Ashoka Mody, India is Broken: A People Betrayed, Independence to Today. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2023. 528 pages. Deepti Kapoor, Age of Vice. New York: Riverhead Books, 2023. 548 pages. Ram Gopal Varma (director), Sarkar 3 (film).
Ashoka Mody is an economist, currently a faculty member at Princeton University. He has written a history of India’s politics and economic development over 75 years, from independence in 1947 to the management of COVID in 2020–22. Given his career – he spent over a decade at the World Bank, followed by nearly two decades as a senior official at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – the reader might expect his book to employ the cautious style of international agencies such as the IMF. Admittedly, Mody discusses exchange rate policies, tax policies, income distribution, poverty rates and such. Neither the Bank nor the IMF would ever publish this book. Mody’s goal is to damn the priorities of Indian politicians, from Jawaharlal Nehru to Narendra Modi. Numerous academic colleagues (Indian, American and British) have reviewed the manuscript and provided implicit support for Mody’s prosecution.
Some academics, graduate students and motivated general readers will read Mody’s book. Its audience will probably be small. Those not willing to read a lengthy academic book can get a feel of Indian politics via “realist” authors and movie directors – such as Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger, the film Slumdog Millionaire (based on Vikas Swarup’s Q & A) and Ram Gopal Varma’s “Godfather” Sarkar films. Deepti Kapoor’s Age of Vice is a new novel with themes that overlap with Mody’s: unacceptably large income inequality; unacceptable corruption in government and business, much of it in construction and real estate; elite capture of state-level governments; and blurring of the distinction between corrupt politicians and corrupt businessmen. Her novel may not be as complex as Salman Rushdie’s, but it is a good read.
Mody’s two accusations
Mody’s first accusation is that, from the beginning, Nehru and most – albeit not all – Congress leaders failed to prioritize provision of universal quality services such as primary health care and, above all, basic education. Nehru was enamoured of large-scale infrastructure and industrial projects such as steel mills. He described himself as a socialist, but he avoided the complex administrative details required to establish school systems able to provide universal literacy and numeracy.
The second is that, after Nehru, no prime minister has given priority to containing corruption. Indira Gandhi abandoned her father’s discomfort with corruption. She described it as a “global phenomenon,” making no distinction between Scandinavia and India. Over the following decades, Mody argues, corruption expanded and has become deeply embedded in the conventions of India’s public services. The potential for democratic accountability to rectify matters has more or less disappeared.
By prioritizing Hindu nationalism (Hindutva) and dismissing Mahatma Gandhi’s insistence on religious tolerance, Narendra Modi has eliminated the possibility of a major political party campaigning successfully on a platform reversing the political rot dating back to Indira Gandhi. Among many items of evidence, Mody notes the rise in the share of members of parliament (Lok Sabha) with pending criminal cases: from 24 per cent in 2004 (Congress government led by Manmohan Singh) to more than 40 per cent in 2019 (BJP government led by Modi).
Mody’s conclusion, echoing Kapoor: India is broken.
Basic education failure in South Asia and the Sri Lanka exception
Mody devotes a chapter to Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore is known as a poet and novelist, but he was also a passionate advocate of universal public education: “In my view the imposing tower of misery which today rests on the heart of India has its sole foundation in the absence of education. Caste divisions, religious conflicts, aversion to work, precarious economic conditions – all centre on this single factor.”1 Tagore travelled widely; he examined public school systems in many countries. As mentor to Nehru, he (unsuccessfully) recommended that an independent India pursue the education strategies of countries such as the Soviet Union, Japan and Sri Lanka.
Akin to Canada in the mid-19th century, by the 1930s governments in the provinces of the British raj controlled domestic policy. Unlike the rest of the subcontinent, the leading politicians in Colombo prioritized universal basic education in the decades prior to Sri Lanka’s gaining sovereignty in 1948. The education minister, C.W.W. Kannangara, played a powerful role in cabinet debates over priorities. He and Tagore offered mutual support on the importance of education. By the time Kannangara retired from politics in 1947, Sri Lanka had an adult literacy rate of about 65 per cent, four times the rate elsewhere in the subcontinent. Tagore died in 1941. Had he lived past 1947, he would have been deeply disappointed.
Mody thanks his 96-year-old father for providing help on the early chapters dealing with the politics of Nehru’s reign. Presumably, this passage reflects both his and his father’s conclusion:
The government persisted in dedicating insufficient funds to primary education and spending those scarce education funds on higher education. Thus, India acquired a lopsided education system that did not serve the people and created the incentives among students for acquiring degree certificates rather than acquiring education. Corruption infiltrated the administration, especially, of colleges and universities.
