Courtesy Reuters

India's Broken Promise

How a Would-Be Great Power Hobbles Itself

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. 

NOT SO BEAUTIFUL

The economic reforms India enacted in the early 1990s and the economic growth they spurred have pushed more than 100 million Indians above the poverty line and created a vibrant middle class. But 455 million Indian citizens -- more than a third of the country's population -- still live on less than $1.25 a day, the subsistence poverty line set by the World Bank. Images of India's poor are almost a cliché. But the ubiquity of these depictions obscures the fact that very few of them provide rich, multilayered accounts of how the country's impoverished millions actually live.

Boo's new book is a welcome exception. An extraordinary work of reportage, Behind the Beautiful Forevers is the single most illuminating portrait of India's poor, their ambitions, and the monumental labors they perform and sacrifices they make to escape destitution. Boo, a staff writer at The New Yorker, has written movingly about poverty and the unequal distribution of opportunity in the United States. But beginning in 2007, she spent three years in Annawadi, a Mumbai slum abutting the city's international airport -- "a stretch where new India and old India collided and made new India late," as she puts it. 

In 1991, a group of about a dozen Tamil migrant workers were hired to repair a runway at the airport. After completing the job, they decided to settle nearby, hoping to make a living recycling the seemingly endless piles of scrap metal and garbage generated by the airport and the construction of luxury hotels adjoining it. "In an area with little unclaimed space, a sodden snake-filled bit of brushland across the street from the international terminal seemed like the least-bad place to live," Boo writes. The migrants cleared the brush, filled the swamp with dry earth, and built shacks on the new solid ground. The squalid encampment eventually grew to house 3,000 people. Today, the overwhelming majority of Annawadi's residents are engaged in the informal, unorganized economy, working off the books without any legal protections or guarantees of a minimum wage -- as do 85 percent of all Indian workers. They labor in conditions that are unhygienic and dangerous. But the meager wages they earn allow them to live above the official poverty level.

Debates about poverty in India often overlook just how hard India's poor work to improve their conditions. By focusing on individual residents of the slum, Boo draws a moving portrait of that struggle. Abdul, a teenager who lives in Annawadi, is an expert at sorting trash and scrap metal and then selling it to recyclers. His days begin early, arranging screws, nails, and bottle caps into neat piles. By sunset, he has usually sorted about a dozen sacks of garbage, which he hauls to a buyer in a beat-up three-wheeled cart. In the years Boo spent observing Abdul, his wages helped his family add a roof to their shack and pay $450 to have his father treated for lung disease in a private hospital. Still, Boo notes, Abdul's mother longs for a more hygienic way of life for her four children: "She wanted a shelf on which to cook without rat intrusions -- a stone shelf, not some cast-off piece of plywood. She wanted a small window to vent the cooking smoke that caused the little ones to cough like their father." 

These are modest wishes. But they reflect a ubiquitous desire for upward mobility in India, present at every socioeconomic level. Indeed, among India's middle class, the desire for more comfort and luxury can be just as strong as, if not stronger than, the desire of a slum dweller for a clean shelf and a window vent. 

INDIA'S GILDED AGE

For the poor and the middle class alike, the dream of upward mobility has collided with the reality of the growing economic and social inequality that increasingly defines the country. The contemporary moment in India is akin to the Gilded Age in the United States. A vast gulf has opened up between the rich and the poor as some Indians -- including robber barons and con artists -- have found ways to profit from the rapid transformation of a largely agrarian society into a modern economy. 

The Indian writer Siddhartha Deb tells this tale with devastating clarity in The Beautiful and the Damned, a meticulously reported set of essays that sketch the contours of wealth, inequality, and the new anxieties they have created in India. In Deb's book, present-day India is personified most vividly by Arindam Chaudhuri, a magazine publisher and movie producer who, despite being equipped only with an undergraduate degree from a little-known Indian college run by his own father, transformed himself into a sought-after business guru and consultant by aggressively recruiting young, ambitious Indians to enroll in a management-training institute he owns outside New Delhi. Chaudhuri's ascent has been marred by accusations of fraud: according to India's University Grants Commission, his institute is not authorized to grant master's degrees, and most of its graduates wind up working not for top-tier multinational corporations but rather for Chaudhuri's own various enterprises. Yet with his carefully crafted image of material success and his gospel of relentless confidence and ceaseless self-promotion, Chaudhuri remains a figure of reverence among his many devotees -- "an army of Gatsbys," Deb calls them, "wanting not to overturn the social order but only to belong to the upper crust."

