Critical Language Scholar reflects on her time in India

EBR in India_croppedThe summer before my senior year at College of Charleston, I received a Critical Language Scholarship to continue my Hindi studies in Jaipur, India. I had taken as many Hindi courses with Mrs. Leena Karambelkar as the College offered, and I was thrilled at the chance to further my language skills on the ground in India. The classes and tutoring through the program were hugely beneficial, but one of the most important aspects of my two months in India was finding places where tourists hadn’t left their mark and where I felt I could truly use Hindi. One Sunday, I went with a friend into the old walled city of Jaipur onto side streets where the bazaars were bursting with people selling steel wool, packs of underwear, cellophane-wrapped bangles, and other everyday wares you can’t find in the touristy side of town. My friend and I attracted more stares than normal, but it was worth it to feel like a true traveler. We explored, bargaining with the merchants in Hindi along the way. One young boy selling bangles even forgot to give us the foreigner price, the standard 100 rupees for everything. The surge and pull of the crowd was both exhilarating and nerve-wracking, a blend of Hindi and English washing over me and exhausting me more than even the oppressive heat could. I loved it! In my two months in India, it was possibly the most honest picture of the culture and the best opportunity to test my classroom Hindi.

Somewhat unexpectedly, I still use Hindi in my new job in Louisville, KY, at the Americana Community Center where I am the Community Liaison VISTA. Americana Community Center works primarily with the large immigrant and refugee population in Louisville, offering free programs specifically designed to meet the community’s needs. As part of the volunteer orientation I regularly lead, I teach a quick Hindi lesson to demonstrate what it’s like for people to expect you to understand a language that is not your own.  It always reminds me of my time in India, and I’ve noticed that the orientation can be a powerful lesson in empathy for some of our younger volunteers.

Study Abroad Fair for Affiliate Programs: September 25

Passport Services* Affiliate Programs Fair

September 25th, 10:00 am—2:00 pm in the Cougar Mall

*Representatives from the Charleston Passport Center will be accepting passport applications (new and renewal) during the Affiliate Programs Study Abroad Fair (see attached on details). This service is open to the public!

2015 Study Abroad Fair Flyer

BB&T Market Process Speaker Series: “The Political Consequences of Islam’s Economic Legacy”

September 30 at 6pm

Wells Fargo Auditorium (Beatty Center Rm. 115), 5 Liberty Street, Charleston, SC

Timur Kuran, Professor of Economics and Political Science, and Gorter Family Professor of Islamic Studies at Duke University will discuss the impact of the Middle East’s traditional institutions on poor political performance, measured by democratization and human liberties.

Co-sponsored by the Initiative for Public Choice and Market Access and the Bastiat Society

This could be You! Political Risk Analyst in Washington, D.C.


Political risk analyst

Horres on her semester abroad in Jordan

Caroline Horres ’12 works in D.C. performing political and economic risk analysis by putting her bachelor’s degree in political science, her master’s in international economics, her Arabic fluency and her passion for current events to use every day. As an analyst for a discreet boutique strategic consulting firm, Horres helps the firm’s private clients decide where and when to direct their international investments.

Q: What are your responsibilities as an Analyst?

A: I’m part of a team of analysts at the firm. We do due diligence, strategic consulting and political risk analysis for our clients.

We only work for private companies, which will come to us and say, for example, “We do operations in Thailand and it looks like the government is not entirely stable there, can you do a forecast on what’s going to happen and how that’s going to affect our operations there?” Or a client may say, “We’re interested in getting into extractivesin East Africa, what does that look like?” So it can be as specific as the first question or as broad as the second.

RELATED: Learn more about the political science major at the College of Charleston!

Q: What is a typical day like in your position?

A: The only constant in my day-to-day job is keeping up with current events and being aware of what’s going on all over the world. I could have a client come in an ask a question about Thailand or about East Africa, so I’ve got to know enough about each place. I also had to learn to learn very quickly about different places and governments, because I had to be able to switch topics rapidly and have knowledge across the board.

A lot of this job is knowing how to research to find out about events quickly. I know what databases to search for certain topics, which scholars or think tanks to use for others.

Our interaction with clients can vary – sometimes it’s just me working with the Director of Research at my firm and other times all the analysts are working on a single client’s project.  I generally have at least two active projects at a time, and then I’ll help with anything else that comes my way.

Q: What do you like most about your job?

A: I like that I get to learn a lot about everything. I stay on top of what’s going on in the world. My personal obsession is Iraq and Jordan, where I studied abroad, so sometimes I’ll get people who come to me with questions about projects on those places so I’ll write up a brief answering their questions. If I weren’t researching and writing about Iraq and Jordan for clients, I would be doing it in my free time, so pursuing topics I’m so passionate about at work is really great.

Q: Is this position different than you expected it would be before you started?

A: It’s a lot different – partly because of the culture here. I’m working at a very small firm, there are only about 25 of us, so the culture is very different than some of the bigger firms in D.C. where analysts have to bill a certain number of hours and they’re working 60-hour weeks. That’s not the case at my firm, it’s a casual culture. We work hard when we’re here but the firm facilitates a great work-life balance.

Q: How did you hear about this job and what was the interview process like?

A: About halfway through the second year of graduate school, everybody freaks out about what they want to do with the rest of their lives. It’s a really stressful process. I was going through this and trying to decide if I wanted to work in the private sector or the government when a professor emailed me. He said, “”This is a really great firm, I think you’d really like it, would you like me to recommend you?” and I said, “Ok, yes! Awesome!”

So I sent in a resume and some writing samples and came in for an interview. The interview was around two hours long. Then about three weeks later I got a call and they offered me the job.

