//The New India, and the Old One

The New India, and the Old One

The President was shown the nation’s best face, but that’s only half the story

Sunday, Mar. 05, 2006

Presidents of the U.S. don’t get scared. They get security.

But if the murder of an American diplomat in Karachi last week underlined the fact that George W. Bush was on one of his riskier foreign trips, the President was probably unaware he was skirting not two conflict zones — Afghanistan and Pakistan — but three.

In India, Bush toured the southern city of Hyderabad to praise an example of everything that’s right about the nation. Like its neighbor Bangalore, this ancient Muslim fort town is a hub for science and technology. But Hyderabad is also an example of what’s still wrong with India. In the last few years, thousands of impoverished farmers have committed suicide in the barren, drought-stricken land outside the metropolis. For some, despair has turned to anger at the shiny city on the horizon, and their forsaken fields are now a front line in a little-noticed war between security forces and an estimated 10,000 Marxist guerrillas. In a land-mine attack a few hours’ drive north of Hyderabad three days before Bush arrived, the Naxals (who take their name from a 1967 rebellion in the town of Naxalbari) killed almost 30 government supporters returning from an antirebel rally.

Today, there is old India and new India. One is epitomized by the surging chaos that fascinated generations of backpackers and travel writers. The other is the efficient center of outsourcing and IT that thrills today’s investment bankers. Where the two meet, there’s trouble.

The government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was elected on a tide of rural resentment against the booming cities in spring 2004. That rage continues. Government figures released last month show Naxal violence claimed 892 people last year, up from 653 in 2004. In November, hundreds of guerrillas overran an entire town, broke into its jail and freed almost 400 prisoners. The Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management says the Naxals now control a corridor stretching hundreds of miles across the central hinterland.

Bush, one may surmise, paid little attention to this. He’s not alone: new India is just as indifferent.

The country’s entrepreneurs and middle classes are euphoric about their new prosperity, and rightly so — they are the engine of change that will eventually modernize a whole nation. India is a focus for the twin drivers of our age: globalization and technology. The economy has doubled in size in 15 years, foreign direct investment is 40 times what it was in 1991, and India now has several world-class conglomerates. And there are 70,000 millionaires in India, celebrating a stock index that has tripled in three years.

But in a country of 1.1 billion people, where 800 million earn $2 a day or less, the Naxal movement shows that members-only progress can spur a deep sense of injustice. Economic growth of 7-8% sounds pretty good until you realize it means just an extra $40 a year for the average Indian. The changes that will improve the life chances of all — ending malnutrition and corruption, reforming infrastructure, education and health care — will take generations to achieve.

History suggests progress will be uneven and messy. During the Industrial Revolution in the British Isles, starvation and forced migration almost halved Ireland’s population. In the late 19th century in the U.S., millions lived in squalor, and militias occasionally shot striking workers in labor disputes — it happened as late as 1914, in Ludlow, Colorado. Before the Bolshevik Revolution, Russia had one of the fastest rates of economic growth in Europe, even as peasants starved and an urban proletariat grew up ready to revolt.

It’s easy to see how, on a three-day trip, India might feel like a nation magically transformed. Bookstores have shelves dedicated to India’s new economic might, newspapers review the latest Porsche, and television advertisements feature Indian astronauts drinking sodas on the moon. But backbreaking poverty remains all too evident, the country still has only 3,000 km of freeway, and finding enough water to drink is an annual battle for tens of millions. (Oh, and there are no real-life plans for an Indian lunar landing.) There’s a handy Hindu concept to explain these paradoxes. Maya means wonder, as in Mayanagri (city of dreams), the Hindi nickname for Bombay. It also denotes a willful fantasy — of the kind, for example, that would have a U.S. President last week expressing his "joy" at seeing the new India while in Delhi, a city only half-supplied with sewers.

Gandhi was once asked what he thought of Western civilization. "That would be a good idea," he replied. So would an India in which economic development benefited all. Those who see a nation that has already arrived are suffering from a very Indian illusion.