The author VS Naipaul died in the same week India turns 71. With his death came an end to more than half a century of excoriating commentary by the Nobel prize-winning writer on post-colonial India and what he saw as its imitativeness, its insecurities and its poverty – not just of the people but of the mind.
Naipaul, born in Trinidad, based in Britain and of Indian ethnicity, often thought of himself as a man without a place. India he saw as a place without real people, just “headless” beings who were mortally wounded by the rule of the Mughal invaders and other distant historical humiliations.
It is not too extreme to say that Naipaul's death closes a chapter on, and for, India. Its literature, tastes, sensibilities and yearnings today identify hardly at all with the majestic melancholy that Naipaul discerned in decolonised societies. With the acerbic and influential writer gone, India no longer has to argue against the hurtful notion, expressed in elegant prose, that it is a country still in the making, a place where history "is only a series of beginnings, no final creation".
At 71, much of India is prone to loudly and proudly trumpet its current incarnation as an economic giant, a superpower-in-waiting, an ancient civilisation with a modernising focus and as a self-confident cultural force for good on the world stage. But is it really?
There is some good news. The International Monetary Fund recently described the Indian economy as an elephant starting to run. The somewhat comical image of pachydermal physical exertion should not distract from its implications. Not only is India on track to remain one of the world's fastest-growing economies, the IMF suggested it would be the global growth engine for the next 30 years.
India's military might too is growing. In February, its $62 billion budgeted spending on defence surpassed that of its former colonial master Britain and took it into a new big league. Only the US, China, Saudi Arabia and Russia now spend more than India on defence. For nearly a decade, India has been the world's top arms importer. It has a mighty professional force with a supremely confident military doctrine that claims it can fight simultaneous land wars.
Finally, there is Indian democracy. The world’s largest, it looks splendid in contrast with one-party China. Elections are routinely held, pretty much on schedule nationally and in India’s 29 states. Indian-manufactured electronic voting machines are used and have been working so well an export market has come up for them. In this century, Indian elections are generally seen to go off without law and order problems and allegations of massive fraud. All would seem orderly and well-regulated.
But, in truth there is a nagging sense among some Indians that all is not well. With Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party in power since 2014, many believe democratic institutions and judicial independence are being deeply eroded. The country’s once riotously free press is seen to be either cowed by the government or in thrall to it. There is a dismayed realisation, as Vidya Subrahmaniam, senior fellow at the secular and authoritative The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy, recently wrote, that “a change deep down” has come about in India. As the result of the BJP’s majoritarianism, there has been, she said, a “deepening of the Hindu-Muslim divide” and increasing “hostility with which the state apparatus everywhere treat[s] Muslims”.
The Indian economy too, for all that it is supposed to be a turbo-charged elephant, has deep and abiding problems. Exports are not growing as they should, the IMF said. And labour, land and product market reforms are badly needed if the one million who enter the Indian workforce every month are to find jobs.
Even the notion of Indian military superiority over its nearest competitors is challenged and that too by its top brass. In March, Indian military chiefs told a parliamentary committee about inadequate equipment, most of which apparently goes into the “vintage” category, with only eight per cent considered state-of-the-art. Indian soldiers don’t even have adequate body armour.
Military analysts followed up with a dismal assessment of India’s old-fashioned military structures. Rather than regional commands, as China recently created when it integrated army, navy and air force, India sticks to more than a dozen single-service commands.
So what does this Indian birthday celebrate – and is anyone celebrating? There has been a profusion of independence day merchandise and flight deals. Elaborate tricolour recipes, meant to reprise the Indian flag, are being proffered on social media. But the sense of celebration is muted and no one is saying exactly why. Naipaul, of course, did, back in 1964 in An Area of Darkness. Indian history, he wrote, is one "whose only lesson is that life goes on".
As a summing-up at this moment, that seems about right.