August 08, 2020
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Clay Is Not China

India's messy democracy gives it a protean edge over the rigidities of the neighbour

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Clay Is Not China
Satish Kumar
Clay Is Not China
In the corridors of international power, there is a new discourse emerging. It is about the inexorable rise of China and India. Neither ascent is viewed as certain, but the odds are high that both nations, desperately poor until recently but now showing signs of economic dynamism, will acquire "seats at the highest table" before long. What is driving this perception? What can derail the predicted ascent?

As far as India is concerned, the rationale for the current discourse is founded on three factors: nuclear capability, democratic resilience and economic dynamism. But there are two imponderables—mass destitution and communalism—that can halt and delay India’s rise.

Let us begin with the notion of national power. What does it mean to be powerful in the international system? Though power has many forms—including ‘soft power’, communicated through political ideals and cultural appeals—nuclear weapons have remained the bedrock of national power in international relations since their birth. Moral conduct, ideals and economic success can add to a country’s power, but they are no substitutes for military power. Japan’s rising anxiety about China today is not because China can surpass Japan economically any time soon. It is because China can combine economic and military strength in a way Japan simply cannot. Having been defeated in World War II, Japan is constitutionally obligated not to develop nuclear weapons and must rely on a US security guarantee. Ideally, Japan would like to have its own nuclear weapons and stand on its feet.

Critics argue that nuclear weapons have made India less secure, not more. As a result of India’s tests, they say, Pakistan too acquired nuclear weapons, and the two came close to a full-blooded war over Kargil in 1999. Did that not show greater insecurity? This reasoning has two major flaws.

First, the Kargil incursion did not become a war precisely because of nuclear weapons, which forced the US to restrain Pakistan from going further. The US had no reasons to intervene, except to prevent a possible nuclear conflagration. What scholars call nuclear deterrence—the capacity of nuclear weapons to dissuade potential aggressors—can emerge either directly through the decision-makers of feuding countries, or via overwhelming external pressure.

Second, a decision to go nuclear is ultimately based on a long-run security calculus. Pakistan is only one fragment of India’s strategic universe; China is another and a more potent one. India’s nuclear weapons buy insurance against China, whose future moves simply cannot be predicted. A full-scale war against India is now virtually impossible, thanks to the capability of its nuclear weapons to deter aggression. Only low-intensity conflicts can occur, not wars, unless India elects to declare war against a non-nuclear state in pursuit of its own national interests. Having the capacity to deter future aggressors against itself, but retaining the capacity to do so against others, if needed, is a huge component of India’s future power.

India’s democratic longevity has also finally begun to count in India’s favour. This was not always so for two reasons. The security imperatives of the Cold War, when India was allied, rightly or wrongly, with the former Soviet Union, clashed with a fuller appreciation of India’s democracy. The disintegration of the Soviet Union has undermined that internally divided logic. Second, India’s democratic progress in the 1970s and 1980s was halting and unclear. Rigging in elections had reached noticeable proportions and Indira Gandhi’s democratic credentials were never too convincing or transparent. Over the last 10-15 years, India’s elections have become cleaner, and incumbents have been regularly defeated. India’s democratic claims look formidable now.

India’s democracy is, of course, not flawless, but no one in the world knows what a flawless democracy is.And no other developing country matches India’s democratic record, however faulty it may seem to its middle classes. For all its imperfections, India’s democracy is a shining jewel in the nation’s crown. For China to get a seat at the highest table in a post-Cold War world, its polity will have to become democratic. India’s edge on this score is massive.

It is India’s economic dynamism of the last decade and a half that has attracted the greatest external attention. Among the economies of the world, India’s growth rate in recent years has been second only to China’s. A 6 per cent annual growth rate is now increasingly an assumption made about India’s foreseeable economic future.

New Delhi’s current policy framers are trying to push Indian economy towards a higher growth path, something akin to China’s 8-9 per cent per year. That, of course, will add to India’s power. But the pulls and pressures of a democratic polity precludes the free pursuit of this ideal. The making and implementation of economic policy in closed polities like China is brutally simpler. When it builds highways, China displaces the poor and forcibly relocates them. In India, that is virtually inconceivable. China has also increasingly managed to privatise its public sector and retrench extra workers. Indian polity remains highly resistant to both.

This, of course, does not mean that India’s democracy is the villain of the piece. Increasing economic growth rates cannot be the sole objective of a society. Under the democratic umbrella fall some fundamental values—the desire to express views freely, the ability to challenge and change governments fearlessly, and the opportunity to organise one’s life according to one’s preferences, not those set by the government. These values require categorical protection. They cannot be sacrificed at the altar of economic growth.