It’s interesting because my employer is such a small firm, so they don’t do much publicizing. We value working closely with the clients we have and we rely on word of mouth to get clients, so it’s hard to find out much about the firm. I just trusted this professor who went on and on about how great it is. I think it’s a place you just have to fall into, but it’s a really great place to be.

Q: What made you decide on the private sector instead of the government?

A: When I was in graduate school the government shut down briefly and it stopped hiring. A lot of my classmates who were interning and hoping for a full-time position after school were told, ‘We really appreciate you being here but we are not going to be hiring until January 2015.’ So that was difficult for everyone in my year to hear.

Since then a lot of that pressure has alleviated and several people I know have gotten jobs in the government, but I think that turned a lot of people off. I’m still interested in the possibility of working for the government in the future, but I’m very happy where I am right now.

Q: How do you think the College helped you prepare for this position?

A: When I was in graduate school I referred to notes from Dr. Creed’s classes on the Middle East and Dr. DesJeans’ classes on national security pretty frequently. I’ve continued to use the contextual knowledge that I learned in the classroom. I also built habits for certain classes, like one geography course required that students read the New York Times every day, and that got me in the habit of reading the newspaper, which is imperative to my current position.

School also helped me prepare behaviorally for success – I learned to become a stronger writer, to care about what was going on in the world, the importance of establishing relationships with professors and being able to ask them for help. My study abroad experience in Jordan was absolutely crucial as well.

Q: Could you have been hired for a position like this without a graduate education?

A: I think graduate school is necessary. I know that the firm rarely hires unless you have a graduate degree. Some other firms will hire people without graduate degrees, but I know how much I grew in graduate school – my writing and Arabic skills improved a lot and I developed knowledge in international economics.

If you spent your entire undergraduate career preparing for a job like this you could do it without graduate school, but you would have to know from the time you entered college that you want this career. You’d have to focus intensely on languages, international economics and current events, and I wouldn’t advise anyone to forgo the college experience by obsessing over preparing for this job. Graduate school is the wiser path.

Q: What advice would you give to current students interested in political risk analysis?

A: I would advise students to study abroad, learn a different language – specifically critical languages like Russian, Chinese and Arabic – Stay up to date with current events and take good economics courses.

The College has a lot of excellent professors who have incredible knowledge and who can also help guide you and motivate you to accomplish things you didn’t know you were capable of. When I was applying to graduate school I thought that Johns Hopkins University, which is where I ended up, was out of my range. Dr. Desjeans said, “No, this place is made for people like you. This is where you belong.” I suggest that you find professors and a support network that will encourage you and also challenge you.

Job Posting! Assistant Professor of Arabic, beginning 2015-2016

The School of Languages, Cultures and World Affairs (LCWA) at the College of Charleston invites applications for a full-time tenure-track Assistant Professor position in Arabic language and Arabic Studies to begin Fall 2015.

The successful candidate will have primary teaching responsibilities in Modern Standard Arabic language at all levels, with a 3/3 teaching load. Candidates should have native or near native fluency in Arabic. A Ph.D. in Arabic language and/or literature or related field by August 16, 2015 is required. As a minimum requirement, candidates should possess an advanced degree or certification in Arabic of at least 18 graduate hours. A.B.D. candidates without completion by August 16, 2015, will be considered at the instructor rank. The candidate will participate in a growing program in Arabic and Arabic Literature and Arab Studies as part of an Asian Studies program that also includes faculty in Chinese, Japanese, and Hindi, as well as Art History, History, Philosophy, Political Science, and Religious Studies. The College of Charleston is an urban campus situated in the Historic District of Charleston.

Building on its historic strength in languages (a two-year sequence is required of all students and over 60 full-time faculty teach thirteen foreign languages), the School of Languages, Cultures and World Affairs at the College of Charleston provides students with exceptional curricular programs in foreign languages and area studies. Students in Arabic have recently been awarded the Boren Fellowship and the Critical Languages Scholarship.

Applicants apply online at JOBS.COFC.EDU. Submit: cover letter with statement of teaching philosophy and research program, curriculum vitae, unofficial graduate transcripts (official transcripts will be required for hiring), at least one representative publication, evidence of teaching effectiveness, and contact information for 3 reference providers who will submit reference letters online. For additional information contact Mary Beth Heston, Chair, Search Committee, at

Screening begins September 15, 2014 and will continue until the position is filled. The appointment will begin August 16, 2015.

New Conversation Supplement Courses Offered in Arabic & Japanese!

Are you enjoying your intro or intermediate language classes in Arabic or Japanese but want to get a little more practice conversing in the languages and improving your oral skills?  Well, consider signing up for these unique 1-credit supplement courses – offered at the 100 and 200 level – to get some additional time with a native speaker!




I Want Your Job: Manager for Ducati China

TJ Kremlick ’00 (left)

TJ Kremlick ’00 has lived all over the world immersed in motorbike racing culture. Right now, he’s managing all of China’s service departments for Ducati, one of the world’s top motorcycle brands. Despite the glamour of teaching riders at the racetrack or flying to Italy to visit factories, he says he really misses a good plate of nachos.



Q: What is your title and how would you describe your job?

A: I am the after-sales manager for Ducati China. I would like to say that it’s all fast motorcycles and supermodels, but it isn’t quite. In a sentence, I am responsible for the general management of all Ducati service departments across China. This can mean many things: one week I am in Shanghai leading a dealer-network technical training session, the next I’m in Macau rebuilding a superbike engine. One week I am at the racetrack working as a riding instructor, the next I am in Italy or Thailand visiting our factories or meeting with subsidiary leaders.

Q: How were you able to turn your passion into a career?

