Whistling in the Dark about the Future

Gurcharan Das writes in the Times of India (10th May) that “The Future Belongs to India.” That’s his argument which I suppose he made in a debate in London on the proposition that “the future belongs to India, not China.” I understand perfectly the need for such an argument because I too feel a lot of distress when I compare what China has achieved relative to India and have to seek comfort in a lot of twisted rationalization to excuse India’s disastrous journey.

Gurcharan Das — like you and I — belongs to a class of Indians who in some sense intellectually recognize that China has got India beat today and perhaps for a century or two going ahead. But that is unacceptable to one’s heart. Seeking solace, we have to immediately turn to pointing out that Indians have democracy and that disgruntled people in India can speak up against the government. Yes, they do speak up — and most of the speaking is done by comfortably-off middle class leftists. They control the press and other media. But the rulers are fine with that because, as the saying goes, unlike sticks and stones, words really cannot hurt. To be certain, every now and then, the poor vote but then their lot is miserable enough that a few rupees worth of food and drinks is sufficient to buy their temporary allegiance during the voting season.

It seems to me that the biggest barrier to moving ahead is the complacency that comes from having convinced oneself that one has already arrived. Indian leaders talk glibly of India being this or that superpower; they talk of “second fastest” this or “second largest” that. They talk glowingly of the “demographic dividend.” I can understand why they do that. If they were to admit that the population has grown beyond what is good for the country (and more importantly for its people), then they will have to admit that they screwed up — just as their hallowed leaders such as Nehru and Gandhi did.

They figure that the best thing to do is to twist this unpalatable fact and make it into something desirable. The easiest way to avoid having to fix is vice is to pretend that it is a virtue. (When people screwup in software design, they label bugs as features.)

Mr Das quotes his mother approvingly at the start of the article.

She had asked, what is the difference between China growing at a rate of 10% and India at 8%? I replied that the difference was, indeed, very significant. If we were to grow at 10% we could save twenty years. This is almost a generation. We could lift a whole generation into the middle class twenty years sooner. She thought for a while and then said gently, “We have waited 3,000 years for this moment. Why don’t we wait another twenty and do it the Indian way?”

I think that the next time I see a starving person on the street, I will quote her. I am sure that the children on the railway station would be quite content with a bit of wait. What’s a lifetime of hunger, pain, deprivation, and misery when in just a few generations, in a matter of decades, India will be better than China? I am sure that the hundreds of millions of below-five malnourished children would be quite satisfied with this explanation and not bother us for food.

What strikes me speechless is the idiocy that people are willing to sprout just to camouflage their feeling of guilt and inadequacy. Better be branded an idiot than a heartless person.

Mr Das points out the Tiannmen Square massacre and says that in India this sort of thing would not happen. I am afraid that Mr Das is not familiar with the massacre of Sikhs that the Congress party of India engineered and in which thousands of innocent Sikhs were murdered in cold blood. After more than a quarter century, the criminals are still roaming free on the streets of India. Someone should clue him in.

What I really don’t like is the cherry-picking of evidence in support of dubious claims. Sure China has problems — no country is governed by enlightened bodhisattavs and buddhas. But even to imperfect humans is granted the ability to make rational economic policies. It is does not require superhuman skills. Lots of countries around the world have got their economic policies right, and have created the institutions that enable the society to function as well as can be done given the constraints. The matter that Indians need to keep confronting is why is India so desperately poor. Because by pretending that in some mythical future India would be better than China is all very fine in the debating halls of Oxford or Cambridge but that does not move us one inch towards solving the urgent problems India faces in the here and now.

Here’s as fine a bit of denial as you are ever likely to come across in print:

Because the Indian state is inefficient, millions of entrepreneurs have stepped into the vacuum. When government schools fail, people start private schools in the slums, and the result is millions of ‘slumdog millionaires’. You cannot do this in China. Our free society forces us to solve our own problems, making us self-reliant. Hence, the Indian way is likely to be more enduring because the people have scripted India’s success while China’s state has crafted its success.

The state fails and that failure is a feather in the cap of India? Wow!

We are self-reliant while the Chinese depend on the state! How is that supposed to comfort the 700 million or so Indians who have to subsist on less than $2 a day?

And then Mr Das ends on a truly amazing note:

This worries China’s leaders who ask, if India can become the world’s second fastest economy despite the state, what will happen when the Indian state begins to perform? India’s path may be slower but it is surer, and the Indian way of life is also more likely to survive. This is why when I am reborn I would prefer it to be in India.

Unlike Mr Das, I am not privy to the private worries of the Chinese leadership. I can only guess that the Chinese leaders are more concerned about how to grow their $3,000 per capita annual income to $30,000, and what they need to do to challenge the US for world superpower status. I am not so sure that India with its $1,000 per capita annual income (and the “second fastest” growth rate) is something that they lose much sleep over. I somehow think that they would not waste time debating the proposition whether the future will belong to China or to India. I believe that they know (and so does Mr Das) that China has beat India fair and square here and now, and that is what matters.

