India doing worse than China?

Why is the world’s largest democracy apparently doing worse than the world’s largest dictatorship? Hold on to that word ‘apparently’, since there is 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.

A view of New Delhi (Beta/AP)
A view of New Delhi (Beta/AP)

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 per capita GDP, 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 on.

Yes, China probably cooks its books more than India does, so discount a bit for ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’. But almost everyone I have talked to in more than two weeks travelling around India, be they journalist, businesswoman, scholar or outside observer, 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, a craggy, towering survivor of the old, progressive Nehruvian India, tells me with passionate indignation that more than 40% of Indian children are probably malnourished. ‘Worse than in Africa!’ he cries - and a detailed 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 not avoid seeing the shocking proximity of wealth and want, whether in the garbage-piled slums of Mumbai or the medieval-looking peasant farms visible just off a brand-new expressway.

Why? Here are a few suggested explanations. Unlike China, but like Europe, India expends a vast amount of its energy simply coping with its own incredible diversity. The French president 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 nineteenth 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, a commonwealth, an empire in itself. And like Europe, it is trying to manage this diversity in freedom. China has diversity too, in vast if sparsely populated areas of mainly Tibetan and mainly Muslim population, 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, in a political and media free-for-all. Unfortunately, if unsurprisingly, many of these are sectarian, regional, petty-chauvinist narratives, dividing rather than uniting.

Then there is what has been called ‘the Licence Raj’. Administrative structures inherited from the British empire, and amazingly unchanged in many respects, have hypertrophied into nightmarish bureaucracy. Captains of Indian industry such as Lakshmi Mittal and the recently retired Ratan Tata 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 answer; and so, in some respects, it is. That is, for example, the only way that we will get to an EU-India free trade agreement which could bring great benefits to both sides. But the free market liberalization that was let rip in the 1990s is also part of the problem. Take the media, for example. India’s media now boast a commercial, sensationalist, race-to-the-bottom which makes Fox News look truly ‘fair and balanced’ and the British tabloid The Sun look like a news bulletin for the Salvation Army. A few quality papers, such as The Hindu, are exceptions that prove the rule. Elsewhere, advertisements literally take the whole front page and ‘paid news’ (corporations paying for favourable news coverage) is the order of the day.

Then there is politics. Everyone, but 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 (witness the irresistible rise of Rahul Gandhi in the Congress party), there is 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 mainly just throw at them subsidies for basic foodstuffs, a few other cheap goodies, guaranteed low wage employment for a number of days a year – and 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 that the British just happen to have invented’) and the celebrity razzmatazz of Bollywood.

So is China bound to go on winning? No, and again no. 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 the most amazing diversity of human talent, originality, personality and spirituality. Surely that free expression of human individuality must tell 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 ten years, but on one condition: that 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.

timothygartonash.com

Timothy Garton Ash is Professor of European Studies at Oxford University, where he directs www.freespeechdebate.com, and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He is the author, most recently, of Facts are Subversive: Political Writing from a Decade Without a Name