A: I wasn’t able to study abroad while in school, so after I graduated I decided to wander around Europe for a few months, which turned into a few years. I was obsessed with bikes in college, but in Europe I fell in love with motorcycle racing. I couldn’t get enough of it, still can’t, and knew I had to steer my life and career towards racing and motorbikes in some way.

Someone very wise once told me that you have to specialize in something. So l listened, I sold what little I had and took off on a month-long ride from the Carolinas across the U.S., ending my ride in Phoenix to attend a school for automotive and motorcycle technology.

I after I finished my certifications, I was willing to do almost any job just to get a start in the industry. I felt if I could just wiggle my way in, I could make other opportunities. With persistence, I landed a job at a dealership in Phoenix, and happily started at the bottom.

Q: How did you get into Ducati?

A: I stayed involved in the local racing scene and continued sending my resume out, targeting headquarter positions with a specific focus on Ducati. To work for that Italian company, steeped in racing tradition, was a long-time dream. And eventually, miraculously, I received a phone call inviting me to interview at their North American headquarters in Cupertino, California, for a position in the technical department, which I somehow managed to get.

I spent four superb years with Ducati North America, and three seasons racing for a North California club. Eventually though, I got that wanderlust again. I was interested in exploring (amongst other things) the motorbike industry in Asia – specifically China – and was asked to write a few articles on local motorbike culture for the excellent Italian website While in Shanghai, a meeting was arranged with the (then) CEO of Ducati Asia Pacific. We ended up discussing a few job options in Asia including the position in New Delhi, which I settled on.


TJ Kremlick 2Q: What was it like moving to (and living in) India and China?

A: No amount of research or previous traveling experience could have possibly prepared me for those first few months in India. There were times during those first days where absolutely nothing made sense and I wondered what I had gotten myself into. Looking back however, those early professional and personal challenges gave me an edge and a perspective that has proven invaluable in my life and career since.

Life in China naturally has its own challenges. I am far from my family and the familiar. My staff is Chinese, so I must work extremely hard on my language skills. There are nights I would commit crimes for a decent plate of nachos, after being served something “exotic” like duck intestines or pig’s brain. And of course I could complain about the terrible air quality. But when I am able to string together a few sentences in Chinese to my taxi driver, or I can teach a team of mechanics how to time an engine, perhaps doing so in a city I had never heard of until a week before going, I must say it is extremely satisfying.

Q: What do you love about your job?

A: Because our brand is still relatively new to China and Asia, we spend a lot of time creating processes and best practices for our service departments. In these developing markets, we have the opportunity to build from the grassroots level, breathing life into a project and nurturing it into something that can sustain itself. To be fortunate enough to do this for a company with such a strong brand image, I think would be satisfying for almost any professional.

Q: What role does your psychology major play in your career?

A: I studied psychology because I have always been interested in understanding the way people think and interact with each other, what motivates us, how our culture shapes our behavior and vice-versa. Developing the mindset to think critically about these things has most definitely helped me in everyday life. Further, my bachelor’s degree is in science, which lends itself well to the often technical nature of my work.

Q: What advice would you offer current students?

A: Enjoy where you are! Charleston remains one of my favorite cities in the world. I would probably do just about anything to be sipping on a La Hacienda margarita after a day at the beach, so please, as a favor to the rest of us, enjoy the present.

For those about to finish school, take some time to explore your world and understand what you want from it. I felt a lot of pressure to immediately start producing as soon as I graduated, but I think it takes time and introspection to understand what you are passionate about doing, and further, how to make a career out it. If you do something that has meaning for you, you will get the strongest performance from yourself.




Congratulations to Elizabeth Burdette, winner of the Bishop Robert Smith award

Bishop Robert Smith Award Winner for 2014: Marjorie Elizabeth Burdette

Bishop Robert Smith Award

This is the highest and most selective honor an undergraduate can achieve at the College of Charleston.  These award winners are selected by a committee composed of the Provost, the Executive Vice President for Student Affairs and former award winners.  The BRS was established by former President Theodore Stern to recognize seniors who exceptional demonstrate leadership and academic excellence.

About Elizabeth (sociology): she was a William Aiken Fellow who will pursue a job to gain experience in the non-profit and/or higher education field next year. She participated in the Bonner Leader Program for four year and was Bonner Senior Intern. Elizabeth led two alternative break trips and participated in two others. She received a Critical Language Scholarship, a program of the U.S. Department of State, to study Hindi in India. Elizabeth volunteered in the ESL program at St. Matthews Church, at Darkness to Light and at the Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry. She was inducted into the Higdon Student Leadership Center’s Hall of Leaders for her work with the Alternative Break program.


The New Face of India (Guardian Article, May 16)

The new face of India

With the rise of Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi culminating in this week’s election, Pankaj Mishra asks if the world’s largest democracy is entering its most sinister period since independence


Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial candidate for India's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), shows his ink-marked finger to his supporters after casting his vote at a polling station during the seventh phase of India's general election in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad.

Narendra Modi shows his inked finger after casting his vote in Ahmedabad. Photograph: Amit Dave/Reuters

In A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth writes with affection of a placid India‘s first general election in 1951, and the egalitarian spirit it momentarily bestowed on an electorate deeply riven by class and caste: “the great washed and unwashed public, sceptical and gullible”, but all “endowed with universal adult suffrage”. India’s 16th general election this month, held against a background of economic jolts and titanic corruption scandals, and tainted by the nastiest campaign yet, announces a new turbulent phase for the country – arguably, the most sinister since its independence from British rule in 1947. Back then, it would have been inconceivable that a figure such as Narendra Modi, the Hindu nationalist chief minister of Gujarat accused, along with his closest aides, of complicity in crimes ranging from an anti-Muslim pogrom in his state in 2002 to extrajudicial killings, and barred from entering the US, may occupy India’s highest political office.

