There is no end to books coming out on India. On Narendra Modi alone there are already more than a dozen. Expect more. Obviously the market is good even if some books say nothing a la P V Narasimha Rao’s two “autobiographies”. Journalists, fabled as composers of “the first draft of history”, often tend to take sides. When they don’t, some worthwhile books come out such as Inder Malhotra’s biography of Indira Gandhi. Into this category falls India Rising: Fresh Hopes, New Fears by Ravi Velloor, a Delhi journalist who went to Singapore and turned himself into an institution there.
What makes this book eminently readable is its story-telling style. Velloor’s account of the 2004 tsunami is a powerful chapter. But there is no hint of the disaster in the opening paragraph which is all about his spending the morning after Christmas Day in 2004 on a golf course in central New Delhi with three officers of India’s admiralty. His telling of Bangalore’s IT revolution starts not with Narayana Murthy or Azim Premji, but with Arjun Kalyanpur, a radiologist who sits in his villa in Whitefield and reads scan results of a patient being examined in a Chicago hospital. Even the terrorist attack in Mumbai comes alive with the Velloor touch. “Jai Arya, executive vice-president of the Bank of New York’s Singapore operations and his wife Rohini were dining (at the Oberoi Trident) with Ashok Kapur and his wife Madhu. Ashok, who was my wife’s cousin, was chairman of Yes Bank and had earlier led the Rabobank’s Singapore operations and we were frequent visitors at his bungalow.” Three paragraphs later, Ashok is dead on the hotel’s stairs.
Velloor now holds an exalted position in Singapore’s Straits Times, but his real strength remains the reporter’s blood coursing through his veins. Operating out of Delhi in the 1980s, he was amazingly networked, his quiet and subdued nature earning the trust of his contacts. The reporter’s approach helps Velloor come out with unexpected details. Dawood Gilani alias David Coleman Headley is introduced as a “6-foot-2 figure with a gigolo-like frame” who is “half Gilani, half Armani. Indeed, one of his eyes was blue, the other brown”.
For those who thought that Velloor was a practitioner of soft journalism, the chapter on Shashi Tharoor would be revealing. No, there is no frontal attack, except perhaps in the grammar-defying chapter title, “Style and Scandal: Diplomatic Blunder Tharoor”. It’s about how Tharoor’s bid for UN Secretary General’s post was doomed even before it started, how Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi made a blunder by sponsoring him, and how, after he lost out, Tharoor still planned to hold on to his UN bureaucratic job. The newly elected Ban Ki Moon had to convey to him: “I’m surprised you want to stay on, Shashi.” To be sure, Tharoor is one contact that will no longer be available to Velloor.
On the other hand, Velloor is overly well-disposed towards the former intelligence boss and National Security Advisor (NSA) M K Narayanan whose bizarre joke, “I have a dossier on you”, was unsettling to a generation of Indians. He makes only a parenthetical reference to the Mumbai terror attack blemishing the intelligence chief’s reputation. Actually, that attack and Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination were India’s biggest intelligence failures of all time—and both happened on Narayanan’s watch. Velloor’s account confirms that Narayanan considered himself as the best NSA, when in fact the superior professionalism of J N Dixit put him in the shade. Narayanan would get into quarrels with Dixit, as he would with Home Minister Chidambaram and even Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Eventually his influence in the Gandhi household also dwindled and Manmohan banished him from Delhi by making him governor of West Bengal. Velloor’s portrait of “the confident, articulate M K Narayanan” looks tilted.
There is neither tilt nor ambiguity when he endorses the opinion about A K Antony as India’s “worst defence minister ever”. Nor does the Singaporean in him hesitate to say that some of the strategic rivalry between India and China “perhaps lives more in Delhi’s mind than in America-focused Beijing’s”. As for Narendra Modi, Velloor chronicles the insecurity that has spread among many Indians and also differentiates Hindutva from Indutva (Indianness), but gives the Prime Minister the benefit of the doubt with the chapter heading, “Right Man, Wrong Party?”
Velloor does well by making the best use of his reportorial gifts; he steers clear of deep analyses, socio-economic interpretations or historical decipherments. India Rising is not a Picasso; it’s a Ravi Varma, realistic, colourful, thoroughly enjoyable.