GOH CHOK TONG as Prime Minister of Singapore in the mid-1990s was the author of a ‘mild India fever’ that gripped the island-country and led to the first substantial economic engagement between the two countries, even though Lee Kuan Yew was initially sceptical about Goh’s initiative. Ravi Velloor’s book India Rising: Fresh Hope, New Fears is part of the rush of books which have appeared over the past two years. Velloor, who headed the South Asian bureau of Singapore’s Strait Times (2005- 2012), has many advantages over other writers, which show up in his book. He knows many of the important players intimately, has travelled extensively all over the country and has worked for international publications, so he brings an analytic rigour to his writing without making it impersonal or dense. He is a storyteller.
India is changing in many ways, spurred by self-belief, to the relief of a constellation of forces that is apprehensive about the implications of China’s rise. India is seen as non-threatening, a net security provider and as a strongly growing economy. This strategic sweet spot, as the author calls it, does not make the India growth story only a matter of time since ‘India is capable of exciting and disappointing its backers in equal measure’. UPA II with its sordid saga of scams, policy paralysis, economic stagnation and failure to deliver on foreign policy initiatives is proof that India’s rise is not pre-determined. Fortunately for India, the coming to office of Narendra Modi has reversed this decline. Growth has recovered, FDI inflows propelled India to first place in the global rankings in 2015, and outward FDI plunged in the first full year of Modi’s term to $1.8 billion from $9.2 billion in the last year of Manmohan Singh. Modi has shown remarkable initiative and stamina in his foreign engagements and though China has not changed its stance despite Modi investing considerable time and effort, elsewhere India’s stock has risen. The insurmountable bottlenecks in implementing the US-India nuclear deal have been overcome through the insurance pool route and enough progress made in deepening bilateral relations to make the US president make an unprecedented second trip to India. India is now being courted by Japan, the UK, France, Israel, Australia and Russia, which is why India is seen in a strategic sweet spot.
Modi’s assumption of power is seen as threatening to some, like India’s religious minorities, hence the sub-title, ‘New Fears’. Obviously the Gujarat riots of 2002 hang heavily over many, including Velloor, to merit such apprehensions. This contradicts the book’s narrative that the judicial process has not found anything against Modi and that he tried, in vain, to control the situation. Appeals were made to the three neighbouring states, all Congress- ruled, for police reinforcements but these were denied. Post-2002, Gujarat has enjoyed communal peace and Modi was able to attract around a quarter of Muslim votes in subsequent elections. No wonder Muslim Gujaratis have not accepted the demonisation of Modi, unlike substantial numbers of their co-religionists elsewhere in the country. They benefited from Modi’s focus on development that made Gujarat an economic powerhouse.
In contrast to Modi’s strong growth credentials, the performance of UPA governments (2004-14) dragged India down. The strong reforms push imparted by Vajpayee’s Government paid off in UPA I’s term, but rather than build upon it, the Manmohan Singh government went on a fiscal splurge as if there was no tomorrow. The unexpected mandate that UPA received in the 2009 elections led to markets soaring, in contrast to 2004 when the NDA’s shock defeat and UPA’s victory led to a crash. Freed from the need to take directions from the Left, it was expected Manmohan Singh would help unleash the Indian tiger. Instead, Congress President Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul interpreted the mandate as an endorsement of their subsidy approach.
THROUGHOUT THE BOOK, the role of Singapore in India’s reform process and greater engagement with the world, not just South East Asia, comes out clearly. While some of it, especially its early harvest IT business park project in Bangalore (1993-94) or that India has allowed Singapore to test its artillery on its soil shows Singapore’s leap of faith and India’s reciprocity; other parts of the narrative seem to exaggerate the island country’s role and importance. Looking back over the decade this book is concerned with, the Singapore connection would probably play up a bit. That said, Singapore since Goh’s time has helped smoothen India-ASEAN ties in all its multifaceted aspects. A case of gently balancing China in the hope that Singapore would not ever have to choose sides.
India Rising throws up interesting questions that India must answer if it is to take what it considers its rightful place at the high table. Does India have a strategic culture or is it still trapped in a belief in fate? Was it strategic forbearance that prevented India from grabbing the Malacca space in 1969? Similarly, despite announcing a Look East policy, the actual pace and depth of engagement did not match the rhetoric. The refusal to open up its services and agriculture sectors that a proper Free Trade Agreement with ASEAN would entail was an opportunity lost in stepping up India’s economic and political profile in the Indo-Pacific. Similarly, India had a chance to build up the Andaman and Nicobar Islands as a security node, allowing it to dominate substantial parts of the Indo-Pacific as part of the post-2004 Tsunami reconstruction. But while over Rs 5,000 crore was spent on rebuilding infrastructure, the defence or dual use component was kept outside, another lost opportunity.
While raising such issues, the author feels that Vajpayee’s 1998 nuclear tests were of dubious virtue. This is surprising since the tests made overt India’s position as a nuclear weapons state, a position that existed since 1988. It also forced Pakistan to reveal its status and drew attention to its proliferation path, something that was only a matter of conjecture till then. India’s responsible behaviour was established in 1999 when Pakistan’s General Musharraf’s adventurist intrusion into Indian territory made it the first occasion when two nuclear powers were at war. This led to a marked upswing in India-US relations and ultimately to the nuclear accord. None of this would be possible with the 1998 tests. [Full disclosure: the reviewer was then private secretary to Prime Minister Vajpayee.]
Modi’s rise has brought hope that India’s efforts would be to invest resources and design policies to achieve clear strategic goals—poverty eradication, gender equity, a strong manufacturing base, a unified domestic market, extensive external trade, net security cover for the region, et cetera. It’s a pity then that though the author acknowledges this, he cannot prevent himself from raising fears that are not borne by his own narrative. He acknowledges Modi’s keeping extreme Hindutva elements like the VHP out of Gujarat and his single-minded focus on growth. But to expect Modi to disown Hindutva, or even the RSS, is unreal. Modi is criticised for dominating the party and the Government in a manner even Nehru could not, and he is also accused of not disciplining recalcitrant members of the Parivar. Both statements cannot be correct. And while certainly there should be no cases of minority bashing, there is no evidence produced that crimes against minorities have gone up since Modi took office. One cannot dismiss the fact that law and order is a state subject. Should Modi then take to the bully pulpit more often to reassure minorities that they are safe in India? But when somebody of the status of Julio Ribeiro himself admitted that he exaggerated his fears just to get attention, it weakens the case against Modi that he is not doing enough.
Similarly Velloor’s complaint that the talent in Modi’s Cabinet would fit into a Maruti car is puzzling since it confuses practices of a parliamentary democracy with those in regimes where ministers are not really a part of the political executive. In an op-ed column on the recent ministerial reshuffle, Pratap Bhanu Mehta explained government formation as being essentially a political exercise, not a selection of technical experts; and that accommodating some elements seen as extreme is a useful way to control their potential excesses.
These criticisms apart, India Rising traces India’s growth not just over the decade but since 1991, underlines the maturation of its national, non-parochial identity, and points out pitfalls and recent failures. On the whole, it is an optimistic book highlighting India’s strengths and rising potential. Will India finally seize the moment?