Incredible India: Through a newsman’s eyes

Inspiteofthegods India is an unlikely economic giant. The vast majority of its people don't even have steady jobs, points out Edward Luce in his insightful book on India.

Fewer than 40 million of its 470 million workforce are employed in the "organized sector", which offers job protection and other benefits. The government and the public sector are the biggest employers, employing 25 million people. The big Indian companies we hear about such as Infosys and Reliance Industries employ far fewer people. Less than 1 per cent works in the IT industry and yet India has become a software giant.

 Edward Luce aptly calls his book In Spite Of The Gods: The Strange Rise Of Modern India. India is a deeply religious, largely superstitious country, he says, where most people continue to live in the Edward_lucevillages because there are not enough jobs in the cities. Unlike America or Britain, India has not industrialized on a large scale before setting up high-tech industries.

Luce knows India inside out. He was the Financial Times' South Asia bureau chief based in New Delhi from 2001 to 2006 before becoming the newspaper's Washington bureau chief. And his wife is an Indian.

Luce traces India's lopsided growth to the policies set by India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. He promoted capital-intensive industries and poured as much money into higher education as in primary education. The result: India produces about a million engineering graduates a year but only 65 percent of the population is literate.

India has to change into a more urban, industrial economy, says Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and Luce agrees with him. Yes, they have met, not once but several times.

This is a tight, well-written book which describes the country, its people and politics with interesting details and anecdotes.

Luce recalls an interview with Sonia Gandhi in 2004:

"You know politics does not come easily to me," she said. "I do not enjoy it. I do not even think I am very good at it. Politics killed my mother-in-law and it killed my husband. But when I saw what they were doing to India's secular culture, I felt I could no longer stand by and watch it happen without doing something," she said (referring to the Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002). "Secularism is the most important legacy of my family. I had to stand up and defend it. I could not watch them tear it." Sonia's eyes were brimming with tears. She was not sobbing. But there was an intense sadness in her face.

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Caviar and fine wine for communist leaders of Bengal

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The former Economist editor Bill Emmott met the veteran Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Jyoti Basu, who was then chief minister of West Bengal, and his party colleague, Asim Dasgupta, who is still the state's finance minister. Emmott describes their meeting in his book, Rivals: How The Power Struggle Between China, India and Japan, published last year. He writes:

A very generous and hospitable local businesman had laid on a dinner for us at his home, and had kindly invited the two politicians. In Kolkata, poverty is highly visible right on the streets, and so the contrast of gliding past beggars and street dwellers to visit a comfortable home is always disconcerting, at least for an outsider.

The politicians underlined the contradictions even more. Ever since 1977, West Bengal politics has been dominated by none other than the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and Mr Basu was the chief minister for 23 years from then until his retirement in 2000.

Our host's table was excellent: the first course essentially consisted of caviar, accompanied by a fine Puligny-Montrachet. The communist politicians were not disconcerted at all. They seemed to enjoy the hospitality, especially the caviar.

Yes, it is a cheap point. Communist politicians everywhere have to sup with capitalists, and "champagne socialist" is a term familiar in London, too.

But the CPI(M) in general, and the government of West Bengal in particular, is a rich source of paradox.

The communists hindered national development while trying to develop their own state of West Bengal, says Emmott.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh could not go against their wishes because his Congress coalition government depended on their support. Finally the communists withdrew their support in protest against the nuclear agreement he signed with President George Bush, but by then he was approaching the end of his term.

Polling begins today to elect a new government.

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India’s 714 million voters’ time to choose


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Indian general elections are the most extraordinary thing.  A total of 714 million people will be eligible to vote in the general election starting next month – 43 million more than in the last election in 2004.

The elections will be held over five days between April 16 and May 13. More than four million civil servants and 2.1 million paramilitary personnel will be involved in the exercise to elect 543 members of parliament. Two are appointed by the President.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Congress party won 145 seats in the last general election and heads a coalition government whose term ends on June 1. The opposition is split. The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won 138 seats and heads a centre-right alliance while the Communist Party of India (Marxist) leads a leftwing alliance that until recently supported the ruling coalition. Congress ousted the BJP from power in the last election. The winner this time will be known after the votes are counted on May 16.

The polls will be conducted by the independent Election Commission, which has revised the boundaries of 499 of the 543 parliamentary constituencies. There will be more than 828,000 polling stations equipped with more than 1.1 million electronic voting machines spread across the 28 states and seven Union Territories.

Here is the polling schedule for the various states and Union Territories. Each is followed by the number of lawmakers it elects and the label “opp” if it is held by the opposition. (The states and Union Territories have their own governments.) Union Territories are labelled UT.

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Blogs can publish stories faster than online news sites

I was thrilled yesterday when I could publish on my blog that Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had won the vote of confidence even before the news appeared on the BBC, CNN and several other online news sites including some of the major Indian newspapers’. It was simple really. I posted an entry on my blog as soon as I heard the news on the BBC. One of the BBC’s Indian correspondents said in an interview that Singh was leading by 21 votes in the ongoing vote count and I published it. The BBC published the news a little later. I searched Google News and Google Blog Search and saw the news had already been published in a BlogSpot blog which was following the livecast of the vote count in parliament. But I saw no other site with the news at the time.

There must have been others I missed. My own site was malfunctioning, so it might have slipped the notice of others too.

But that’s not the point. All I am saying is how fast news travels on the Net and news can be broken by well-informed bloggers and other individuals — and need not necessarily come first from official sources or the mainstream media.

In Singapore, of course, reporting something before it’s picked up by the local media is as easy as stealing candy from a kid. I realised that when I was following the stories about Citigroup, UBS and Merrill Lynch during the subprime crisis. The Singapore sovereign wealth funds GIC and Temasek Holdings have invested heavily in the financial institutions hit by the crisis and were taking a beating. But not all the news was getting into the local media. The foreign media had quite a few interesting stories. But whether it’s advisable to report something about Singapore before it’s picked up by the local media I really don’t know. I would rather blog and be bland than blog and get into hot water.

Indian government survives: nationalists, communists lose

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Hurrah! Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has won the vote of
confidence by 19 votes. So much for the Hindu nationalists and the
communists who tried to bring down the government and wreck the Indo-US
civilian nuclear energy agreement.

The final count shows the Government won 275 votes and the opposition 256 votes, says the BBC. The government needed 273 votes to win in the 543-member parliament.

The BBC adds: If the government had lost the vote, India would have faced early elections, casting the nuclear deal in doubt.

There was brief confusion over the counting process. Most voting was
electronic, but about 50 votes were cast on paper which delayed the
count.

At least four MPs were too ill to vote from the chamber of the
543-seat house itself, but it is still not clear why so many MPs cast
paper ballots.

But the government managed to scrape through with the support of smaller parties and independent members.

India faces a general election next year and many political parties
have used the debate over the nuclear deal to stake out their positions
ahead of the polls.