Why is the world’s largest democracy apparently doing worse than the world’s largest dictatorship? Hold on to that word “apparently,” since there’s precious little comfort in all the comparative indicators on the current performances of India and China. Yet anyone who cares for freedom must want this free country to do better.
On growth, inflation, GDP per capita, unemployment, budget deficit, corruption – almost every indicator believed in by Davos Man – India is doing worse than China. The great catch-up predicted a few years ago has just not happened. On GDP per capita, for example, India limps along at $3,851 against China’s $9,146. According to official figures for 2011, India’s unemployment was more than double China’s. Transparency International’s index measuring the perception of corruption ranks China a poor (joint) 80th in the world, but India comes in (joint) 94th. And so it goes.
Yes, China probably cooks its books more than India does, so discount a bit for “lies, damned lies and statistics.” But almost everyone I’ve talked to in more than two weeks of travelling around India basically accepts that verdict. In fact, they add to it. The rural poor, they say, are hardly better off than they were two or three decades ago. A former Supreme Court justice tells me with passionate indignation that more than 40 per cent of Indian children are malnourished – “Worse than in Africa!” he cries – and a 2005 World Bank report supports that view. Some 17,000 Indian farmers committed suicide in 2010 when their crops failed. Even the most superficial, privileged traveller can’t avoid seeing the shocking proximity of wealth and want, whether in the garbage-piled slums of Mumbai or the medieval-looking peasant farms off a new expressway.
Why? Unlike China, but like Europe, India expends a vast amount of its energy simply coping with its own incredible diversity. Charles de Gaulle once exclaimed: How can you possibly govern a country that has 246 varieties of cheese? Well, how about a country with 330 million gods? And when we say a country, a 19th-century English observer once observed that “Scotland is more like Spain than Bengal is like Punjab.” A poetic exaggeration, no doubt, but this country is a continent, an empire in itself. And like Europe, it’s trying to manage this diversity in freedom. China has diversity, too, but it copes with it mainly by repression.
To make freedom in diversity work, you need a powerful uniting narrative. The United States has that, as we saw again in the inauguration of President Barack Obama. (Yes, it’s a myth, but national myths move mountains.) Europe had such a narrative after 1945 but has lost it. India, too, had it in the first decades after independence but, like Europe, it has now lost the plot. Instead, there are multiple competing stories. Unfortunately, many of these are sectarian, regional, petty-chauvinist narratives, dividing rather than uniting.
Then there’s the “Licence Raj.” Administrative structures inherited from the British Empire have hypertrophied into nightmarish bureaucracy. Captains of Indian industry like to invest elsewhere because it takes seven or eight years to get all the permissions in India.
If the bureaucracy of a post-colonial state is the problem, more deregulation and economic liberalization should be the answers. In some respects, they are. They are the only ways, for example, to get to a European Union-India free-trade agreement. But the free-market liberalization that was introduced in the 1990s is also part of the problem. Take the media: They now boast a sensationalist race to the bottom that makes Fox News look fair and balanced and the British tabloid The Sun look like a news bulletin for the Salvation Army. Ads take up the whole front page, and “paid news” (corporations paying for favourable news coverage) is the order of the day.
Then there’s politics. Everyone tells me that business and politics in Delhi are carnally intertwined like tantric gods and goddesses. Beside the shrill name-calling, regional and religious identity politics and dynastic principle, there’s the monstrous condescension to the two out of every three Indians who are still dirt poor. While some corporate and philanthropic initiatives do offer them the essential help for self-help, the politicians just throw subsidies at them for basic foodstuffs and guaranteed low-wage employment for a number of days a year – then buy their votes every election time. As in the ancient Roman formula, the plebs are offered “bread and circuses.” The circuses in this case are cricket (“an Indian game the British just happen to have invented”) and the celebrity razzmatazz of Bollywood.
So is China bound to go on winning? No, because while the Indian system is a daily soap opera of small crises, the big crisis of China’s self-contradictory system of Leninist capitalism is yet to come. And no, again, because India is a free country, with an amazing diversity of talent, originality and spirituality. Surely that free expression of human individuality must win out in the end.
So I say: Come on, India! So far as I’m concerned, you can beat England at cricket in every single test match for the next 10 years, but on one condition: you also start beating China at politics. And by politics I mean not the petty competition for power and privilege, but realizing the full potential of your people.
Timothy Garton Ash is a professor of European studies at Oxford University and a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.
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