not clear how the Hindu nationalist party was a politically mediocre institution, going by its reasonably stellar alumni.
Velloor is an optimist about the future of India, and the indisputable strength of its democracy. But much water has flown under the Ganges since he wrote the book. Raghuram Rajan has left the Reserve Bank of India and demonetization shocked and awed the people in equal measure. Cow protection vigilantes are running amuck. There are fears over the government’s all-pervasive use of the controversial biometric-based identity number. Kashmir is on the boil, the relationship with Pakistan lies in tatters, and muscular nationalism is not helping reduce tensions. Drought continues to blight farming. The media is polarized, and social media is overflowing with bile and hate. Many of the state’s institutions, like the police and judiciary, are fraying. Debates on the future of cows are more prominent than debates on the future of ordinary Indians. Jobs are still elusive.
All this is not making a dent in Modi’s fortunes yet. His uncanny connect with voters and the collapse of the opposition is fuelling his party’s rise. A feeble and unimaginative opposition is helping the BJP to become a pan-Indian party. But the BJP is also a party which remains in constant campaign mode, working indefatigably to make inroads into states where voters have been traditionally lukewarm to it. Yet, many believe, India has never been more divided in recent times.
In his foreword, George Yeo, Singapore’s former foreign minister, tells a story. The son of a former federal minister from the Congress party—“a good friend, and no extremist”—advises him to take down a picture from his Facebook page in which he and his wife are eating beef noodles in Harvard Square. He thought, writes Yeo, that the picture “might elicit a negative response in India to my role as the new chancellor of Nalanda University” (Yeo resigned from his position in November after economist Amartya Sen was dropped from the university’s governing body).
“I did not follow his advice of course,” he writes, “but his nervousness troubled me.” Velloor will possibly need to update his book soon.