That goal, however, has become increasingly unrealistic. According to a recent Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development report, inequality in earnings has doubled in India over the last two decades. In 1990, the top ten percent of earners made six times as much as the bottom ten percent; today, the top ten percent earns 12 times as much as the bottom ten percent. Consumption in the top 20 percent of Indian households has increased by around three percent every year during the past decade. Meanwhile, the annual growth in consumption for the bottom 20 percent has stayed at one percent. 

Chief among the factors that contribute to inequality in India are prejudice and corruption, both of which undermine meritocratic advancement and stymie upward mobility. Although economic liberalization has provided socially disadvantaged citizens with more opportunities than they had in earlier eras, intense discrimination persists against Indian Muslims and lower-caste Hindus, such as Dalits, or "untouchables." In 2009, the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies, a New Delhi-based research institute, conducted a study to measure the impact of discrimination on hiring practices. The authors responded to job openings at Indian companies and multinational corporations based in India, sending in mock resumés from equally qualified applicants with identifiably Muslim and lower- and upper-caste Hindu names. Despite the applicants' identical qualifications, the authors reported, "the odds of a Dalit being invited for an interview were about two-thirds of the odds of a high caste Hindu applicant. The odds of a Muslim applicant being invited for an interview were about one-third of the odds of a high caste Hindu applicant." 

ENDURING CORRUPTION

Although those groups on the social margins continue to face the most difficult odds, frustrations have also begun to mount across a wider spectrum of Indian society, as a restless, young, educated population finds its expectations thwarted by the corruption that permeates all levels of government in India. In August and September of last year, India was convulsed by massive anticorruption protests triggered by a series of scandals, including the sale of millions of dollars' worth of cell-phone spectrum at below-market rates to well-connected telecommunications companies and outrageous graft and fraud in construction contracts for the Commonwealth Games held in New Delhi in 2010. The scandals involved lawmakers; high-profile politicians from the ruling party, the Indian National Congress; and business tycoons. Inspired by the tactics of India's founding father, Mahatma Gandhi, a veteran antigraft activist named Anna Hazare went on a hunger strike. Hazare brought out tens of thousands of largely middle-class supporters into the streets to demand that the Indian parliament create a powerful anticorruption body whose leader would have the authority to investigate government officials, including the prime minister. 

The protests released decades of pent-up frustrations over rising inequality and failures of governance. Not surprisingly, however, the anticorruption law that Hazare and his team had lobbied for was defeated in a vote in the Indian parliament, whose members would have been its primary targets. And although Hazare borrowed Gandhian techniques, the 74-year-old activist is no Gandhi, but a deeply flawed advocate for change, enamored of such archaic ideas as flogging alcoholics to "cure" them and chopping off hands as a punishment for corruption. Making matters worse, late last year, a leading figure in Hazare's movement was herself accused of financial improprieties. By the beginning of this year, media coverage of the movement had diminished substantially, popular enthusiasm had dimmed, attendance at Hazare's gatherings had thinned, and the movement had withered. 

Corruption has also proved difficult to root out because it is not simply a matter of the powerful preying on the weak. As Boo's book reveals, graft and fraud can offer ways for a poor person to climb the socioeconomic ladder -- a shortcut of sorts. One of the more ambitious people Boo met in Annawadi was Asha, a woman in her late 30s whose education ended in the seventh grade. A local politician secured a job for Asha teaching in a state-run junior high school in the slum, despite the fact that she lacked a college degree. In return, Asha spent her classroom time solving problems in the slum and organizing rallies for the politician. In short order, she became a slum boss with access to other local politicians, police officers, and bureaucrats. In this role, she helped slum residents receive vital services or find funding for social-service programs. But she was hardly a model for champions of civil society. By plying police officers with sexual favors, Asha would persuade them to side with whichever party in a slum dispute was willing to bribe her. She eventually became rich by partnering with a local government official to steal federal government money intended for schools for the poor.

