Talk about India always begins with recognition that it's one of Asia's rising powers, a state with a fast-growing economy and burgeoning political influence on the world stage.
But a closer look shows a dark underbelly that portends a sad time ahead.
"Why are the youth angry?" Rahul Ghandi pointedly asked a few weeks ago. He's a prominent member of parliament and a fifth-generation member of the family that has dominated Indian politics since the state's independence in 1947.
"There is a young and impatient India which is demanding a greater say in the future," he declared, adding: "We need to meet their urgent need for jobs."
This isn't just the typical rant of the young, about 20 percent to 25 percent of society in most modern states. In India right now, half the population is under 25 years old. And in the world's second most populous state (after China) that's not a trivial number of people. In fact it's about 600 million -- twice the entire population of the United States. And they are governed by gerontocrats, leaders whose average age is about 65.
As conditions for the young deteriorate, Ghandi and other younger leaders blame their elders. After all, last month a World Bank report declared that one-third of the world's desperately poor people live in India, 400 million people who survive on less than $1.25 a day.
Extreme poverty, regrettable in its own right, also brings consequences -- for the poor and for the larger society.
The sad truth is, most extremely poor children are malnourished. As a result, nearly half of India's children grow up stunted, according to UNICEF. As the organization describes this: "Undernutrition of children under age two diminishes the ability of children to learn and earn throughout their lives. Nutritional deprivation leaves children tired and weak and lowers their IQs, so they perform poorly in school" and beyond. That, UNICEF reported, brings even larger problems because "where undernutrition is widespread, these negative consequences for individuals translate into negative consequences for countries."
If almost half of India's children have diminished IQs, what does that mean for governance and the economy when this generation matures? Actually, it seems as if these consequences are already being felt. The economy is faltering; India's GDP growth for the fourth quarter of 2012 fell to 4.5 percent, the lowest in 10 years.
Still, China is unintentionally offering India and other developing states a great opportunity for galloping growth. China's basic working wage has quadrupled in the last 10 years, leading many companies in need of low-wage workers to relocate. Foreign investment in China fell by 3.5 percent last year after rising almost every year since 1980.
Few of those jobs are coming to India, however. They're going to Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia and similar states -- and not because those countries have more low-wage workers. India has more of these people than any of them.
But decades-old unfriendly labor laws that, for example, make it difficult for companies to fire unproductive workers, are still on the books, even though economists have been urging the calcified government to change them for many years.
Foreign companies don't want their hands tied by these laws. For the same reason, Indian companies hire what are called "informal" contract workers who aren't subject to those laws. They generally earn far less than the minimum wage and get no employment benefits. Eighty-five percent of India's workers are "informal," the Economist reported. For example, the country has legions of contract security guards, delivery boys, brick porters and elevator operators.
These people may even count themselves as lucky because a government-sponsored survey published early this year found that, on average, 3,000 children die from malnutrition every day. Releasing a report on hunger and malnutrition in his country, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was forced to admit that malnutrition is "a matter of national shame."
Even with that, most of India's aging, obdurate leaders pay only lip service to the problem. After all, India once had a rigid caste system, formally abandoned years ago. But it's still a de facto reality of Indian society.
This month, the sad state of children did not seem to be in mind when the Indian government bought 16 new Russian-made, carrier-borne fighter jets, along with six helicopters, for $2.3 billion -- to fight an enemy not yet visible.
Won't India's leaders ever wake up and realize that food security poses a far greater threat for their nation than national security?
(Joel Brinkley is the Hearst professional in residence at Stanford University and a Pulitzer Prize-winning former correspondent for The New York Times.)