Illustration by Aaron Anderson
Illustration by Aaron Anderson

In 2012, India had 925 million mobile phone subscribers. The phones have helped organize protests by middle-class Indians, most recently against the savage rape and slaying of a young woman in Delhi.

They have also starred in one of India’s biggest-ever scandals. The country’s most prominent politicians, journalists and businessmen were incriminated in a rigged auction of 2G spectrum; they were exposed by the secretly taped phone conversations of a corporate lobbyist.

A superb new book, “The Great Indian Phone Book: How the Cheap Cell Phone Changes Business, Politics, and Daily Life,” by Assa Doron and Robin Jeffrey, reminds us how little we have explored the new landscape of opportunity, aspiration and, inevitably, disappointment that mobile phones have opened up in India.

In the early 1990s, when I first started living in a village in the state of Himachal Pradesh, the local post office, which tellingly had a broken clock and a nonfunctional phone, was still the main center of communications.

Like most residents of Mashobra, I had no phone at home -- the government’s waiting list for one extended indefinitely into the future. I went often to the bazaar to make calls from a public phone and to pick up my mail at the small post office, where a migrant laborer or two would invariably request I write brief messages on postcards and money-order forms to their loved ones.

“How is your health now?” “Did my last money-order reach you?” “I’ll try to come home for Diwali.” I wrote in Hindi, in a steadily deteriorating hand, and was relieved on days when I could ask my neighbor Daulatram, who printed a Sanskrit magazine below my house, to pick up my mail.

Finally Connected

My application for a phone was finally approved in 1999; and Daulatram, who had then started to officiate as a priest at weddings and funerals, become one of my Bakelite’s regular users, along with a couple of young men looking for jobs outside the village.

But the prohibitive cost of national and international calls meant that I had to monitor the conversations and put the phone in a padlocked wooden case, lest a reckless talker plunge me into penury.

Mobile phones had arrived by then in India. But they hadn’t reached our village. Doron and Jeffrey date their rapid proliferation to 2000, when the cost of mobile calls per minute collapsed from 16 rupees to 4 rupees (about 36 cents to 9 cents). But I kept scribbling messages in awkward Hindi at the post office until the middle of the decade, when cheap, prepaid connections became widely available and known.

Cold statistics tell the story of this dramatic transformation much more vividly. Subscribers grew from 45 million in 2002 to almost a billion in 2012.

Those who couldn’t even dream of possessing a landline now have more than one mobile phone. My village has more migrants than before, many from the most impoverished states. But they are not to be found at the post office anymore. A “missed call,” a widely used form of communication among the poorest Indians that conveys information without incurring charges, can encode all the messages I used to laboriously write.

Mobile phone retail and repair shops dominate bazaars across India, set apart from pre-modern clutter and grime by their perky billboards and shiny display cases. Millions of Indians manufacture mobile phones (India hosts Nokia’s largest factory), erect and maintain the country’s nearly half a million towers, or sell new connections. More lucratively, others write catchy advertising copy and lease or sell private land for phone towers.

Flash Mobs

But what does the ubiquity of mobile phones mean for a country where, as Doron and Jeffrey point out, hierarchy is “more refined and more deeply embedded in daily life than anywhere else”?

As India’s most garish totem of an ostensibly egalitarian consumerism, the phone can deceive, and its potential can be exaggerated. After all, Indians have greater access to mobile connections than to working toilets.

Happily, the authors of “The Great Indian Phone Book” quickly step away from such extravagant claims as “the poor, low-status boatman on the Ganga can conceivably ring India’s equivalent of Carlos Slim.”

“Technology,” they warn, “does not eliminate political and social structures, though it may modify them.”

As an example -- one of the many in this lively book -- they offer small-scale fishermen in Kerala, who could cooperate more closely on prices while out at sea. But so, it turns out, could the traders back on the shore.

Certainly, mobile phones did not help the young men who used my landline to transcend their mediocre education and find jobs in “rising” India. Their real beneficiary, ironically, has been Daulatram, who, after the Sanskrit magazine ceased publication, used a phone purchased with a little help from his friends to build a wide network of clients and carry on the tasks of his Brahmin ancestors.

A live connection in his pocket not only helps him return to his ancestral village more often to look after his cultivable land, it also provides him news about weather and crop blight.

Thus, mobile phones can help rebuild traditional vocations of agriculture and priestcraft while doing nothing at all for those aspiring to join the modern world.

Instant communication in the realm of politics reveals an even more ambiguous picture. The potential of mobile phones in exposing corrupt officials, and mobilizing an irate citizenry, has been clearly demonstrated.

India’s finance minister (and former home minister) Palaniappan Chidambaram was paying it a backhanded tribute when he recently spoke of his government’s unpreparedness in the face of “flash mobs” -- the minatory phrase referred to those who besieged the heart of New Delhi last month, demanding swift action against rapists.

Mobile phones can also help new parties to reach out to apolitical youth and boost their membership figures -- Imran Khan, one of Pakistan’s prime-ministers-in-waiting, claims to have recruited millions to his anti-corruption cause through text messages.

Help Needed

But mobile phones alone cannot generate a coherent and viable political program. More than flashiness of any kind, mass politics still requires persistence and commitment.

The “purpose and politics” of the phone, Doron and Jeffrey write, “come from the people who use it.” Indeed, faster than any other medium, the phone can spread malign rumors and conspiracies, such as the threatening text messages allegedly from Muslim extremists that led to an exodus of migrant workers from South India last year.

No wonder the government wants to control and monitor mobile-phone and social-media networks in India now, after years of restricting access to them in insurgency-hit Kashmir.

In a deeply unequal and volatile country, “the disruptive potential of the cell phone is more profound than elsewhere and the possibilities for change more fundamental.” But what kind of disruption and change can we expect?

An older form of connectedness -- aided by road, rail and telegraph networks -- created the political and administrative entity that we know as India. It became very useful for both British colonialists and their successors, the postcolonial Indian elite, in controlling a vast territory.

However, mobile phones, enlisted into India’s million mutinies, may stoke sectarianism rather than cohesion, and facilitate anarchy rather than orderly democracy.

(Pankaj Mishra is the author of “From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia” and a Bloomberg View columnist, based in London and Mashobra, India. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this article: Pankaj Mishra at pmashobra@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net.