THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Complex look at an emerging giant in Asia

By Kenneth Cooper
Globe Correspondent / July 10, 2011

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For three years in the late 1990s, I reported from India and traveled to most parts of an intriguing country that seems to hold a surprise around every corner. In his well-informed and well-crafted portrait of India, Patrick French takes readers to places to I never ventured and, in some cases, never imagined going. A skilled interviewer who writes with a descriptive flair, French introduces people on the unseen margins of society and searches out others who, though once in the media spotlight, have faded from public attention.

“Much current thinking about India and China is the product of old knowledge and expectation,” French observes, accurately, before updating and fleshing out what most Westerners think they know about one of the two countries that will certainly take a lead in the Asian century looming on the horizon.

“India: A Portrait” is divided into three sections with titles in Hindi and English: Rashra-Nation, Lakshmi-Wealth and Samaj-Society. The first section on the country’s democratic government and politics cites popular sources such as instructive wall charts from its early decades and recent chain e-mails, but also digitized transcripts of debates in the assembly that wrote the 1950 constitution, the equivalent of the Federalist Papers.

French makes his most valuable contribution on India’s politics by calculating just how many parliamentarians have family ties to past officeholders. Readers likely know of the Congress Party dynasty that has governed independent India most of its years: Jawaharlal Nehru; his daughter, Indira Gandhi; her son Rajiv Gandhi; and now, indirectly, Rajiv’s Italian-born widow, Sonia Gandhi.

That pattern has been replicated in the 545-member lower house of Parliament, where French finds family ties helped into office almost 40 percent of Congress Party members and 20 percent from the main opposition, a Hindu nationalist party. Nearly 70 percent of women lawmakers have hereditary connections. French warns a directly elected chamber whose Hindi name translates as “a house of the people” could become “a house of dynasty.”

He describes Indian elections as “a self-balancing ecosystem,” without offering a theory about how the world’s largest democracy achieves that balance, despite social divisions of caste, religion, language, and ethnicity. An Indian professor I once interviewed cited the multiplicity of castes, none big enough to win elections on its own, a limitation that forces coalition-building.

In the wealth section, French profiles some fabulously rich business people. The story of one who made his fortune on his own, through grit, risk-taking, and innovation, will resonate with Americans. Another plants a vineyard and stimulates domestic demand for wine.

India has grown rapidly since opening up Nehru’s planned economy, so these tales of the wealthy may fit with a current image. But millions of Indians - about one in four of its 1.2 billion people - still live in absolute poverty.

French devotes too few pages to the poor, but does show empathy for them. He tracks down a stone crusher who was enslaved in a quarry until local activists freed him. Now he is a beggar at a Hindu temple. French visits a construction site in Bangalore, the software capital, and is appalled at the subhuman living conditions of laborers. He makes a well-intended, unsuccessful representation on their behalf to the developer.

Abundant talent in software has put India on the global economic map, and immigrant techies in Silicon Valley are profiled in the last section, on society. French seems to embrace one’s theory that Indian software capabilities spring from a Hindu mindset that can conceive of multiple possibilities in solving a problem. It’s an intriguing idea.

Software has done little for the stone crushers, construction laborers, and small farmers. French mentions recent proposals to provide food stamps and fertilizer coupons to the poor. No country can afford continuous subsidies to so many people.

Economically, India’s biggest problem is a huge supply of surplus labor. Despite the glitter of (labor-saving) technology, India is mainly an agricultural country. Food processing would build on that base and create lots of jobs.

French points in that direction, without drawing the obvious conclusion. The winemaking operation lifts out of poverty a marginalized, illiterate man who becomes cellar master and supervises six assistants.

India is so complex that it’s risky to make generalizations, and French gets into trouble when he does, as in “[n]or did Indians have any hesitation or embarrassment about wanting money.” I know more than a few who do. Or when he writes, “Compassion . . . is not a Hindu concept, except where it involves ritual donation in pursuit of religious obligation.” Affiliates of the main Hindu nationalist party do charitable “social work.”

On the other hand, French cites a 2006 report that caused me to rethink one generalization I have dared make - that caste is more important than religion. Muslims are less represented in formal jobs than “any other community,” including former untouchables. I would not have thought so, and suspect the reason must be that former untouchables benefit from constitutionally authorized quotas in government jobs and college admissions. There are no quotas for Muslims.

Kenneth J. Cooper, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who lives in Boston, was based in New Delhi as South Asia bureau chief for The Washington Post from 1996 to 1999.

INDIA: A Portrait By Patrick French

Knopf, 398 pp., $30