Review: India Grows at Night by Gurcharan Das

India Grows at Night

I missed Gurcharan Das’ talk session at Tata Literature Live but made up for it by buying an autographed copy of his latest book – India Grows at Night. He has been a famous political commentator and his India Unbound was immensely well received (though I haven’t read it yet). This book is more like an essay about Indian society, state, politics and the ensuing melting pot. The ideas discussed range from the ancient Indian texts dealing with dharma, the tussle between Rule of Law and Rule of Life, the character of Indian state and society, the results of a weak state: crony capitalism, corruption, delayed and long pending cases in courts, abuse of power by officials and finally suggestions by the author. This has not been an easy book to read and understand, not because of flowery words or unending sentences but only for the weight of the topics he has covered and my rudimentary knowledge of political systems and philosophy despite of my consistent but blurred efforts towards improving it.

In the Introduction, he explains the meaning of the phrase ‘grows by night’: how lots of people have begun to believe that India grows at night when the government is asleep – meaning that growth is seen only when the government’s involvement is minimal or absent. In the first chapter, he starts with the example of rise of Gurgaon and its comparison with Faridabad and how absence of government action, the pulling down force, resulted in private players taking charge of everything – electricity, sewage, infrastructure and security. Economic growth of India over the last 100 years is discussed, but here the comparison of the period of 1900-1950 with later decades, in my opinion, is not correct for during almost the first half of the century we were the ruled and the British had no incentive to put money back into the system. He briefly discusses the Indian growth model straight from agriculture to services. He in the next chapter and later as well writes about Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption Lokpal Bill movement and how a weak government was on back foot. He explains that the government is not weak because of lack of majority or because of coalition partners but because Indian state always has been weak right from the beginning when multiple kingdoms used to exist together and the kings were not above the law, the dharma, and were expected to uphold it at all times and protect his subjects and provide efficient administration. He then intelligently and convincingly states that this ancient structure is also responsible why our society is strong: for the rule of law was always interpreted by Brahamans, and hence the king’s powers did not overlap with them. The kings who provided better for their kingdoms flourished. He compares the Indian structure with the Chinese one, where the state always has been much more powerful for the desire to hold people (especially of one race) together and hence people were subjected to ‘rules’ from above while in India the ‘rules’ blossomed from below.

Then the applicability of a common law by the British led to unforeseen problems as suddenly the different pockets and regions in India with varying sub-cultures, languages and customs were seen through a single lens is discussed. He also outlines the trouble with what’s written in the Constitution and its applicability to ground realities and how the lack of a figure like Gandhi is hurting us. He cites various cases resulting out of a weak state: Jessica Lal, Ruchika Girhotra, the case of Vachathi in Tamil Nadu in 1992, the recent Telecom allocation case, Posco etc. He often cites from Mahabharata and how the use of dandi (stick) is recommended as a punishment for those who disobey the state and create trouble. A state is a state only when it is capable of enforcing its will, in the rightful sense, on its people. He even gives the example of a specific case where Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer gave more weight to rule of life over rule of law and also similar dilemma faced by the authors of our constitution.

The author signed copy

The only annoying part of this book, and it is very annoying believe me, is when discussing any concept or issue it is repeatedly mentioned that it will be dealt with in more detail later in a forthcoming chapter. This takes away the attention of the reader from the current chapter and makes him wonder in his mind ‘what more would be discussed about this in the mentioned chapter?’. I am not sure if this has been done by the author or by the publishers.

Throughout the book he targets corruption and the resulting 'flailing state' which India has become- from Octoroi Check Nakas to permissions required to do business, India's poor record in child immunization, malnutrition and even on transparency scorecard. In a meeting with Arvind Kejriwal, who called upon the author for guidance, he asks him to focus not just on punishing the guilty through Lokpal but also reforming the systemic malaise in our institutions for that would result in uprooting the very harbours. Even the esteemed IAS is not spared and he cites the example where Dr. Manmohan Singh, the current Prime Minister, tried to better our administrative systems but was stymied by the collusion between the officials and the political class. He outlines how centralized yet de-centralized state is a much better one; the centre must not do what can be done at the local level. He touches how the new Indian middle class is growing and in a decade or so will be half of India's population - resulting in enlarged expectations of governance from the Government.

The author comes up with practical suggestions for the wanting citizens: to take things in their own hands by joining politics, for politics is not bad and it is the corrupt or selfish politicians who use it for personal gains. Hence, the time for well intentioned citizens joining parties or creating one is explored. And reforming the system doesn't start straight at the national scene, but at the local level. He urges the citizens to join various local projects being undertaken by the government, either at central or local level, and to experience firsthand the creation of a well meaning active political class. He also suggests opening up a new party for the sake of good and praises Lok Satta Party of Hyderabad and Swatantra Party as good examples. On the question of hereditary politics, he quotes from Patrick French's India: A Portrait - "Every MP under the age of thirty had inherited a seat; more than two-thirds of the sixty-six MPs under the age of forty were hereditary politicians; every Congress MP under the age of thirty-five was hereditary" (the same facts were covered by Ruchir Sharma in Breakout Nations as well). He criticizes how BJP lost the golden opportunity in 2008 during the Indo-US nuclear deal because it was something Mr. Atal Bihari Vajpayee himself had worked on. He praises the opening up of the Insurance Sector in India (though there has been vehement criticism of the government by Frontline magazine).

The last section is for suggestions from him on what should be done and he rests his case by making a praiseworthy attempt for a strong state. And he does mention that a state is required to grow - no matter how many inefficiencies it may have; "a weak state is better than no state at all". A brilliant book this has been and will make me read his earlier works as well. I recommend this one positively to those who want to understand the Indian political system and the problems plaguing it. It will not be easy to comprehend but surely you will become much more aware of the issues at hand.


  1. Nikhil a very good review which is prompting me to read this book as suggested by some of my good friends.

    1. Definitely you must. You will be able to relate the suggestions of Mr. Das within the current context of AAP-style participative politics.