There are few satisfactions in a retired academic’s life greater than seeing some of his prognostications vindicated after more than a decade and a half. I had rather confidently posited in an article “India and the World,” published in Conflict (1991), that India was likely to continue its well-established “non-aligned” and independent foreign policy into the future. Mira Kamdar’s book substantiates that argument.
The most alluring thing about Planet India: How the Fastest Growing Democracy Is Transforming America and the World is Kamdar’s secularist, humanist, non-ideological, indeed very pragmatic, and peace-oriented perspective. In a rather unique approach, combining investigative journalism with incisive policy analysis, she highlights the on-going rapid economic growth and technological-informational transformation of India while sketching, through personal interviews, “profit while doing social good” visions of prominent Indian entrepreneurs and their enterprises—dubbed “inclusive capitalism. Kamdar argues that this momentous development bodes acute dislocations and distress to the majority of India’s poor masses while elevating a minority (hundreds of millions, given India’s immense population) into the “consumptive middle class.”
For me, a some time Bombaite as well as a Vidarbhaite who grew up in places which Kamdar visited and investigated, her observations bring home the wrenching experiences of the farmers’ plight, sinking water tables, and, in the most recent decade, the specter of peasant suicides. The consequences of global warming are likely to make the predicament of the poor all over India even more dire in the future. The most significant message in the book is a call for compassion and inclusiveness in Indian culture, society, and governmental policy, so that every segment of the complex Indian society, including the poor, minorities, women, children, the so-called “scheduled castes and tribes,” “other backward classes,” as well as “deviants,” can be embraced and empowered by the unfolding “revolution.”
Although Kamdar is optimistic, even seemingly bullish, on the inclusive and sustainable development prospects of India, she keeps the readers amply warned of the challenges and pitfalls ahead. India comes out in her account as being “incredible” in its giant strides as well as in its gargantuan challenges.
What else might Kamdar have done in one slim volume? She could have devoted a few pages to analyzing the intractable issue of “population explosion,” which continues to aggravate the immiserization of the poor masses, rather than dismissively conceding its inevitability in one sentence. On the nuclear energy option, she needed to mention the issues of nuclear plants’ safety and security, as well as the most critical issue of the permanent disposal of accumulating nuclear waste. Regarding the acute water crisis, desalination is allowed to remain a seemingly viable option, while in fact it is not free from negative economic, energy, and ecological consequences—especially for coastal marine life. One may also wonder whether Kamdar is a little too optimistic about Indian cultural and other influences having the dramatic “transforming” impact on the United States and the world.
Kamdar is premature in stating that the India-China border dispute (which also involves territory) has been “resolved.” Until a mutually agreed upon border has been defined, delineated on the maps, and demarcated on the ground, the matter cannot be considered to have been settled. Such issues, if left unresolved, come back to bedevil the peace among nations even after hundreds of years.
In Kamdar’s effort to be current (she covered developments in 2006; the book came out in 2007), some avoidable errors have crept into the book, included typos and misspellings. And there are a couple of important lapses: mentioning Dr. B.R. Ambedkar as the first President of India rather than Rajendra Prasad; and referring to “India’s Maldives Islands” rather than calling India’s west coast coral atolls the Lakshadweep Islands. However, these are minor flaws which do not detract much from the important contributions of Kamdar’s work toward understanding the contemporary Indian reality.
Mukund Untawale is Professor Emeritus of International Relations at San Francisco State University.