An updated version of John Elliott’s award-winning Implosion: India’s Tryst with Reality both impresses and frustrates Humphrey Hawksley

The post-colonial performances of India and China are being measured more starkly than ever before.  For decades these two giants of Asia have been on the front lines in the debate between democracy and dictatorship and now, as China’s energy and riches have a global impact, the debate has become less about the right to vote and more about which system delivers fairness, efficiency and wealth.

John Elliot’s Implosion
John Elliot’s Implosion

John Elliot’s Implosion begins on the premise that India punches below its weight, failing to achieve what it ‘should and could be doing’ – which he puts down to two cultural traits. One is jugaad, which means ‘making do and innovating with what is available’ and the other is chalta hai, or ‘anything goes, lackadaisically hoping for the best’.

These two dampening elements run from villages of Bihar, through clumsy legislative bodies to urbane South Block civil servants and beyond. Elliot’s picture of modern Indian is of a country brimming with talent and originality, held back by bad government and, of course, corruption.

Implosion won the 2014 Asian Publishing Awards and has now been updated to ask what, if anything, a leader with the charisma and mandate of Narendra Modi can do to make things better.

Modi’s task, argues Elliott, is to deliver economic growth, reduce inflation, and run a government that takes and implements decisions. The question is: how can he achieve any of that, and will simply transferring his management skills from the economically booming state of Gujarat do the business? Even if it did, Elliott states in an almost throwaway phrase that ‘Modi showed, albeit autocratically, how much of that could be done’.

The question, therefore, remains unanswered.

Forty years ago both China, with its Cultural Revolution, and India, with its Emergency, carried out experiments in different forms of autocratic rule. Neither worked, and Elliott – who has been a colleague since the 1980s – reported frequently on the fall-out.  China under the leadership of Deng Xiao-ping and his successors moulded autocracy into an art form, while India fell back on muddling through with the Gandhi dynasty and what Elliott describes as its ‘unchallengeable fig leaf of democracy… used as an excuse for ineffective government’.

The book’s subtitle, India’s Tryst with Reality, is a play on Jawaharlal Nehru’s 1947 ‘Tryst with Destiny’ independence speech. But destiny is an opaque concept, whereas more clear and real are issues of malnutrition, sanitation and China’s high speed railways whizzing through the Asian landscape.

India’s failure to address its challenges, says Elliott, risks implosion: the undermining of institutions, the crumbling of authority, lawlessness, system breakdown (much of which is due to its self-serving political system), an unprofessional judiciary and cruel policing.

Implosion is a brave and concise warning, a call to reason that India must act before time runs out.  Elliott has avoided being too prescriptive, leaving us with an irritating ‘only time will tell’ taste at the end, although perhaps this is because Modi’s electoral term is limited and he has a window of only a few years to keep a critical mass of voters with him.

There is also another unanswered question. While China obsesses about building its megacities and New Silk Road, will it ever match India for literature, art and freedom – and, ultimately, is such chaos, riddled as it is with jugaad and chalta hai,needed to navigate a billion individual visions of personal destiny?

The jury is still out as to which system best serves human dignity.

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