is rationale is sound. And he has a way with words — he borrows the term “Californication” from the American comedy by that name to summarise Amartya Sen and Jen Drèze’s description of a liberalising India as “islands of California in a sea of sub-Saharan Africa” — which is remarkable, given that he went to-and-fro between electronic and print mediums of journalism, a transition the venerable Mark Tully famously did not find smooth. Hindol Sengupta in Recasting India depicts a country whose citizens have perhaps made more sense of freedom in the last two decades than what its politicians could muster. A member of the upwardly mobile middle class would be tempted to own it as his or her published title.
Beginning with Dwarakanath Tagore, Gurudev Rabindranath’s grandfather who had interests in coal, tea, jute, sugar refining, newspapers and shipping, the author speaks of the rut that Bengal politics, and hence economy, eventually fell into while not forgetting to mention that this linguistic community was not found effete when the situation demanded, first modernising a regressive society and then bombing its way into the history of India’s freedom struggle.
Before the reader could see regional parochialism setting in, Sengupta flashbacks to Bhimji Parekh of Surat of the 17th century. Parekh’s parleys with British trade representative Gerald Aungier that secured a place for Hindu Gujarati businessmen in Bombay makes the point that entrepreneurship is not always merely about managing to make profits but often about extracting assurances from the ruling class.
From there as the book hovers over Mukesh Ambani’s Antilia, defiance of reasonable budgeting by Suresh Kalmadi’s Commonwealth Games and A Raja’s 2G spectrum bidders jumping the queue, it turns into a compelling argument explaining why the disparity between the rich and the poor is not spinning into a civil war, all anti-corruption movements of the recent past notwithstanding. The poor of the unorganised sector, Sengupta argues with reason, are trying with their limited capacities to climb the ladder by making and selling whatever they can. This “per capita hope” — which his father dismissed as “per capita joke” — is keeping them from taking to the gun. For, an atmosphere of business does not support violence. The author sees even Maoist militancy in and around places buzzing with economic activity as a fight for Anitilia and not one against it; “We want to be up there,” the faceless protagonists of the story seem to be demanding.
In this roughhouse of course happens a scam like Saradha where old investors are paid high interest from the money of the new until the chain dries up. However, there is also the ilk of Shriram Chits that does not promise altitudinous returns but does something useful for trade: provide loans to truckers who would otherwise have to live with months of processing time if they were to apply to banks for the sum, a delay the business can ill afford. Lower down in the economic hierarchy, when the author talks to a Lakshmi Bala Das from Bengal’s Nadia district working with a certain Maids’ Company in Gurgaon, earning Rs 8,500 a month, we can relate it to the domestic helps in our households who have a similar story to tell. But this is no starry-eyed account based on anecdotes from the capital’s satellite townships.
Hiware Bazar, six hours’ drive from Mumbai, for example, has its own nonfiction to narrate. Juxtaposed with the Shiv Sena and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena’s protests against the toll one has to pay while driving on the expressway between the state’s capital city and Pune is the calm intelligence of doing business in the backwaters. The environs described in this chapter refreshed my memory of Himmatnagar of Gujarat I visited just about a year ago: Pothole-free roads, clean water, round-the-clock electric supply, well-built and maintained houses and, most importantly, people making money and the poor turning middle class. And this capitalism comes with a good measure of social tolerance; there is just one Muslim family in the village, but Hindus have built a mosque to facilitate that family’s prayers.
Sengupta’s challenge to the inertia-ridden socialist political heads and dyed-in-the-wool demagogues is formidable as this tome is no armchair commentary. Born in 1979, the author himself exemplifies a change a relatively liberal India has brought forth that the book does not delve into: the emergence of a breed of right-of-centre ideologues equipped as impressively as communist activists in universities with statistics hard to deny. There is also an irony the book skips: the capitalist poor man does not know he is a capitalist; he has been fed with horror stories of Shylocks of the post-Shakespearean Industrial Revolution epoch; and so he votes for the promise of an interventionist government aka socialist government.