Convincing evidence exists to confirm the conclusion of Mody and his father that, since 1947, India has continued to suffer a “lopsided education system.” Tagore’s “imposing tower” of illiteracy has shrunk over the last 75 years, but the majority of Indian children remain illiterate. The first five-year plan (1951–56) promised that all children aged 6–11 would achieve, within a decade, at least universal primary education and hence basic literacy and numeracy. Six decades later, in 2009, the Congress government enacted the Right to Education Act, which specified universal education to age 14. At the central and state levels, governments spent money on better school facilities but made no progress on reducing corruption in hiring and posting of teachers, decentralizing administration and increasing teacher supervision. Overall, student outcomes have not improved.
The only credible assessment of primary education outcomes across rural India is very large in-home surveys organized every two years by Pratham, a large NGO. The two key results of these surveys are the ability of Grade 5 students (the final primary grade in South Asia) to read a short story at a Grade 2 level and successfully divide a three-digit by a one-digit number. In the 2018 survey, the most recent pre-COVID, on average 50 per cent of more than 500,000 children surveyed could read the story; 28 per cent could do the division. Admittedly, the variance across Indian states is large.2
A new piece of evidence is the World Bank’s learning poverty statistic, a heroic attempt to compare basic literacy rates across countries in the cohort of children expected to be in upper-level primary grades. In India, the 2022 learning poverty rate (proportion of children between the ages of 10 and 14 who can’t read a Grade 2 story) is 56 per cent. That is, only 44 per cent of children in that age range can read at a Grade 2 level. The comparable rate in Bangladesh is 42 per cent able to read, in Pakistan 25 per cent. By contrast, 85 per cent of Sri Lankan children can read, at least at the Grade 2 level.
Failure to control corruption
The World Bank defines corruption as “the extent to which public power is exercised for private gain, including both petty and grand forms of corruption, as well as ‘capture of the state’ by elites and private interests.”3 Those engaged in corruption have an incentive not to divulge their illegal activity. Hence, measuring corruption is open to much debate. One respected measure of corruption at the national level is Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perception Index. In 2022, of 147 countries ranked top to bottom, India ranked 85th. Incidentally, the corruption in other South Asian countries is worse. Bangladesh ranked 147th, Pakistan ranked 140th, Nepal ranked 104th and Sri Lanka ranked 101st.4
Here is Mody’s abstract to Chapter 22 (“Modi Breaks India’s Fractured Democracy”):
A democracy works for the people when it provides public goods that help everyone enhance their own well-being. By that test, Indian democracy definitively betrayed its people. When Narendra Modi became prime minister , Indians suffered from poor quality education and health services, cities were chaotic, the judicial system worked only for some, and rampant environmental pollution was depleting the inheritance of India’s children. The centrality of construction as a growth driver was contributing to corruption and the injection of criminals in politics; this was true for even progressive states such as Tamil Nadu. With Modi’s ascent, an intolerant Hindutva became an added impediment to democracy. Modi’s initiatives to provide more toilets and gas stoves helped but made no dent in the broader lack of public goods. The 2019 election brought election spending, legislators facing criminal charges, and Hindutva to a new crescendo, sending Indian democracy into possibly irreversible decline.
Mody provides a critique of Indian business elites, politicians (in all major parties) and the judiciary. At time of writing (February 2023), it appears that Gautam Adani, head of a conglomerate with headquarters in Gujarat (Modi’s home state), has manipulated financial accounts. The result is a halving of Adani’s known corporate share values, previously $200 billion USD. The Economist’s summary of recent events is consistent with Mody’s:
The Modi years have in many ways eroded India’s checks and balances. His government has steadily undermined the independence of the courts and the police. The media are mostly too cowed to investigate the mighty as they once did. Few Indian newspapers would have touched a story about Mr Adani had an American firm not asked the tough questions first. Mr Adani himself recently bought NDTV, a news channel that was once critical of the government but is now supine.5
South Asia’s “realists”
Kapoor’s novel is partially an autobiography. Neda, a central character in the novel, is an investigative journalist for a Delhi newspaper. Kapoor was a journalist while in her 20s. She admits to participating in the dissolute lifestyle of Delhi’s young and rich. The second central character, Sunny Wadia, is the dilettante son of the powerful though thoroughly corrupt and brutal patriarch of the Wadia construction firm. The third is Ajay, son of an impoverished single mother whose husband has been killed by a neighbouring farmer. Ajay’s mother sells him to a trafficker of child servants and prostitutes. Ajay ultimately becomes Sunny’s personal assistant.
At times in the novel, Kapoor assumes the role of journalist and describes the tactics whereby the Wadia firm displaces slum dwellers in Delhi and buys up land titles of farmers with small holdings in the city’s outskirts. There is a corrupt beneficial link between the Wadia corporation and the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. I don’t want to spoil the climax. Reviewers in the New York Times and the Guardian refer to Mario Puzo’s Godfather as a precedent.6 Both novels are based on the complex codependence of organized criminals and senior politicians. There are other literary precedents to note.
