- India Rising: Fresh Hope, New Fears by Ravi Velloor
India Rising is a deft chronicle of India during 2004–14, an eventful decade marked by several major developments in Indian politics. During this period, the left-centre United Progressive Alliance (UPA) ruled India. The decade which started with the unexpected victory of the Congress-led UPA, went on to become a “Dysfunctional Diarchy”, with executive power split between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of Rajiv Gandhi. As the Chairperson of the UPA coordination committee and President of the Congress party, she firmly controlled the levers of power. The book ends with the decimation of the Congress party in the general elections of 2014 in which the Congress failed to secure enough seats in the Lok Sabha to formally claim the title of the official opposition. With a gripping narrative style and innovative design, the book is an exciting addition to new writing on India, by an ace journalist with privileged access to the seats of power and scenes of action, crucial to the narrative.
Velloor’s selection of the salient facts of the decade — adroitly chronicled in a precise timeline (pp. 31–33) — shows a fine balance of the UPA at its most effective and at its nadir. There were moments of glory for the UPA such as the opening of the “first bus service in 60 years between Srinagar, capital of Jammu and Kashmir, and Muzaffarabad in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir” in 2005 (p. 30), the signing of the civilian nuclear cooperation agreement between the United States and India in 2006, and the posting of 9.4 per cent rate of growth in March 2007, “the strongest in decades” (p. 31) all of which were legacies of the NDA, its vanquished predecessor. Then there were moments of triumph like the passing of epochal legislation such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act that ensured a safety net for the rural population in 2006, surviving the trust vote on the nuclear deal in 2008, and the return of the UPA to power in 2009 with an enhanced majority. Then we see the UPA at its nadir as the government of Manmohan Singh unravels with the rupee going into a free-fall, corruption scandals rocking the government in rapid succession and anti-corruption movements gaining in momentum. Most of these facts are well known, but Velloor’s is a decadal history of a novel kind. Rather than recounting the history in a monotonous narration, Velloor invites his readers in to the scene of action and allows the [End Page 315] dramatis personae to say it as it was, in their own words, and in terms of the context and motivations that drove them. He has seen the Indian Air Force violating Sri Lankan territorial sovereignty in 1987, dropping emergency aid to the beleaguered Tamils of Jaffna, from the cockpit of the leading plane; he has been to the morgue to survey the bodies of victims of the Mumbai terrorist attack, and looks away as he is shown the body of the lone female victim from Singapore; and he has witnessed the most of the other salient points, both high and low, of this eventful decade. That gives his narrative its gripping quality. His uncanny sense of the telling fact, observed at first hand, narrated with the sure-footed confidence of a mountain goat negotiating a treacherous precipice, and his deep insight into the character and motivation of the main characters are a pleasure for the general reader and a puzzle with regard to the received wisdom for professional students of Indian politics.
The first impression that some readers might get from India Rising is a sense of an ominous ring to its main title. India Rising rhymes with “India Shining” — the eponymous slogan of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the campaign of the 2004 parliamentary elections. The claim had disastrous consequences for the BJP, which lost the elections and stayed out of power for the decade that followed. Velloor...