'In Spite of the Gods: The Rise of Modern India' India is growing in population, economic activity and international profile. But the country's journey from colony to modern democracy continues to be filled with questions about corruption and social friction.

'In Spite of the Gods: The Rise of Modern India'

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

India will soon have a larger population than China, an economy larger than Japan's, and more educated persons speaking English than the United States. It is a nation in which a woman can become prime minister, a corporate CEO, or be stoned for suspected adultery. It is the spiritual capital for billions of believers and a capital of political corruption, where about 20 percent of the members of the Indian parliament have been indicted for crime.

It is both the world's largest democracy and a society in which hundreds of millions of people bear the perpetual sting of a cruel caste system. India is an important part of the world's future. Millions of Americans talk to Indians every day in telephone call centers. And yet what do we really know of India?

Edward Luce, who's now the Washington, D.C. bureau chief for the Financial Times, was based in New Delhi for five years and has written a book, "In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India." He joins us in our studios. Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. EDWARD LUCE (Financial Times): Thank you very much for having me.

SIMON: And this book is, as you acknowledge, very personal for you.

Mr. LUCE: It is. I mean partly because, as you know, being based in India is in many ways, even as a professional journalist, an intensely personal experience. Also my wife is Indian. I met her before we moved there, in her case moved back there. So I saw a lot of lot of India both through my social life and through my job, through her eyes and the eyes of her family, who are, as many Indian families, scattered throughout India.

SIMON: We made a reference to call centers in the introduction. And as much publicity and as much fascination there is with it, we're only talking about a million people in a country of almost a billion.

Mr. LUCE: Indeed. The Indian labor force is 470 million people. So the impression that people have of India that at one level is not incorrect, that software and IT and call centers is transforming its economic prospects, is at another level quite misleading in that it's not really touching the lives of most Indians.

SIMON: But as you point out, the effect on the American economy could be profound, because India is producing so many educated engineers and technocrats.

Mr. LUCE: Well, I think the interesting thing, the number of jobs that have gone overseas because of the manufacturing boom in China, that have left America, is far, far greater than we've seen because of India effect. But I think the angst that in past years has been sparked in America about India is more because you can't see an end to it. You can't see a limit to the kinds of tasks and functions that can be offshored.

And that's really what sort of touches a raw nerve quite understandably. It's really the cheap brain power rather than cheap labor.

SIMON: How did it work out that India avoided the industrial revolution that Nehru, the first great democratically elected Indian leader, so desperately tried to bring about with success of five- and eight-year plans?

Mr. LUCE: First of all, the ineptitude of that plan. The politics of it was quite understandable. He had just succeeded in getting rid of Britain. And Britain, you know, had colonized India through a company, the East India Company, in the 18th and 19th centuries. So they didn't want to try that again in a hurry.

So this model of self sufficiency (unintelligible) is quite understandable in that political context. The economic context, though, was slightly less admirable, which is this idea that India should develop itself through a sort of Stalinist emphasis, albeit in their context of a democracy, on heavy industry, on heavy things like steel and bridges and dams and so forth.

And so I think what you got were the use of heavily symbolic projects that weren't really sustainable, because India wasn't producing the intermediate industries. So in order to sustain this model, Nehru poured money into higher education, into the universities, because he wanted to create an elite who would manage these heavy industry projects for India's future.

What happened is these sensible and intelligent and educated graduates found better prospects in places like Silicon Valley.

SIMON: Help us understand the tug between the great cities - Mumbai, New Delhi - and village India, in which life is not only very different but which considers to have considerable spiritual and political importance.

Mr. LUCE: The village was really the, in terms of the way Gandhi sold the development movement brilliantly to the masses - Mahatma Gandhi or Mohandas Gandhi, before he became the Mahatma.

SIMON: The Mahatma..

Mr. LUCE: The Mahatma's symbolism of the anti-colonial freedom struggle was really about the spinning wheel and the village and the semi-mythical path that India had enjoyed of small is beautiful. So the village occupied a very central place in the minds of Indians as it moved into independence.

So what you have is a situation where urbanization is being discouraged in spite of the fact that cities are booming and in spite of the fact that because cities are booming, the poor from the villages are moving into the cities and into the slums, and are then going back to the villages. Because those jobs aren't really going to sustain them. So you've got this sort of schizophrenia in India's economy and in its topography.

SIMON: You have this extraordinary democracy in India where people who are illiterate cast votes in parliamentary elections. And Indian democracy has turned out ruling governments and prime ministers that their governments were considered to be heavy-handed and tyrannical. And yet at the same time you point out there's probably no political aggregate that is riddled more with corruption.

Mr. LUCE: No, there probably isn't. The lower caste parties, I think, would probably be the most corrupt parties in India. But in many ways they also provide the most hope that India is changing and changing peacefully, that the lower castes are getting their say in a way they never have been.

The flip side of the rise of lower caste parties is a rise of a slightly kleptocratic politics. I think the way they look it is these Brahmin, these upper caste civil servants and politicians with colonial interludes have oppressed us and stolen from us for thousands of years, and now it's our turn. It's really that sort of simple, fairly black and white way of looking at things.

SIMON: Could you tell the Rupert Murdoch story when he came to India to...

Mr. LUCE: He went to Delhi. He met the prime minister and all the cabinet ministers and the senior bureaucrats and told this to an industrialist in Bombay, who said to him, Well done, Mr. Murdoch, you've met all the right people, but if you want to get anywhere in India, you need to meet all the wrong people.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LUCE: Which sums it up, really.

SIMON: Yeah. You sense some changes in Hinduism over the last generation that could have significant impact.

Mr. LUCE: Definitely the caste system. I think you have something called sanskritization. Sanskrit is, of course, the equivalent of the Latin of India, the classical language of India. What it really describes is a process by which the lower castes start copying the upper castes in terms of the festivals they follow, the clothes they wear, the way they get married, how they do the initiation of boys into Hinduism, the equivalent of the bar mitzvah.

And that is being copied by lower castes. That's one trend. Another, of course, is Hinduism is increasingly taking place on television. And whether it's through the filming of sort of popular modern gurus, Hindu gurus, in their everyday activities, or whether it's through the dramatization of the great Indian epics like the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, this is nationalizing the way the most heterodox religion on Earth is being practiced.

And it's at the same time leveling caste behavior. There are fewer gods that are focused on, fewer festivals that are really important, and they're united over a far greater number of Indians than they used to be.

SIMON: Edward Luce of the Financial Times. His new book is "In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India."

Mr. Luce, thanks very much.

Mr. LUCE: Thank you very much indeed. I enjoyed that.

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