Edward Luce, the Washington bureau chief for the Financial Times, spoke at BYU on Wednesday, Nov 11. Luce’s book, “In Spite of the Gods: The Rise of Modern India,” was chosen as the Kennedy Center’s Book of the Semester. Luce discussed India’s growth and changes in recent decades.
Luce said he took a break from covering South Asia to be a speechwriter for Larry Summers, the Secretary of the U.S. Treasury during the Clinton administration. Luce resumed writing about India at the Financial Times when the Bush administration took office.
“India occupied a very different mindset in the American mind when I returned to the Financial Times,” Luce said. “The rise of India is now something other than a headache, but a process in which the U.S. is investing its greatest hopes against China as an economic and political challenger.”
Luce’s remarks focused on three areas in which India is rising: economically, geopolitically, and politically.
The Oxford graduate discussed India’s significant economic growth since the country’s independence in 1947. Luce said in the years immediately following India’s independence from colonial Britain, the average life expectancy was 32, and it took 100 years for a family to double their income.
Luce said the 1991 collapse of the Indian rupee prompted economic reform. India dismantled the reign of the Licensed Raj, a body of bureaucrats that were micromanaging and destroying the private sector.
“Economic reform led to higher growth rates, which resulted in a total transformation of people’s time horizons,” Luce said. “A family could now double their income in less than a decade, which was an incredible step forward.”
The author said this economic growth manifested itself in call centers and the IT sector.
“India chose to invest its educational resources in engineering tech schools,” Luce said. “Many Indians moved to Silicon Valley, and the industry has benefited from Indian entrepreneurship.”
Luce cited the successful Tartan steel company as another one of India’s economic successes.
“India’s economy is not just an IT story,” Luce said. “India is a cross-border merger and acquirer, as we have seen with companies like Tartan steel.”
The former speechwriter explained that India’s testing of nuclear weapons captured the world’s attention. Luce said the U.S. supported India’s creation of a civil nuclear industry to counterbalance China as a nuclear power. He discussed India’s shift between sitting idle during conflicts to possessing nuclear resources that demand respect.
“India didn’t take sides in the Cold War,” Luce said. “But now, India has shifted from relying on the power of argument to the argument of power.”
The Financial Times writer also discussed India’s role in post-9/11 political conflicts.
“Besides NATO, India was the first to offer support to the Bush administration in the war on terror,” Luce said.
India is a nation of 1.1 billion people that speak 19 languages. Luce said almost every religious belief and philosophy of thinking is present in some form in India society. The author discussed how India’s rising success contradicts the nation’s deep social divisions.
“Upon independence, it was strange for such a poor and uneducated country to adopt a democracy,” Luce said. “But that democracy has survived and thrived.”
Luce discussed the economic and political limitations of India’s caste systems, which keeps individuals in the societal and economic roles they were born into.
“Gandhi’s ideal caste system was great for decolonization, but is not so great for an economy hoping to grow,” Luce said. “Recent elections have successfully repudiated corrupt politics, but have supported the caste system that furthers economic setbacks.”
He said the Indian government is now controlled by the BJP, a Hindu nationalist party that often goes to extreme lengths to create a sense of Hindu unity. Luce said the only circumstance that unites Hindus and Indians in general is when the Hindu community perceives attacks on the Hindu people as a whole.
“There are over 200 political parties vying for control in India,” Luce said. “The long-suppressed lower-caste Indians are exercising power in one of the few places where they have equal rights – at the ballot box.”
Luce concluded with a prediction that the attitude India’s government chooses to have toward the caste system will determine the nation’s future economic and political success.