I just finished reading In Spite of the Gods. The Strange Rise of Modern India by Edward Luce. It is the perfect companion to China Shakes the World. The Rise of a Hungry Nation by James Kynge. I don't think it's an accident both authors write for the Financial Times, which gives its journalists a lot of freedom. Apart from that, its reputation, which its journalists help sustain, opens doors which may remain closed for other newspaper journalists.
China and India are predicted to become two of the world's three superpowers of the 21st century, the other being the US. (Forget about Europe. Europe is history.) Both Edward Luce and James Kynge describe with great flair and an eye for detail the contradictions of respectively contemporary India and China. Edward Luce dwells more on politics, because an understanding of politics and Indian history in the 20th century is essential to an understanding of contemporary India.
The one thing that I find difficult to grasp and that is a key to understanding both India and China is just how big both countries really are. The question faced by both Indian and Chinese politicians is how to govern such a huge country and how to ensure a more or less equal wealth distribution. As Edward Luce writes "India's economy offers a schizophrenic glimpse of a high-tech, twenty-first century future amid a distressingly medieval past" (p. 59). It has a highly developed ICT industry but rural India is hopelessly underdeveloped. Luce traces both developments back to political choices and divisions which still haunt India today.
In rural India it is still believed that a man should have his own piece of land. This is why parents don't want their children to go to school, let alone university, so they can work on the land. With every generation the land is further fragmented making agriculture inefficient. It is also why in some parts of India islamic women are veiled. Adhering to purdah shows that you are rich enough not to have to work on the land. Not everything is what it seems. Edward Luce does an excellent job of bringing these contradictions to light.
Oddly, while reading the final chapter of In Spite of the Gods, in which Luce describes the challenges facing India if it is to live up to its promise of becoming a superpower, I couldn't help thinking that some of this also applies to the UK. Take infrastructure. Luce writes that India should invest heavily in roads, railways and public transport. But British railways always makes me feel I'm in some kind of a developing country. Decades of protests by environmental pressure groups have prevented the construction of efficient freeways so many roads are clogged by heavy lorries forced to drive through small towns on roads designed for horse carts.