India is now both rich and poor, and this is the way it is likely to stay. The world’s largest economies in the future—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.
India’s economic rise is not eating American jobs, as I learned while researching my book. 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 cell-phone 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.
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. 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.
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. Leading financial institutions in India, like HSBC, RBS, JPMorgan Chase, ICICI, and UBS, are all run by women. Big political names like Sonia Gandhi are not alone. Mayawati Kumari, 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 former “untouchables.” She now rules a state with a population nearly equal to that of Brazil.