Theft of that sort has dire consequences for its victims. In 2010, India spent $28.6 billion on antipoverty programs. But last year, a World Bank report revealed that 59 percent of the grain allotted for public distribution to the poor in India does not reach its intended recipients; instead, it is siphoned off by middlemen and crooked government officials and then sold on the black market. This is one reason behind the grim precariousness of life in India. Four hundred and sixty million Indians are between the ages of 13 and 35, and by 2020, the average age in India will be 29. In theory, this so-called youth dividend should give the country a long-term economic advantage over China, whose population will ultimately suffer from a predominance of elderly people thanks to China's one-child policy. But a vast number of the boys and girls who should become part of India's work force in the coming decades are instead dying of undernourishment. According to UNICEF, malnutrition is more common in India than in sub-Saharan Africa. One in every three malnourished children in the world lives in India. More than 2.1 million Indian children die every year before reaching their fifth birthdays; half of those die within a month of birth. 

In a poignant moment in The Beautiful and the Damned, Deb meets an unemployed accountant looking for a job at one of the hellish factories outside Hyderabad, a center of India's burgeoning information technology sector. The accountant studied history as a university student and asks Deb if he has read the work of the Indian economist Amartya Sen, who has written about hunger and inequality. "You remember what [Sen] said about famine, that it doesn't necessarily happen because there isn't enough food but because the powerful take food away from the powerless?" the accountant asks. "It is still like that in India. Are you going to write that in your book?" 

DEMOCRACY OR PSEPHOCRACY?

The democratic system has been a source of great pride for most Indians. Indian nationalists like to boast that Indians won universal suffrage on independence in 1947, years before many African Americans could vote freely in the United States. But in recent months, revelations about rampant corruption and dysfunction in the government have begun to erode that sense of self-esteem. Once revered for his competence and personal integrity, Prime Minister Singh has become a figure of ridicule, as many of the worst scandals have involved his own ministers and allies. National elections will be held in 2014, and it has long been assumed that if Singh's ruling Congress party manages to hold on to power, the next prime minister will be the crown prince of the Gandhi dynasty, Rahul Gandhi. As the party's general secretary, the 41-year-old Gandhi has significantly increased the youth membership of the party by reaching out to educated young people who lack what is usually required to enter party politics in India: personal wealth or connections. 

But although he has developed into an able political operator, Gandhi has yet to articulate a vision of the country's future. Nor does he seem particularly interested in transforming its dysfunctional political system. Rather, his appeal rests mostly on a promise to enlarge the system, to make its perks and patronage networks more accessible to people who have traditionally been left out of the old boys' club of Indian politics. Nevertheless, Gandhi's efforts to enlarge the Congress party's base have failed to deliver votes. In early March, the party suffered a devastating defeat in local elections in India's largest state, Uttar Pradesh, casting doubt on Gandhi's national appeal.

Of course, Gandhi is hardly alone in lacking vision. Today, no Indian politician or political party inspires public confidence, as the task of governance recedes amid the ceaseless campaigning and electoral machinations that consume the country's political classes. The sociologist Ashis Nandy, one of India's most respected public intellectuals, recently lamented in an interview that India's democracy has devolved into a "psephocracy" -- a system "totally dominated by electoral victories and defeats," as he defined it. "The moment you enter office, you begin to think of the next election." 

The resulting paralysis is one reason India's rulers have been unable to make progress on the violent domestic conflicts that have cost thousands of lives and hundreds of millions of dollars: the occupation of disputed Kashmir, the insurgencies in the northeast, and the Maoist-led rebellion across the forests of central India. Nor have they been able to overhaul the country's crumbling infrastructure, increase its agricultural productivity, expand health care to its most vulnerable citizens, or reform its brutal police departments and inefficient criminal-justice system. 

Beneath all those crises is the growing gap between India's haves and have-nots. Today, even the world's most advanced democracies are struggling to address the increasing inequality that imperils social cohesion and effective governance. But unlike the United States and the countries of Europe, India is still enjoying high rates of economic growth: seven percent annually, as of last year. India has the opportunity to spread the benefits of that growth before it is too late. 

On the night of August 15, 1947, when India won its independence, Nehru gave a speech casting the country's mission as a struggle "to bring freedom and opportunity to the common man, to the peasants and workers of India; to fight and end poverty and ignorance and disease; to build up a prosperous, democratic and progressive nation, and to create social, economic and political institutions which will ensure justice and fullness of life to every man and woman." The economic and political reforms that could bring today's capitalist India closer to that ideal would no doubt differ significantly from the socialist path Nehru would have chosen. But his words still serve as an apt reminder of just how unfulfilled the promise of India remains.