5 Things We Get Wrong About India

While writing his new book on modern India, acclaimed journalist and biographer Patrick French discovered that Westerners get much about the country wrong.

06.07.11 4:33 PM ET

India is now both rich and poor—and this is the way it is likely to stay. In the future, the world’s largest economies—India, China, Brazil—will contain large numbers of poor people, as India does today. It also has many super-rich, like Sunil Mittal, who in the 1970s was running a little factory in Punjab making bicycle parts. In 1995, Mittal launched a telecom company, Airtel, which now has 223 million subscribers across 19 countries, giving him an estimated net worth of $8 billion. This is far from being a unique story, and new business opportunities are not confined to the elite.

India’s economic rise is not eating American jobs: outsourcing can work in both directions. Trade happens in many directions, and the attraction of cheap labor overseas is only part of the story. When Airtel needed to expand fast during the early years of the cellphone revolution, Mittal realized he would not be able to build infrastructure fast enough to keep up with demand. So he reverse-outsourced, giving work to foreign companies like Nokia, IBM, and Ericsson. So instead of an Indian company “taking” jobs from richer nations, it was creating business for them.

India’s contradictions are less confusing to Indians than they are to foreigners. New technology is not really regarded as alien or “Western," and tends to quickly become indigenous since India is a flexible and adaptive society. Hinduism—the majority religion—does not have a strict creed or commandments. Religion and science never went their separate ways in India in the way they did in the West in the 18th century. There was no intellectual division, because Hindu philosophy is too amorphous to be threatened by any new scientific discovery. K. Radhakrishnan, the head of the Indian Space Research Organisation, learned of his appointment while stripped to the waist, performing rituals as a pilgrim at a Hindu temple in Kerala.

Women in India are usually portrayed as oppressed—and often they are—but in some circumstances can have opportunities that they would not have elsewhere. Although America Ferrera is currently in Kolkata making a film about girls being sold into prostitution, such exploitation exists alongside triumphs for feminism. Leading financial institutions like HSBC, RBS, JPMorgan Chase, ICICI, and UBS are all run by women. Big political names like Sonia Gandhi are not alone. West Bengal, the state in which Kolkata is situated, is ruled by Mamata Banerjee, who recently ousted the longest-serving elected communist government in the world. Mayawati, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, represents a grassroots revolution: one of nine children, she was raised on the edge of Delhi in a poor family of Dalits, or former “untouchables.” She now rules a state with a population nearly equal to that of Brazil.

India has an odd form of representative democracy. As economic opportunity opens up in a way that it did not in the decades following independence, elections are becoming better organized and less violent. At the same time, established parties are turning to nepotism. More than two thirds of Indian M.P.s under the age of 40 are now hereditary, the sons and daughters of earlier politicians. So even as democracy is flourishing in a way that is rare in Asia, the political system in closing in on itself.