More than 50 crore people use a smartphone in India now. That’s almost equal to the population of the entire European Union or even the U.S. More than 50 crore Indian access the web. They shop, sell, stream and socialise online more than they have ever been, thanks to the smartphone, which according to author Ravi Agrawal is doing to India what the automobile did to the U.S. a century ago. “Cars didn’t just change how Americans travelled from A to B.,” he writes in India Connected: How the Smartphone is Transforming the World’s Largest Democracy. “They transformed an entire nation,” he adds.
Much like the automobile became the epitome of the American dream, he expects the smartphone to embody the new Indian Dream. Over time, Agrawal estimates, the smartphone could be India’s great equaliser, given the way it is giving people access to technologies that were until recently exclusive to the elite. And he is not your run-of-the-mill analyst; Agrawal is managing editor with Foreign Policy and has covered India for CNN. The book is not a typical non-fiction work; it is closer to narrative non-fiction where the author chalks out, in painstakingly detailed and picturesque prose, the transformation India now undergoes, thanks to the smartphone.
Agrawal has divided the book into three parts: Opportunity, Society and the State. And there is a well-written, precise conclusion. The first two parts have three case studies each, while the final part carries two stories. In the first part, Agrawal looks into the emerging and evolving opportunities for socio-economic empowerment that the smartphone has introduced in India, while the second part scans the social impacts of web-enabled gadgets. The final, and more serious, part discusses how the state uses and abuses the smartphone (Internet) while mapping the opportunities and threats in digital money.
That said, a major flaw of the book is that in most places it is irritatingly aloof.
Even though Agrawal weaves his stories dexterously, it becomes evident in the very first chapter itself that this is a book that is written for the foreigner, the visiting investor and the like. In most places it ends up stating the obvious about the country and its people and is infested with stereotypes — from village women who look at the smartphone as if it is the Sudarshanchakra and the philosophy-mouthing street vendor. This is the Achilles heel of an otherwise enjoyable work. If your foreign friend is looking for a nice tome on India today, undoubtedly, this is your pick.
India Connected: How the Smartphone is Transforming the World’s Largest Democracy; Ravi Agrawal, OUP, ₹550.