Book Review: Implosion

In 2014, John Elliott, the long-time former Financial Times correspondent in India, published “Implosion: India’s Tryst with India,” the result of 25 years of living and reporting from the country. The purpose of the book, he said then, was “not so much to look at the most recent short-term failures, but at how any more has not been achieved since independence in 1947.” The book threads a difficult needle, a dispassionate look at India through the eyes of a foreign correspondent whose views are not an insult to a country that needs this kind of clear-eyed analysis.

The country, he wrote, had the vast potential of a population of more than a billion people, abundant natural resources and an ancient culture. Nonetheless, despite the dramatic discarding of the License Raj under then-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the early promise of an unleashed economy. India had stalled out.

At the heart of India’s national approach, Elliott wrote, are what is known as jugaad, which means making do and innovating with whatever is available, and chalta hai, which means “anything goes” and hoping for the best. “Implosion,” which went through several printings and has been hailed as one of the most deeply researched and perceptive books on India, sought in 500 or so pages to explain how those two terms governed the promises and problems of the deeply contradictory country.

Elliott’s book appeared in the bookstalls almost simultaneously with the arrival on India’s national stage of Narendra Modi, who became prime minister in May of 2014 and who has sought as strenuously as possible to change both jugaad and chalta hai.

Five years later, Elliott, who is also the South Asia correspondent for Asia Sentinel, has written five new chapters on Modi’s performance at the head of the Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party.

Modi has not succeeded in eradicating either making do or hoping for the best as national policy. With India’s 900 million voters going to the polls over the next six weeks in the world’s most massive exercise of democracy, Modi’s government has a whirlwind of activity to point to. More than 100 schemes and programs have been introduced with extravagant targets, “to be followed with equally extravagant claims of what has been achieved.”

“The government’s main success in the broad area of the economy has been to introduce more formal structures that have begun to reduce the informal, corrupt tangle of systems and regulations. There have been attempts at an overall crackdown on black money and corruption.” One of those attempts, of course, was to suddenly withdraw from circulation virtually all the country’s high-denomination currencies in an attempt to catch the country’s illegal currency market on the back foot but ended up nearly destroying the economy.

Modi’s Make in India campaign, launched in 2014 to boost manufacturing, is “one of Modi’s highest profile and most disappointing failures,” Elliott writes. “It is also a textbook example of how to build a brand as a symbol but achieves little.” And there is no better – or sadder—example of that than the government’s attempt to lure the French aircraft builder Dassault to build twin-engine Rafale fighter jets in the country, which would have had lots of benefits in terms of technology transfer and other advantages. But the plan foundered when the joint manufacture operation was turned over to a crony capitalism, Anil Ambani, with a company that had never built airplanes and had little high-tech experience. The result was to blacken the BJP’s reputation and leave Modi with a potential political scandal that he himself instigated.

Partly because of the incompetence of the Congress party, which had ruled the country since independence in 1947, and the diffidence of the latest Gandhi, the BJP will probably squeak through in the current elections. It certainly won’t be because the BJP has put in place the policies Modi may or may not have envisioned when he arose from local government in Gujarat. He hasn’t been able to create the jobs required for millions of educated Indians coming into the workforce each year. Reform of government is a distant goal.

Strangely, India’s singular prowess – a highly educated workforce, mastery of the English language and a new approach to high tech that made it the world’s powerhouse in offshore business processing – has somehow faded. The Philippines has overtaken India and surpassed it. Other tech performance including industrial design, looked upon as anchors to the economy, has also languished.

But there have been real social successes. Poverty has dropped markedly. Programs such as getting cooking gas to the poor and providing toilets have been crucial for the wellbeing of women. Highway construction has soared.

Then, as Elliott notes, there is Hindutva – Hindu nationalism, which has taken on a more and more sinister tone. Modi envisioned an India that would be respected as a modern Hindu nation but there are growing concerns over mob violence, of cattle vigilantes out to beat or kill Muslims and other minorities who don’t espouse the same irrational beliefs in the sacredness of cattle.

“In 2014, Congress’s election campaign focused on fear of the BJP, which was inadequate as a vote winner when faced by Modi’s positive message of change, saying ‘Yes we can, yes we will.” However, fear is now a more potent argument, given what has been happening in relation to Muslims, freedom of expression, the focus on beef bans and threats from vigilantes,” Elliott writes.

After all that, Elliott shows flashes of optimism. He concludes, despite the shortcomings of Modi’s achievement, and concerns over Hindu nationalism, that “Modi has begun the job of making India function better. It will take years, if not decades, for the results of major changes of economic policy and approach to become evident.”

The fact is that like any country, changing the national ethos is an enormous task that faces disappointment in the most malleable of countries. India is not malleable. But to get an understanding of the job facing Modi – or Congress, if the opposition could pull off a miracle over the next few weeks – Elliott’s voluminous, minutely footnoted new edition, built on decades of reporting from the country, is worth a repurchase to understand the dynamics of this fascinating, corrupt, alternatively promising country.