Modi is a lifelong member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a paramilitary Hindu nationalist organisation inspired by the fascist movements of Europe, whose founder’s belief that Nazi Germany had manifested “race pride at its highest” by purging the Jews is by no means unexceptional among the votaries of Hindutva, or “Hinduness”. In 1948, a former member of the RSS murdered Gandhi for being too soft on Muslims. The outfit, traditionally dominated by upper-caste Hindus, has led many vicious assaults on minorities. A notorious executioner of dozens of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 crowed that he had slashed open with his sword the womb of a heavily pregnant woman and extracted her foetus. Modi himself described the relief camps housing tens of thousands of displaced Muslims as “child-breeding centres”.

Such rhetoric has helped Modi sweep one election after another in Gujarat. A senior American diplomat described him, in cables disclosed by WikiLeaks, as an “insular, distrustful person” who “reigns by fear and intimidation”; his neo-Hindu devotees on Facebook and Twitter continue to render the air mephitic with hate and malice, populating the paranoid world of both have-nots and haves with fresh enemies – “terrorists”, “jihadis”, “Pakistani agents”, “pseudo-secularists”, “sickulars”, “socialists” and “commies”. Modi’s own electoral strategy as prime ministerial candidate, however, has been more polished, despite his appeals, both dog-whistled and overt, to Hindu solidarity against menacing aliens and outsiders, such as the Italian-born leader of the Congress party, Sonia Gandhi, Bangladeshi “infiltrators” and those who eat the holy cow.

Modi exhorts his largely young supporters – more than two-thirds of India’s population is under the age of 35 – to join a revolution that will destroy the corrupt old political order and uproot its moral and ideological foundations while buttressing the essential framework, the market economy, of a glorious New India. In an apparently ungovernable country, where many revere the author of Mein Kampf for his tremendous will to power and organisation, he has shrewdly deployed the idioms of management, national security and civilisational glory.

Boasting of his 56-inch chest, Modi has replaced Mahatma Gandhi, the icon of non-violence, with Vivekananda, the 19th-century Hindu revivalist who was obsessed with making Indians a “manly” nation. Vivekananda’s garlanded statue or portrait is as ubiquitous in Modi’s public appearances as his dandyish pastel waistcoats. But Modi is never less convincing than when he presents himself as a humble tea-vendor, the son-of-the-soil challenger to the Congress’s haughty dynasts. His record as chief minister is predominantly distinguished by the transfer – through privatisation or outright gifts – of national resources to the country’s biggest corporations. His closest allies – India’s biggest businessmen – have accordingly enlisted their mainstream media outlets into the cult of Modi as decisive administrator; dissenting journalists have been removed or silenced.

Mukesh Ambani's 27-storey house in Mumbai. Mukesh Ambani’s 27-storey house in Mumbai. Photograph: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

Not long after India’s first full-scale pogrom in 2002, leading corporate bosses, ranging from the suave Ratan Tata to Mukesh Ambani, the owner of a 27-storey residence, began to pave Modi’s ascent to respectability and power. The stars of Bollywood fell (literally) at the feet of Modi. In recent months, liberal-minded columnists and journalists have joined their logrolling rightwing compatriots in certifying Modi as a “moderate” developmentalist. The Columbia University economist Jagdish Bhagwati, who insists that he intellectually fathered India’s economic reforms in 1991, and Gurcharan Das, author of India Unbound, have volunteered passionate exonerations of the man they consider India’s saviour.

Bhagwati, once a fervent supporter of outgoing prime minister Manmohan Singh, has even publicly applied for an advisory position with Modi’s government. It may be because the nearly double-digit economic growth of recent years that Ivy League economists like him – India’s own version of Chile’s Chicago Boys and Russia’s Harvard Boys – instigated and championed turns out to have been based primarily on extraction of natural resources, cheap labour and foreign capital inflows rather than high productivity and innovation, or indeed the brick-and-mortar ventures that fuelled China’s rise as a manufacturing powerhouse. “The bulk of India’s aggregate growth,” the World Bank’s chief economist Kaushik Basu warns, “is occurring through a disproportionate rise in the incomes at the upper end of the income ladder.” Thus, it has left largely undisturbed the country’s shameful ratios – 43% of all Indian children below the age of five are undernourished, and 48% stunted; nearly half of Indian women of childbearing age are anaemic, and more than half of all Indians still defecate in the open.

Absurdly uneven and jobless economic growth has led to what Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze call “islands of California in a sea of sub-Saharan Africa”. The failure to generate stable employment – 1m new jobs are required every month – for an increasingly urban and atomised population, or to allay the severe inequalities of opportunity as well as income, created, well before the recent economic setbacks, a large simmering reservoir of rage and frustration. Many Indians, neglected by the state, which spends less proportionately on health and education than Malawi, and spurned by private industry, which prefers cheap contract labour, invest their hopes in notions of free enterprise and individual initiative. However, old and new hierarchies of class, caste and education restrict most of them to the ranks of the unwashed. As the Wall Street Journal admitted, India is not “overflowing with Horatio Alger stories”. Balram Halwai, the entrepreneur from rural India in Aravind Adiga’s Man Booker-winning novel The White Tiger, who finds in murder and theft the quickest route to business success and self-confidence in the metropolis, and Mumbai’s social-Darwinist slum-dwellers in Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers point to an intensified dialectic in India today: cruel exclusion and even more brutal self-empowerment.

