Posted by: John Elliott | September 10, 2010

India as it is – a spoof eye view

“Imagine we’re sitting in, let’s say, a large country somewhere else in the world (other than India) that is attracting lots of foreign investment attention and plaudits for its emergence on the world’s economic and diplomatic scene. We’re on our first visit, and haven’t had time to learn much before we came – and now we’re wondering why we’re here.”

That’s how I started a talk at a dinner last night, when I had just got back to Delhi after six weeks away, observing India and all its troubles and contradictions from afar. Here’s what I said:

We’ve only been here a day or two, and already we’ve discovered that a quarter of the country we are visiting is controlled by left-wing rebels bent on gradually decimating democratic rule and established government structures as we know them. There is also occasional devastating religious terrorism by opposing faiths, plus a province in the north that is on the brink of its second foreign-backed insurgency.

There are two tiresome neighbours, one riven with religious-based terrorism that its extremists want to export. The other far bigger neighbour is a long-term threat, and has for years been encouraging the smaller neighbour to do its worst. The larger neighbour, by the way, is thought to be planting bugs in the country’s telecoms (and probably also defence) software systems, but our hosts don’t seem too worried.

We can’t travel very much round the capital because most roads and markets have been dug up by corrupt contractors feeding the greediness of municipal politicians and bureaucrats.

The prime minister is a nice well-meaning elderly guy, but he’s run by a foreign-born lady whose main interest is said to be to make sure her son becomes prime minister one day – or her daughter if he refuses to knuckle down and get married – that’s vital for dynasties.

The PM can’t control many of his ministers, who mainly want to make money for themselves and or their regional parties, thus undermining key areas of the economy such as airlines and airports, telecoms, and mining, and sometimes industrial and other policies such as foreign direct investment, special economic zones, petroleum, agriculture and food supplies

Most parliamentarians – a meaningless title we’ve discovered since most of them do little that’s constructive in parliament – are dynastically getting their sons, daughters, wives and even mistresses into politics. Somehow we can’t believe that’s done for the good of parliament or the country.

Elsewhere personal greed seems to govern sport, ranging from chaotic preparations for some imminent regional games to an astoundingly successful and lucrative private sector cricket league, plus illegal betting (along with the smaller neighbour) on cricket matches. Businessmen and politicians are also conniving to plunder the country’s mineral wealth with scant regard for the environment or the law.

And you can’t even believe what you read in the newspapers – well you can’t anywhere can you, but here the country’s biggest and most famous newspaper prints what it’s paid to print and also gets commercially involved with its advertisers by investing in their stocks and managing their advertising budgets. Paid News it’s called, and if you don’t pay when they want you to, then watch out for unpaid bad news about you.

Oh, and I almost forgot, the capital is wracked by a mosquito-spread deadly fever that’s sprung out of all those construction works I mentioned earlier.

And the other thing I almost forgot is that a few months ago everyone was worried about a terror attack next month during those regional games, but now they’re more worried about all the pot holes and collapsing venues and traffic chaos. Odd isn’t it how priorities change. Let’s hope the terrorists have left, deciding it’s not worth trying to break through all the bedlam – after all, could anyone ever do more damage to the country than it’s doing itself?

But it’s odd, the people living here don’t seem too worried about all this chaos and, even more surprisingly, nor do investors. After all, we haven’t yet fled.

That was the end of my caricature of today’s India, and I balanced it by saying that there is of course good news. There’s a growth rate nearing 9 or 10%, an increasingly capable and internationalising manufacturing industry, and a highly competitive software and IT industry. India is a brainy country with huge human potential, amazingly achieving what it is with only about a third or so of the population actually contributing much to the growth.

Manmohan Singh, I said, is a caring thoughtful prime minister who tries to do good wherever he can. Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, despite her dynastic preoccupations, has done an outstanding job in transforming herself from a housewife into a national figure, saving the Congress Party and leading it to election victories.

There are also some excellent ministers genuinely trying to make India a better place – notably Palaniappan Chidambaram, Jairam Ramesh, and Kapil Sibal, all trying to overcome a decade of mostly poor performance in their ministries, while Pranab Mukherjee manages the stresses and strains of a mixed economy and an even more mixed coalition.

