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.