Such extensive moral squalor may bewilder those who expected India to conform, however gradually and imperfectly, to a western ideal of liberal democracy and capitalism. But those scandalised by the lure of an indigenised fascism in the country billed as the “world’s largest democracy” should know: this was not the work of a day, or of a few “extremists”. It has been in the making for years. “Democracy in India,” BR Ambedkar, the main framer of India’s constitution, warned in the 1950s, “is only a top dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic.” Ambedkar saw democracy in India as a promise of justice and dignity to the country’s despised and impoverished millions, which could only be realised through intense political struggle. For more than two decades that possibility has faced a pincer movement: a form of global capitalism that can only enrich a small minority and a xenophobic nationalism that handily identifies fresh scapegoats for large-scale socio-economic failure and frustration.

In many ways, Modi and his rabble – tycoons, neo-Hindu techies, and outright fanatics – are perfect mascots for the changes that have transformed India since the early 1990s: the liberalisation of the country’s economy, and the destruction by Modi’s compatriots of the 16th-century Babri mosque in Ayodhya. Long before the killings in Gujarat, Indian security forces enjoyed what amounted to a licence to kill, torture and rape in the border regions of Kashmir and the north-east; a similar infrastructure of repression was installed in central India after forest-dwelling tribal peoples revolted against the nexus of mining corporations and the state. The government’s plan to spy on internet and phone connections makes the NSA’s surveillance look highly responsible. Muslims have been imprisoned for years without trial on the flimsiest suspicion of “terrorism”; one of them, a Kashmiri, who had only circumstantial evidence against him, was rushed to the gallows last year, denied even the customary last meeting with his kin, in order to satisfy, as the supreme court put it, “the collective conscience of the people”.

“People who were not born then,” Robert Musil wrote in The Man Without Qualities of the period before another apparently abrupt collapse of liberal values, “will find it difficult to believe, but the fact is that even then time was moving faster than a cavalry camel … But in those days, no one knew what it was moving towards. Nor could anyone quite distinguish between what was above and what was below, between what was moving forward and what backward.” One symptom of this widespread confusion in Musil’s novel is the Viennese elite’s weird ambivalence about the crimes of a brutal murderer called Moosbrugger. Certainly, figuring out what was above and what was below is harder for the parachuting foreign journalists who alighted upon a new idea of India as an economic “powerhouse” and the many “rising” Indians in a generation born after economic liberalisation in 1991, who are seduced by Modi’s promise of the utopia of consumerism – one in which skyscrapers, expressways, bullet trains and shopping malls proliferate (and from which such eyesores as the poor are excluded).

Nehru Gandhi A civilising mission … Jawaharlal Nehru with Mahatma Gandhi. Photograph: Max Desfor/AP

People who were born before 1991, and did not know what time was moving towards, might be forgiven for feeling nostalgia for the simpler days of postcolonial idealism and hopefulness – those that Seth evokes in A Suitable Boy. Set in the 1950s, the novel brims with optimism about the world’s most audacious experiment in democracy, endorsing the Nehruvian “idea of India” that seems flexible enough to accommodate formerly untouchable Hindus (Dalits) and Muslims as well as the middle-class intelligentsia. The novel’s affable anglophone characters radiate the assumption that the sectarian passions that blighted India during its partition in 1947 will be defused, secular progress through science and reason will eventually manifest itself, and an enlightened leadership will usher a near-destitute people into active citizenship and economic prosperity.

India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, appears in the novel as an effective one-man buffer against Hindu chauvinism. “The thought of India as a Hindu state, with its minorities treated as second-class citizens, sickened him.” In Nehru’s own vision, grand projects such as big dams and factories would bring India’s superstitious masses out of their benighted rural habitats and propel them into first-world affluence and rationality. The Harrow- and Cambridge-educated Indian leader had inherited from British colonials at least part of their civilising mission, turning it into a national project to catch up with the industrialised west. “I was eager and anxious,” Nehru wrote of India, “to change her outlook and appearance and give her the garb of modernity.” Even the “uninteresting” peasant, whose “limited outlook” induced in him a “feeling of overwhelming pity and a sense of ever-impending tragedy” was to be present at what he called India’s “tryst with destiny”.

That long attempt by India’s ruling class to give the country the “garb of modernity” has produced, in its sixth decade, effects entirely unanticipated by Nehru or anyone else: intense politicisation and fierce contests for power together with violence, fragmentation and chaos, and a concomitant longing for authoritarian control. Modi’s image as an exponent of discipline and order is built on both the successes and failures of the ancien regime. He offers top-down modernisation, but without modernity: bullet trains without the culture of criticism, managerial efficiency without the guarantee of equal rights. And this streamlined design for a new India immediately entices those well-off Indians who have long regarded democracy as a nuisance, recoiled from the destitute masses, and idolised technocratic, if despotic, “doers” like the first prime minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew.

But then the Nehruvian assumption that economic growth plotted and supervised by a wise technocracy would also bring about social change was also profoundly undemocratic and self-serving. Seth’s novel, along with much anglophone literature, seems, in retrospect, to have uncritically reproduced the establishment ideology of English-speaking and overwhelmingly upper-caste Hindus who gained most from state-planned economic growth: the Indian middle class employed in the public sector, civil servants, scientists and monopolist industrialists. This ruling class’s rhetoric of socialism disguised its nearly complete monopoly of power. As DR Nagaraj, one of postcolonial India’s finest minds, pointed out, “the institutions of capitalism, science and technology were taken over by the upper castes”. Even today, businessmen, bureaucrats, scientists, writers in English, academics, thinktankers, newspaper editors, columnists and TV anchors are disproportionately drawn from among the Hindu upper-castes. And, as Sen has often lamented, their “breathtakingly conservative” outlook is to be blamed for the meagre investment in health and education – essential requirements for an equitable society as well as sustained economic growth – that put India behind even disaster-prone China in human development indexes, and now makes it trail Bangladesh.