No one at the small dinner I was addressing (in the luxurious cocoon of a private dining room at China Garden in Delhi’s Hyatt Hotel) attacked my spoof. They all – Indians and expats – knew it was valid. We discussed the need for better more focussed politicians, the real causes of corruption and Naxalism, and the over-riding need for dramatic improvements in education.

The sad thing though was that my spoof could not be challenged. That is India as it is today!


  1. We all think the same, and we keep coming! India takes you to exasperation and to exhilaration at the same time. That’s the way it is…

  2. Dear John,
    you give a very accurate description of India as it is today. I can’t help thinking though that many of the flaws and issues you’ve described are common issues in developing countries. Yes, I know, some Indians would cringe at the mere suggestion that Bharat Mata is still in a developing stage….with all its brain power, industrial powerhouses etc. etc.
    But the fact of the matter is that India is a developing country, and the same trait or flaws have been experienced by others before. For example my very dear mediterranean peninsula only 70 years ago or so (and some would say still!).

    My regret in India, is that the same arrogance and presumptiousness that is driving part of their success, is blinding them from learning from other countries’ mistakes of the past. This hinders and slows India’s social and economic development greatly. And that’s a shame.


  3. So what is the hope for India? Is it that enough of the stiffling regulations and stupid rules which prevented growth have been lifted. This more business friendly environment will allow the economy to continue growing for more time and this will trickle down and improve the lot of the people. This should set up a self sustaining cycle and bring the country to the level of development of say Thailand. This is the best case scenario.

  4. Don’t want to be a party-pooper John, so read your article in the spirit it was meant. Implicit in what you said and the subsequent comments is the luxury of freedom of speech in India and that is a great asset. Democracy and debate ARE inertial but in such a heterogeneous country, I guess we have to sacrifice speed to achieve some sort of majority support. We have muddled through for sixty years and remain one nation in spite of the fissiparous pressures from within and without.

  5. Perfect piece. Matches a picture I painted on the growing aspects of institutional decay and crony capitalism at the ISB yesterday.

  6. Why did you fail to notice energetic young population having big dream in their eyes in villages ?
    Your article is descriptive of things which are prevailant in other developed countries in refined manner. India is not refined; it is crisp and lively.
    Just visit any school or rural land scape. You will get the reason for economic strength. Its not PM/ahluwalia or any other economist; it is people who are solidly earthy and progressing ahead with their lives.
    India will grow fast if no economists are there as these are the people who make policies to fly away money from country in the form of corruption or by so called FDI

  7. Dear John

    Had some sort of withdrawal symptoms with the ride on the elephant. Great piece as usual.

    Have you given a moment’s thought of the beneficiaries of this unmindful corruption? Let me provide you the answer, the luxury car industry, especially German. They have raked in around US$ 2 to 3billion worth of business.

    In all this sham the loosers are you and me because of the chaos all the borrowings would cause to the banking system.

    Read today’s ET and see for your self the overleveraged Mr Anil Ambani, but that does not stop him from being one of the highest paid executives.

    Corruption and more corruption and then there is this government. best regards, BK

  8. It is striking that a lot of people are now focusing much more strongly on the negatives this monsoon – much more so than six months back, although nothing has changed dramatically. I have a feeling it is a combination of increasing political vacuum at the national level and concern internationally that the India being showcased by the CWG is indeed the real India…….

  9. India dissected in excruciating detail by the eagle eyes of John!

    Wish you would have added how tons of foodgrains are rotting in our stores while millions starve…… endemic corruption gnaws at the sinews of governance …….how the politicians continue to feed the starving poor with their dreams of development…… a Chief Minister of an extremely impoverished but mineral rich state was falling at the feet of the Prime Minster last month in a desperate bid to get the okay for a controversial mining project destined to destroy the cutlure and identity of a small indigenous tribe. … farmers suicides have failed to make news anymore in a country obsessed with double digit growth!

  10. Great piece John! Excellent!

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