Kapoor has obviously been inspired, in terms of plot, by Adiga’s White Tiger, a brilliant satire and winner of the 2008 Booker prize. Adiga’s equivalent of Ajay is Balram, a very smart, very ruthless peasant from Bihar. He rises in status to become the driver for Mr. Ashok, owner of a coal mine. To get the permit for a new mine, Mr. Ashok must pay a very large bribe to the relevant cabinet minister in Delhi. As he drives his employer to the minister’s apartment, he slits Mr. Ashok’s throat and disappears with the duffel bag stuffed with cash. This provides Balram with the necessary financing to become a successful entrepreneur in Bangalore. The novel is written as a series of letters to the prime minister of China who is about to visit Bangalore and witness India’s high-tech developments there. Balram wants the Chinese guest to learn about the actual manner of conducting business in India, not the Potemkin village version prepared by political elites.
Much as Balzac, Dickens, Dostoyevsky and Gogol described the indefensible extremes of wealth, poverty and corruption in 19th-century Europe, Kapoor and Adiga are two of many realist novelists who describe the contemporary shape of Indian society. To these two can be added their Pakistani equivalents, Mohsin Hamid and Mohammed Hanif.
A link from Dickens to contemporary South Asian writers is Slumdog Millionaire, a film loosely based on Vikas Swarup’s novel Q & A that won the 2009 Oscar as best film of the year. The actors were all Indian; the director, Danny Boyle, was British. The equivalent of Fagin in Oliver Twist could be the thugs who recruit street children on a Mumbai garbage dump, blind them and set them up as productive beggars. The Mumbai Oliver and a young girl escape the clutches of Mumbai’s Fagins. He becomes a chawallah (tea seller), working for a television company that runs a popular quiz show; she becomes a prostitute. By good luck, Oliver finds a benefactor; by good luck, the chawallah becomes a quiz contestant and wins a million rupees. He elopes with the girl, who is liberated from a brothel. The ending is a Bollywood song and dance.
Ram Gopal Varma has, in the manner of Francis Ford Coppola, directed several “Godfather” Bollywood movies. He freely acknowledges his inspiration from Coppola and Puzo.7 His most recent Sarkar was released in 2017. Varma is here testing the limit of free expression in Modi’s India. Sarkar is a Mumbai don, the equivalent of Brando’s aging mafia don. The film introduces corrupt businessmen, corrupt politicians and corrupt police, as well as the role of vigilante justice. In Godfather II, the opening scene is an old man appealing to the don to revenge the rape of his daughter by beating up the rapist. In a similar scene in Sarkar, Sarkar’s lieutenants murder the rapist as he steps out of an expensive car parked at the entrance to a five-star hotel. As Al Pacino succeeds the old don, Sarkar’s “good son” agonizes over his family obligations. Ultimately, he sacrifices a peaceful domestic life in America with his fiancée and, instead, continues Sarkar’s tradition of vigilante justice.
Mody’s book is the prosecutor’s case against Indian elites. However, there is a defence case to be made. The defence is in the bullet points, with the prosecutor’s response in italics:
- The share of the population living below the “low” income country poverty threshold of $2.15 USD per person per day8 has dramatically declined since 1947. It is now only 10 per cent. The World Bank classifies India as “lower-middle” income with a recommended poverty threshold of $3.65 USD per person per day. With this somewhat higher threshold, 45 per cent of Indians are poor.
- India has had an impressive rate of per capita GDP increases since the turn of the century. The average annual increase from 2000 to 2019, the last year prior to COVID, was over 5 per cent, not as high as China but well above the increase among nearly all other “lower-middle” income countries. Despite embedded corruption and grossly inadequate public services, India illustrates that a country can achieve impressive growth rates. There is a ceiling to per capita GDP of “low middle” income countries with lamentable social services and high corruption. All “upper middle” income countries, such as China and Malaysia, deliver tolerably good education and health services.
- Over the last 50 years, Indian life expectancy at birth has risen from about 50 to 70. The life expectancies at birth for both Sri Lanka and China are higher.
- If we compare India 75 years after independence to, say, Britain 75 years after the publication of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, we should discuss the Great Exhibition of 1851. It was an overly self-satisfied celebration of the British economy. It took another century before Clement Atlee, Labour Prime Minister following World War II, created adequate universal social services in the U.K. This is a legitimate argument against the British, but in post-1947 India everyone expected better than Britain in 1851.
- Mody elaborates on the role of corruption in destroying the environment of the subcontinent. For example, the air in India’s megacities is undeniably dangerous to human health, but probably no worse than the air in London as described by Dickens in Bleak House (published in 1853). Given rising temperatures and sea levels, we cannot wait for a century before Indian elites assume social responsibilities.
These are five credible qualifications but, were I the judge, I would still endorse Mody, the prosecutor.