In 1991, India found itself on the cusp of an economic disaster. Its foreign exchange reserves had dwindled to a precarious low, and the World Bank was refusing the country’s request for aid. Negotiations with the World Bank ultimately gave India much-needed funds, but with a stringent condition: India was forced to open up its hitherto protected economy to foreign investment. In the past, the “License Raj,” a notorious legacy of the British, had led to protectionism and lack of competition. Lobbying for licenses essentially had become the key competitive weapon for Indian businesses. The Indian economic milieu underwent a drastic change in the post-1991 period. Edward Luce, the longtime South Asian bureau chief for the venerable Financial Times, provides a firsthand observation of the results of the changes in the India of the new millennium.
Luce’s portrait of an India in the throes of seismic change is at once a micro look at what these changes mean to individuals, and also a bird’s-eye look at changes at the macro level. Luce is not an entirely impartial observer. He is married to an Indian and clearly has a fondness for the subcontinent. But his travels throughout the country reveal that for every outsourcing-fueled boom, there is the downside of pollution, tremendous traffic in roads, and abject poverty among those whom the boom left behind.
This is an outsider’s view of understanding what to most people is a difficult country, and Luce does an earnest and non-condescending job of it. His perceptive eye enables him to look beyond the chimera of technological prowess and peek directly into the underbelly of a nation, the vast majority of whose people live a hand-to-mouth existence.
India and China are seen as emerging giants on the world’s economic stage. The inscrutability of both cultures is seen as a major impediment for Western businesses. Luce’s book goes a long way in opening up India to the outsider.