Dynastic politics froze the Congress party into a network of patronage, delaying the empowerment of the underprivileged Indians who routinely gave it landslide victories. Nehru may have thought of political power as a function of moral responsibility. But his insecure daughter, Indira Gandhi, consumed by Nixon-calibre paranoia, turned politics into a game of self-aggrandisement, arresting opposition leaders and suspending fundamental rights in 1975 during a nationwide “state of emergency”. She supported Sikh fundamentalists in Punjab (who eventually turned against her) and rigged elections in Muslim-majority Kashmir. In the 1980s, the Congress party, facing a fragmenting voter base, cynically resorted to stoking Hindu nationalism. After Indira Gandhi’s assassination by her bodyguards in 1984, Congress politicians led lynch mobs against Sikhs, killing more than 3,000 civilians. Three months later, her son Rajiv Gandhi won elections with a landslide. Then, in another eerie prefiguring of Modi’s methods, Gandhi, a former pilot obsessed with computers, tried to combine technocratic rule with soft Hindutva.

The Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), a political offshoot of the RSS that Nehru had successfully banished into the political wilderness, turned out to be much better at this kind of thing. In 1990, its leader LK Advani rode a “chariot” (actually a rigged-up Toyota flatbed truck) across India in a Hindu supremacist campaign against the mosque in Ayodhya. The wildfire of anti-Muslim violence across the country reaped immediate electoral dividends. (In old photos, Modi appears atop the chariot as Advani’s hawk-eyed understudy). Another BJP chieftain ventured to hoist the Indian tricolour in insurgent Kashmir. (Again, the bearded man photographed helping his doddery senior taunt curfew-bound Kashmiris turns out to be the young Modi.) Following a few more massacres, the BJP was in power in 1998, conducting nuclear tests and fast-tracking the programme of economic liberalisation started by the Congress after a severe financial crisis in 1991.

The Hindu nationalists had a ready consumer base for their blend of chauvinism and marketisation. With India’s politics and economy reaching an impasse, which forced many of their relatives to emmigrate to the US, and the Congress facing decline, many powerful Indians were seeking fresh political representatives and a new self-legitimising ideology in the late 1980s and 90s. This quest was fulfilled by, first, both the post-cold war dogma of free markets and then an openly rightwing political party that was prepared to go further than the Congress in developing close relations with the US (and Israel, which, once shunned, is now India’s second-biggest arms supplier after Russia). You can only marvel today at the swiftness with which the old illusions of an over-regulated economy were replaced by the fantasies of an unregulated one.

Narendra Modi Varanasi Narendra Modi waves to supporters as he rides on an open truck on his way to filing his nomination papers. Photograph: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images According to the new wisdom – new to India, if already worn out and discredited in Latin America – all governments needed to do was get out of the way of buoyant and autonomous entrepreneurs and stop subsidising the poor and the lazy (in a risible self-contradiction these Indian promoters of minimalist governance also clamoured for a big militarised state apparatus to fight and intimidate neighbours and stifle domestic insurgencies). The long complex experience of strong European as well as east Asian economies – active state intervention in markets and support to strategic industries, long periods of economic nationalism, investments in health and education – was elided in a new triumphalist global history of free markets. Its promise of instant and widespread affluence seemed to have been manufactured especially for gormless journalists and columnists. Still, in the last decade, neoliberalism became the common sense of many Indians who were merely aspiring as well as those who had already made it – the only elite ideology after Nehruvian nation-building to have achieved a high degree of pan-Indian consent, if not total hegemony. The old official rhetoric of egalitarian and shared futures gave way to the media’s celebrations of private wealth-creation – embodied today by Ambani’s 27-storey private residence in a city where a majority lives in slums – and a proliferation of Ayn Randian cliches about ambition, willpower and striving.

Nehru’s programme of national self-strengthening had included, along with such ideals as secularism, socialism and non-alignment, a deep-rooted suspicion of American foreign policy and economic doctrines. In a stunning coup, India’s postcolonial project was taken over, as Octavio Paz once wrote of the Mexican revolution, “by a capitalist class made in the image and likeness of US capitalism and dependent upon it”. A new book by Anita Raghavan, The Billionaire’s Apprentice: The Rise of the Indian-American Elite and the Fall of the Galleon Hedge Fund, reveals how well-placed men such as Rajat Gupta, the investment banker recently convicted for insider trading in New York, expedited close links between American and Indian political and business leaders.

India’s upper-caste elite transcended party lines in their impassioned courting of likely American partners. In 2008, an American diplomat in Delhi was given an exclusive preview by a Congress party factotum of two chests containing $25m in cash – money to bribe members of parliament into voting for a nuclear deal with the US. Visiting the White House later that year, Singh blurted out to George W Bush, probably resigned by then to being the most despised American president in history, that “the people of India love you deeply”. In a conversation disclosed by WikiLeaks, Arun Jaitley, a senior leader of the BJP who is tipped to be finance minister in Modi’s government, urged American diplomats in Delhi to see his party’s anti-Muslim rhetoric as “opportunistic”, a mere “talking point” and to take more seriously his own professional and emotional links with the US.

