Two nations

Being Indian: inside the real India

Pavan K Varma <em>William Heinemann, 217pp, £17.99</em>

ISBN

The idea of Indianness has never been quite as amorphous and contradiction-ridden as it is in the first decade of the 21st century. The economic reforms of the early 1990s have engendered a highly affluent, burgeoning meritocracy. India's urban landscape has altered beyond recognition: the country's cities are flush with the accoutrements of globalisation. India is seen as an emerging economic superpower which will, in the near future, challenge the hegemony of America.

Not surprisingly, all this has bred a certain triumphalism. Every day, newspapers provide ever more data to justify the feeling of success. "With more degree-holders than the entire population of France," Pavan Varma tells us in the opening pages of his latest book, "India is finding new recognition in the field of information technology." Later, he recounts the story of Narayana Murthy, who set up an IT company called Infosys in 1981 with capital of roughly $1,000. "In 2000," Varma tells us, barely able to contain his excitement, "Infosys had a market capitalisation value of around $40bn."

There are other inspirational stories: Sabeer Bhatia sold Hotmail to Microsoft for $400m in 1998. Vinod Khosla, who co-founded Sun Microsystems, is worth more than $1bn. Hemant Kanakia got $450m from Ericsson for his Torrent Networking Technologies. No wonder the two words that affluent Indians recite most often are "feel good".

If only that were all there is to it. In 2004, the coalition of parties that ruled India, headed by the right-wing nationalist BJP, fought a general election with the slogan "India Shining". The BJP was hammered, and the country returned to power a government led by India's oldest political party, Congress. The BJP's mistake was to conflate the concerns of the urban rich with those of the 72 per cent of India's population that lives in the hinterland, often in abject poverty. Despite its growing status in information technology, India has, according to a recent study, only 84 television sets per thousand people (the United States has 938) and only 7.2 personal computers for every thousand people (Australia has 564.5). The internet reaches 2 per cent of the country's population; for Malaysia, the figure is 34 per cent.

This disparity between the urban elite and the economically depressed lies at the root of Indian identity. As is increasingly being acknowledged by policy-makers, there are now essentially two Indias, one of which goes by the name of Bharat (Hindi for India) and the other of which is known simply as "India". Even Bollywood movies, which used to be enjoyed by Indians of all classes, have begun to lose their homogeneous, inclusive appeal. There are now separate films that target either city-dwellers or audiences in small towns and villages. Varma, despite his occasionally triumphalist tone, is alert to such paradoxes. "Today India has the largest number of out-of-school children in the world and one of the world's largest reservoirs of trained and skilled manpower," he writes.

Being Indian is, for the most part, a well-researched and urgent inquiry that is informed as much by allusions to Hindu mythological texts as it is by a knowledge of current affairs and popular culture. However, issues such as the place of secularism in the society demand a more complex response than Varma gives. And he bases the book on the premise that the 21st century will be dominated by India. This seems doubtful. China, the country that looks most likely to emerge as the economic giant of this century, is way ahead of India by most measures of economic success. Varma never exactly tells us why he thinks the roles will be reversed, why the 21st century will eventually turn out to be India's. It would be nice to know.

Soumya Bhattacharya's book on cricket and Indianness will be published by Yellow Jersey Press next year