The real issue here is not democracy, but the nature of Indian growth. India’s economic dynamism constitutes a huge paradox, comprising achievement and failure simultaneously. Unlike China, India’s economic success has been led by the service sector, not by manufacturing. Information technology is the most visible face of India’s economic surge, even though it constitutes less than 5 per cent of India’s overall GDP. On CNN’s Larry King Live the other day, former president Bill Clinton made the stunning claim that half the world’s software is made in India. Clinton, perhaps, made an overstatement, but even if it is half true, it shows the perception in elite circles all over the world. The creation of an internationally competitive industry, especially in high-technology areas, is never easy in a developing economy. India’s IT revolution lifts the entire country in international eyes, and lends confidence to the business sector in India, raising corporate ambitions and creating self-belief. A company like Infosys, the emblem of the new technological age, also inspires smaller businesses in India to rise from below.

Jawaharlal Nehru’s investments in science and technology in the 1950s and 1960s have thus paid off, but in an unexpected way. Even as IT has boomed, we still have the dark cloud of illiteracy hanging over a third of the nation’s population. The proportion of illiterate women is even higher. Basically, IT is a double-edged sword, a sign of India’s awesome scientific powers and a tribute to India’s economic reforms, but also a sign of our great inability to lift the teeming millions from the depths of illiteracy. IT is too education-dependent to make serious inroads into India’s mass poverty, driven by illiteracy.

India’s mass destitution should be viewed as nothing less than a bruising embarrassment for its economic dynamism and reforms.Poverty has come down in the last 15 years of economic reform, but much too slowly, raising serious doubts about whether market reforms alone can eliminate poverty soon enough.

China’s economic dynamism since the mid-1980s has been manufacturing-led. Light manufacturing is always much more labour-absorbing than IT. As its economy grew, China could create jobs for its millions of poor, who had already been made literate by a huge public investment in primary education in the 1950s and 1960s. In China, thus, market-driven growth became hugely poverty-reducing, but not in India. As long as mass poverty remains widespread, India’s economic momentum will only be viewed with mixed respect. It will detract from the nation’s power gains in the international system. China has a clear edge here.

India’s Communists, now a powerful component of the ruling coalition in Delhi, derive the wrong lessons from this paradoxical situation. They focus only on redistribution, not on expanding the economic pie. They oppose privatisation, show no interest in better roads, are lukewarm to the building of modern airports, and have nothing to say on how to make India more business-friendly, all of which China has done—under Communist rule. They concentrate, instead, entirely on the failure of economic reforms to attack poverty more vigorously and directly.

Their arguments are self-defeating. A bigger attack on poverty, given India’s widespread illiteracy, does require anti-poverty programmes and greater public investments in primary schools, but it does not follow that market forces, privatisation and foreign investments should be opposed. A greater expansion of the pie—which, in this day and age, is left primarily to markets and private investments—will also release resources that facilitate a more forceful attack on poverty. Fiscally strapped governments, whose gap between revenues and expenditures constitutes 10 per cent of the GDP, will not be able to make adequate funds available for anti-poverty programmes, primary education and primary health on a sustained basis. Privatisation of loss-making public sector enterprises will cut the fiscal deficit, and private investment, including foreign, will raise growth rates overall, making more revenues available for a direct attack on poverty and illiteracy. India’s decision-makers thus need to walk on two legs: make India more business-friendly as well as attack poverty more directly. The two are increasingly connected in a fiscally tight economic environment. A simultaneous pursuit of both will add immeasurably to India’s rising power.

Let me finally turn to communalism, which can also depress India’s rise. In contemporary times, a nation that treats minorities shabbily and even allows riots to take place against them does not draw respect. Terrorism is now the only possible rationale for a curb on human rights, and that too, a temporary and partial one. India was lucky that the Gujarat pogroms took place very soon after 9/11, when the international system was obsessed with terrorism. Of course, unlike then, the Hindu nationalists do not rule Delhi at this time, but we can’t be sure that the communal threat has passed for ever.

If a Gujarat 2002 were to be repeated anywhere in India in the future, it would attract international censure and diminish Indians greatly. China’s disgraceful treatment of its Tibetan minority may also come to haunt its decision-makers, as the nation strives to achieve a bigger role and greater respect in the world. The international system is heading towards an age where human rights will be an important currency of power. Though essential, military and economic power alone will not do.

(Professor of political science at University of Michigan, Ashutosh Varshney’s most recent work is Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India; Yale University Press)

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