A transnational elite of rightwing Indians based in the US helped circulate an impression of an irresistibly “emerging giant” – the title of a book by Arvind Panagariya, a New-York-based economist and another aspiring adviser to Modi. Very quickly, the delusional notion that India was, as Foreign Affairs proclaimed on its cover in 2006, a “roaring capitalist success-story” assumed an extraordinary persuasive power. In India itself, a handful of corporate acquisitions – such as Tata’s of Jaguar and Corus – stoked exorbitant fantasies of an imminent “Global Indian Takeover” (the title of a regular feature once in India’s leading business daily, the Economic Times). Rent-seekers in a shadow intellectual economy – thinktank-sailors, bloggers and Twitterbots – as well as academics perched on corporate-endowed chairs recited the mantra of privatisation and deregulation in tune. Nostrums from the Reagan-Thatcher era – the primary source of ideological self-indoctrination for many Americanised Indians – about “labour flexibility” were endlessly regurgitated, even though a vast majority of the workforce in India – more than 90% – toils in the unorganised or “informal” sector. Bhagwati, for instance, hailed Bangladesh for its superb labour relations a few months before the collapse of the Rana Plaza in Dhaka; he also speculated that the poor “celebrate” inequality, and, with Marie Antoinette-ish serenity, advised malnourished families to consume “more milk and fruits”. Confronted with the World Health Organisation’s extensive evidence about malnutrition in India, Panagariya, ardent patron of the emerging giant, argued that Indian children are genetically underweight.

This pitiless American free-marketeering wasn’t the only extraordinary mutation of Indian political and economic discourse. By 1993, when A Suitable Boy was published, the single-party democracy it describes had long been under siege from low-caste groups and a rising Hindu-nationalist middle class. (Sunil Khilnani’s The Idea of India, the most eloquent defence and elaboration of India’s foundational ideology, now seems another posthumous tribute to it.) India after Indira Gandhi increasingly failed to respect the Nehruvian elite’s coordinates of progress and order. Indian democracy, it turned out, had seemed stable only because political participation was severely limited, and upper-caste Hindus effectively ran the country. The arrival of low-caste Hindus in mass politics in the 1980s, with their representatives demanding their own share of the spoils of power, put the first strains on the old patrimonial system. Upper-caste panic initially helped swell the ranks of the BJP, but even greater shifts caused by accelerating economic growth after 1991 have fragmented even relatively recent political formations based on caste and religion.

Rapid urbanisation and decline of agriculture created a large mass of the working poor exposed to ruthless exploitation in the unorganised sector. Connected to their homes in the hinterland through the flow of remittances, investment, culture and ideas, these migrants from rural areas were steadily politically awakened with the help of print literacy, electronic media, job mobility and, most importantly, mobile phones (subscribers grew from 45 million in 2002 to almost a billion in 2012). The Congress, though instrumentally social-welfarist while in power, failed to respond to this electorally consequential blurring of rural and urban borderlines, and the heightened desires for recognition and dignity as well as for rapid inclusion into global modernity. Even the BJP, which had fed on upper-caste paranoia, had been struggling under its ageing leaders to respond to an increasingly demanding mass of voters after its initial success in the 1990s, until Modi reinvented himself as a messiah of development, and quickly found enlarged constituencies – among haves as well as have-nots – for his blend of xenophobia and populism.

A wave of political disaffection has also deposited democratic social movements and dedicated individuals across the country. Groups both within and outside the government, such as those that successfully lobbied for the groundbreaking Right to Information Act, are outlining the possibilities of what John Keane calls “monitory democracy”. India’s many activist networks – for the rights of women, Dalits, peasants and indigenous communities – or issue-based campaigns, such as those against big dams and nuclear power plants, steer clear of timeworn ideas of national security, economic development, technocratic management, whether articulated by the Nehruvians or the neo-Hindus. In a major environment referendum last year, residents of small tribal hamlets in a remote part of eastern India voted to reject bauxite mining in their habitats. Growing demands across India for autonomy and bottom-up governance confirm that Modi is merely offering old – and soured – lassi in new bottles with his version of top-down modernisation.

Modi, however, has opportunely timed his attempt to occupy the commanding heights of the Indian state vacated by the Congress. The structural problems of India’s globalised economy have dramatically slowed its growth since 2011, terminating the euphoria over the Global Indian Takeover. Corruption scandals involving the sale of billions of dollars’ worth of national resources such as mines, forests, land, water and telecom spectrums have revealed that crony capitalism and rent-seeking were the real engines of India’s economy. The beneficiaries of the phenomenon identified by Arundhati Roy as “gush-up” have soared into a transnational oligarchy, putting the bulk of their investments abroad and snapping up, together with Chinese and Russian plutocrats, real estate in London, New York and Singapore. Meanwhile, those made to wait unconscionably long for “trickle-down” – people with dramatically raised but mostly unfulfillable aspirations – have become vulnerable to demagogues promising national regeneration. It is this tiger of unfocused fury, spawned by global capitalism in the “underdeveloped” world, that Modi has sought to ride from Gujarat to New Delhi.

“Even in the darkest of times,” Hannah Arendt once wrote, “we have the right to expect some illumination.” The most prominent Indian institutions and individuals have rarely obliged, even as the darkness of the country’s atrocity-rich borderlands moved into the heartland. Some of the most respected commentators, who are often eloquent in their defence of the right to free speech of famous writers, maintained a careful silence about the government’s routine strangling of the internet and mobile networks in Kashmir. Even the liberal newspaper the Hindu prominently featured a journalist who retailed, as an investigation in Caravan revealed, false accusations of terrorism against innocent citizens. (The virtues of intelligence, courage and integrity are manifested more commonly in small periodicals such as Caravan and Economic and Political Weekly, or independent websites such as and The owners of the country’s largest English-language newspaper, the Times of India, which has lurched from tedium to decadence within a few years, have innovated a revenue-stream called “paid news”. Unctuously lobbing softballs at Modi, the prophets of electronic media seem, on other occasions, to have copied their paranoid inquisitorial style from Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. Santosh Desai, one of contemporary India’s most astute observers, correctly points out that the “intolerance that one sees from a large section of society is in some way a product of a ‘televisionised’ India. The pent-up feelings of resentment and entitlement have rushed out and get both tacit and explicit support from television.”