If you have to rationalize your failures by pretending that the future is going to be different, you might be a third world country.

Author: Atanu Dey


5 thoughts on “Whistling in the Dark about the Future”

  1. Hi Atanu..!

    This is my first visit here..very well executed posts..

    In certain Key areas India is out-performing..and different development strategies are pursued radically .

    One question’s hitting my mind..’Can India overtake china?’…

    n Thanks fr this post..

    Gud Luck !



  2. Atanu: Thought-provoking…

    I am guilty of making similar arguments too…


    I hope, as Vyshu has asked – that India can indeed overtake China…provided we get some basic things right…

    But its going to be a a very long-haul.


  3. Atanu,

    You have hit the nail on its head. Coming from somebody like Gurcharan Das it is really amazing. When did Gurcharan Das become an expert on China’s political and social circumstance.

    I have heard these arguments many a time and use to resort to these arguments earlier, but have slowly come to realize that this is the typical “head in the sand” response Indians have to all issues like Child Abuse, Women’s rights, Racism and so on and so forth. None of these issues effect India. Sadly Most of the Middle class Indians take rise in BSE sensex as being equivalent of exonomic performance. The best example of this behaviour is response of most people to the Global Recession – Everybody from Finance Minister onwards believes we are doing better than rest of the world ignoring the massive job losses in export sectors.

    We always take pride in our Democracy – What democracy – we vote every 5 years to elect MP’s from a group of candidates who are nominated by a bunch of people whose only criteria is how to get to the magic number of 273. We talk about our judiciary, which exccept for the Supreme Court is ramantly corrupt and inefficent. Ask Mr. Das to get a property dispute resolved in the sessions court of Calcutta and he will realize the independence of our judiciary. Our Media has completely failed the people of this country with their inability to raise any pertinent question to our leaders. How come no Journalist asks Congress leaders about their views on Emergency (their are still people from that era in leadership position) or howcome their has been no initiative by any Congress led government to improve access to education to the masses. Our journalists seem all to happy to suck to the Gandhi Family – (Rajdeep Sardesai – http://ibnlive.in.com/blogs/author/1/rajdeepsardesai.html), not having to ask any uncomfortable questions to our politicians. And finally the freedom of speech does not exist in our country, try saying something scandalous about any of the powerful leaders and be ready to be beaten up by crazed mobs.

    Given that all pillars of a healthy democracy in India are thorughly wrotten, I don’t see a chance in hell for us to overtake China.

    Not so cheerful,


  4. Dear Atanu

    I was directed to this post through Shantanu’s blog. I’m not going to comment on this article but will make a general point (I’ve made a similar post on Shantanu’s blog as well).

    To me some of these discussions (and similar ones elsewhere) sound like quibbles among people with a lot of idle time on their hands. Instead, I want to know how many of journalists (including liberal journalists) and writers are doing anything POLITICALLY to get their beliefs and message across? Practically none.

    While such articles are entertaining (and even informative), they are more like Bollywood movies at their core: without substance, mere ‘time pass’. These articles have a hero (generally the writer: who always holds the high moral ground) and a villain (generally politicians, other writers, other countries). The hero ends up feeling good by writing his article and thinks he has been vindicated. But we get this feeling that this is make-believe. These writers are not real people doing real things. They lack the organisational ability and determination to persuade people to vote for them.

    The point I make is that liberty and good governance was never offered in a platter to anyone anytime. Nor will it be offered to India that easily. Why do Indian liberals avoid the hard work needed to get their message across? Edmund Burke, Thomas Jefferson, J.S. Mill all come to mind as liberals who refused to be backbenchers or spectators. All of them participated actively as MPs/political leaders. We don’t need journal articles/ books. We need political pamphlets. But who is writing them in India? None.

    I would like to challenge people (including writers/ commentators on this blog or elsewhere) to start becoming citizens and participating in real political work. That is the only way to change India. Let the battles be fought on the floor of the Parliament.

    The Freedom Team (FTI: http://freedomteam.in) is a possible place for those who believe in ideas of liberty (and ethics) to come together and lead India. FTI has explicitly RULED OUT having any idle chatterbox on FTI. We don’t want advisors. Only those committed to political action and to persuade the people of India to their views through the political process. People who are willing to work as a team; as part of an organisation. I’m finding it exceptionally hard to find people to join FTI. We only have about 60 odd members with us at the moment, while we need at least 1500 to kickstart a political movement. I suspect this is because we tend to believe in India that once we’ve written our views on a blog or a newspaper, our responsibility as citizen is done, while in fact it has only begun.

    Sanjeev Sabhlok


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