Friday, January 02, 2009

The Next World Order, New York Times

CHINA and India are in a struggle for a top rung on the ladder of world power, but their approaches to the state and to power could not be more different.

Two days after last month’s terrorist attack on Mumbai, I met with a Chinese friend who was visiting India on business. He was shocked as much by the transparent and competitive minute-by-minute reporting of the attack by India’s dozens of news channels as by the ineffectual response of the government. He had seen a middle-class housewife on national television tell a reporter that the Indian commandos delayed in engaging the terrorists because they were too busy guarding political big shots. He asked how the woman could get away with such a statement.

I explained sarcasm resonates in a nation that is angry and disappointed with its politicians. My friend switched the subject to the poor condition of India’s roads, its dilapidated cities and the constant blackouts. Suddenly, he stopped and asked: “With all this, how did you become the second-fastest growing economy in the world? China’s leaders fear the day when India’s government will get its act together.”

The answer to his question may lie in a common saying among Indians that “our economy grows at night when the government is asleep.” As if to illustrate this, the Mumbai stock market rose in the period after the terrorist attacks. Two weeks later, in several state elections, incumbents were ousted over economic issues, not security.

All this baffled my Chinese friend, and undoubtedly many of his countrymen, whose own success story has been scripted by an efficient state. They are uneasy because their chief ally, Pakistan, is consistently linked to terrorism while across the border India’s economy keeps rising disdainfully. It puzzles them that the anger in India over the Mumbai attacks is directed against Indian politicians rather than Muslims or Pakistan.

The global financial crisis has definitely affected India’s growth, and it will be down to perhaps 7 percent this year from 8.7 percent in 2007. According to my friend, China is hurting even more. What really perplexes the Chinese, he said, is that scores of nations have engaged in the same sorts of economic reforms as India, so why is it that it’s the Indian economy that has become the developing world’s second best? The speed with which India is creating world-class companies is also a shock to the Chinese, whose corporate structure is based on state-owned and foreign companies.

I have no satisfactory explanation for all this, but I think it may have something to do with India’s much-reviled caste system. Vaishyas, members of the merchant caste, who have learned over generations how to accumulate capital, give the nation a competitive advantage. Classical liberals may be right in thinking that commerce is a natural trait, but it helps if there is a devoted group of risk-taking entrepreneurs around to take advantage of the opportunity. Not surprisingly, Vaishyas still dominate the Forbes list of Indian billionaires.

In a much-discussed magazine article last year, Lee Kwan Yew, the former prime minister of Singapore, raised an important question: Why does the rest of the world view China’s rise as a threat but India’s as a wonderful success story? The answer is that India is a vast, unwieldy, open democracy ruled by a coalition of 20 parties. It is evolving through a daily flow of ideas among the conservative forces of caste and religion, the liberals who dominate intellectual life, and the new forces of global capitalism.

The idea of becoming a military power in the 21st century embarrasses many Indians. This ambivalence goes beyond Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent struggle for India’s freedom, or even the Buddha’s message of peace. The skeptical Indian temper goes back to the 3,500-year-old “Nasadiya” verse of the Rig Veda, which meditates on the creation of the universe: “Who knows and who can say, whence it was born and whence came this creation? The gods are later than this world’s creation. Who knows then whence it first came into being?” When you have millions of gods, you cannot afford to be theologically narcissistic. It also makes you suspect power.
Both the Chinese and the Indians are convinced that their prosperity will only increase in the 21st century. In China it will be induced by the state; in India’s case, it may well happen despite the state. Indians expect to continue their relentless march toward a modern, democratic, market-based future. In this, terrorist attacks are a noisy, tragic, but ultimately futile sideshow.
However, Indians are painfully aware that they must reform their government bureaucracy, police and judiciary — institutions, paradoxically, they were so proud of a generation ago. When that happens, India may become formidable, a thought that undoubtedly worries China’s leaders.

---Gurcharan Das is the author of “India Unbound.”

6 comments:

Jhangora said...

I feel both India and China can come together to create an alternative power centre.

Apun Ka Desh said...

I read your book India Unbound with great enthusiasm, and loved it too.

But, you have very little to say on the subject of our sub-standard and broken down legal(judiciary) system, a third-rate thug infested police force which stands by to watch mobs butcher its citizens.

Exactly zero nations can become good or great - in such a situation.

How many people have been punished for 1984 riots of delhi?
How many people will be punished for the 2002 riots of gujarat?

The answer is Zero in the first case, and close-to-zero in the second case.

How many people have question this great travesty of justice?
Close to Zero again.

xanindia said...

Your Chinese friend really gets baffled because the whole scenario was never seen in their homeland. With strictness here and there and everywhere - truly he will be amazed. But did your government take all the necessary precautionary measures after the incident?

Anonymous said...

China is racing ahead and India is in the process of making Maywati the PM. Wake up Mr Das, is desh ka kuch nahi hone wala hai

KUMAR said...

The answer you have made to Lee Kwan Yew's question is excellent and must make our politicians think..........

Anonymous said...

Dear Sir,

I am Chinese and an much deserved Anglophile as well. To us Chinese, India is already the world's No.1 Superpower. No dispute here, and much admired. India has a super high-tech economy with your old dig and InfoSys, Wipro, and much more that the average Chinese never even heard about. Not to mention Gandhi, Nehru, and Singh super human politicians. India has a huge population dividend, and as time grows the advantage will become much more pronounced. In the next 100 years, India with her super effective democracy will prevail; as just pray that India will be also kind enough to leave a bit of room for us Chinese to earn a modest living on our planet. India just needs to sleep walk through the next 30 years, whereas us Chinese will have to continue to slave under the Sun, rain, and snow just to keep us fed and our kids in school. Cheers to India.