A spate of corporate-sponsored literary festivals did not compensate for the missing culture of debate and reflection in the press. The frothy glamour of these events may have helped obscure the deeper intellectual and cultural churning in India today, the emergence of writers and artists from unconventional class and caste backgrounds, and the renewed attention to BR Ambedkar, the bracing Dalit thinker obscured by upper-caste iconographies. The probing work of, among others, such documentary film-makers as Anand Patwardhan (Jai Bhim Comrade), Rahul Roy (Till We Meet Again), Rakesh Sharma (Final Solution) and Sanjay Kak (Red-Ant Dream), and members of the Raqs Media Collective outlines a modernist counterculture in the making.

But the case of Bollywood shows how the unravelling of the earliest nation-building project can do away with the stories and images through which many people imagined themselves to be part of a larger whole, and leave only tawdriness in its place. Popular Hindi cinema degenerated alarmingly in the 1980s. Slicker now, and craftily aware of its non-resident Indian audience, it has become an expression of consumer nationalism and middle-class self-regard; Amitabh Bachchan, the “angry young man” who enunciated a widely felt victimhood during a high point of corruption and inflation in the 1970s, metamorphosed into an avuncular endorser of luxury brands. A search for authenticity, and linguistic vivacity, has led film-makers back to the rural hinterland in such films as Gangs of Wasseypur, Peepli Live and Ishqiya, whose flaws are somewhat redeemed by their scrupulous avoidance of Indians sporting Hermès bags or driving Ferraris. Some recent breakthroughs such as Anand Gandhi’s Ship of Theseus and Dibakar Banerji’s Costa-Gavras-inspired Shanghai gesture to the cinema of crisis pioneered by Asian, African and Latin American film-makers. But India’s many film industries have yet to produce anything that matches Jia Zhangke‘s unsentimental evocations of China’s past and present, the acute examination of middle-class pathologies in Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Neighbouring Sounds, or Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s delicate portrait of the sterile secularist intellectual in Uzak.

The long artistic drought results partly from the confusion and bewilderment of an older, entrenched elite, the main producers, until recently, of mainstream culture. With their prerogative to rule and interpret India pilfered by the “unwashed” and the “gullible”, the anglophones have been struggling to grasp the eruption of mass politics in India, its new centrifugal thrust, and the nature of the challenge posed by many apparently illiberal individuals and movements. It is easy for them to denounce India’s evidently uncouth retailers of caste and religious identity as embodiments of, in Salman Rushdie’s words, “Caligulan barbarity”; or to mock Chetan Bhagat, the bestselling author of novels for young adults and champion tweeter, for boasting of his “selfie” with Modi. Those pied-pipering the young into Modi-mania nevertheless possess the occult power to fulfil the deeper needs of their needy followers. They can compile vivid ideological collages – made of fragments of modernity, glimpses of utopia and renovated pieces of a forgotten past. It is in the “mythological thrillers” and positive-thinking fictions – the most popular literary genres in India today – that a post-1991 generation that doesn’t even know it is lost fleetingly but thrillingly recognises itself.

In a conventional liberal perspective, these works may seem like hotchpotches, full of absurd contradictions that confound the “above” with the “below”, the “forward” with the “backward”. Modi, for instance, consistently mixes up dates and historical events, exposing an abysmal ignorance of the past of the country he hopes to lead into a glorious future. Yet his lusty hatred of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty excites many young Indians weaned on the neo-liberal opiates about aspiration and merit. And he combines his historical revisionism and Hindu nationalism with a revolutionary futurism. He knows that resonant sentiments, images, and symbols – Vivekananda plus holograms and Modi masks – rather than rational argument or accurate history galvanise individuals. Vigorously aestheticising mass politics, and mesmerising the restless young, he has emerged as the new India’s canniest artist.

But, as Walter Benjamin pointed out, rallies, parades and grand monuments do not secure the masses their rights; they give them no more than the chance to express themselves, and noisily identify with an alluring leader and his party. It seems predictable that Modi will gratify only a few with his ambitious rescheduling of India’s tryst with destiny. Though many exasperated Indians see Modi as bearing the long-awaited fruits of the globalised economy, he actually embodies its inevitable dysfunction. He resembles the European and Japanese demagogues of the early 20th century who responded to the many crises of liberalism and democracy – and of thwarted nation-building and modernisation – by merging corporate and political power, and exhorting communal unity before internal and external threats. But Modi belongs also to the dark days of the early 21st century.

His ostensibly gratuitous assault on Muslims – already India’s most depressed and demoralised minority – was another example of what the social anthropologist Arjun Appadurai calls “a vast worldwide Malthusian correction, which works through the idioms of minoritisation and ethnicisation but is functionally geared to preparing the world for the winners of globalisation, minus the inconvenient noise of its losers”. Certainly, the new horizons of desire and fear opened up by global capitalism do not favour democracy or human rights. Other strongmen who supervised the bloody purges of economically enervated and unproductive people were also ruthless majoritarians, consecrated by big election victories. The crony-capitalist regimes of Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand and Vladimir Putin in Russia were inaugurated by ferocious offensives against ethnic minorities. The electorally bountiful pogrom in Gujarat in 2002, too, now seems an early initiation ritual for Modi’s India.

The difficulty of assessing his personal culpability in the killings and rapes of 2002 is the same difficulty that Musil identifies with Moosbrugger in his novel: how to measure the crimes, however immense, of individuals against a universal breakdown of values and the normalisation of violence and injustice. “If mankind could dream collectively,” Musil writes, “it would dream Moosbrugger.” There is little cause yet for such despair in India, where the aggrieved fantasy of authoritarianism will have to reckon with the gathering energies below; the great potential of the country’s underprivileged and voiceless peoples still lies untapped. But for now some Indians have dreamed collectively, and they have dreamed a man accused of mass murder.