Don’t open the bubbly yet
Don’t open the bubbly yet
In any rational evaluation of humanity’s future prospect, it should be clear that China and India will contribute to shaping the world in ways not even seen in the 15th to the 18th century, when they accounted for more than one-half of the globe’s output. But it’s unclear if either country can provide a model worthy of worldwide emulation.
China has emerged as an engine of economic growth for the entire world. But its society and politics offer models that are unattractive in the long run, because of their authoritarianism, lack of pluralism, ecological irresponsibility, intellectual aridity, and absence of democracy.
India, with its open society, great diversity, and fairly robust democracy, is far more attractive. But is it any more worthy of emulation than China? Has India’s historic "moment" arrived, when it can become a "truly great nation", as Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh announced from the Red Fort this Independence Day?
The answer must be inconclusive, indeed ambiguous and conditional. India presents a picture of great anomalies and contradictions. Consider just a handful. India’s GDP is now on a high-growth trajectory of 6 to 8 per cent. But this doesn’t spell more jobs, higher incomes, or even better nutrition for the poor. Twenty years ago, India’s annual GDP growth was 3.5 per cent, but employment expanded at 2.2 per cent. Today, employment is only growing by 1.1 per cent — less than half the rate of addition to the workforce.
India’s growth is unbalanced: services are growing rapidly, industry sluggishly, while agriculture, on which 60 per cent of people depend, is in distress. Farm incomes are falling. Mounting indebtedness has driven 9,000 farmers to suicide since 1998. Today, annual per capita foodgrains consumption, 154kg, is 20 kg lower than 6 years ago, and of the same order as in the 1940s, the decade of the Bengal Famine. Two-fifths of farm households recently queried by the National Sample Survey said they would quit farming, given a choice.
India’s greatest success is the relative stability of its political democracy, surely a rarity in the Third World. But this goes hand-in-hand with social bondage and economic servitude. Lack of social opportunity prevents millions of people from developing their elementary human potential. For the 48 per cent of Indian children who are malnourished, the future is sordid and cruel. Today, 47 per cent of Indian mothers are anaemic, a proportion twice as high as in sub-Saharan Africa after two decades of civil war, economic collapse and famine.
India rightly prides itself as a Constitutional democracy. Yet, it’s not a rule-of-law society. Its state cannot guarantee its citizens that most basic right, the right to life — witness Delhi-1984 and Gujarat-2002. The state is often predatory upon its own people, as in Kashmir, the Northeast, or Gurgaon.
India is among the world’s top three buyers of armaments and has the globe’s third largest Army. But India belongs to the bottom one-fourth of all nations in the UN Human Development Index. As the Indian state’s national security obsession grows, human security declines, with shrinking food security, income security, gender security and personal security.
Look at India’s external relations. India for decades advocated multilateralism and multipolarity and campaigned for global peace and nuclear disarmament. Today, it has become a camp follower of the world’s most belligerent power in pursuit of Empire.
India has joined the so-called nuclear club and craves recognition from the United States as a ‘responsible’ nuclear weapons-state — a contradiction in terms. Traditionally, India opposed aggression and occupation. Today, it has a close military relationship with Israel, which has no intention of ending Palestine’s occupation after quitting Gaza. New Delhi is offering to collaborate with Washington’s occupation of Iraq in the name of "democracy" and "stabilisation". India recently sanctified US unilateralism by signing the defence and nuclear cooperation deals with Washington.
By attaching itself to Washington’s apron strings, India has failed to expand its room for independent manoeuvre in the world — despite its growing economic and military strength. Unequal "strategic partnership" with the US is earning India enmity, especially in Asia. India’s desperate search for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council has proved illusory.
All in all, India has weakened its credentials as an independent non-aligned country. This is one of the four pillars of the Great Project India embraced at Independence, the others being democracy, secularism and socialism. The other pillars too have faced threats.
True, the dire predictions made until the 1970s haven’t materialised. The last British-Indian Army commander-in-chief Auchinleck was convinced that 1947 would be only the first of many Partitions. India survived its "most dangerous decade", the 1960s. In 1975, Time magazine ran a story entitled "India: A Huge Country on the Verge of Collapse".
These scenarios haven’t materialised. But India’s institutions have been weakened and its secular aspirations have suffered rude shocks through the anti-Babri mobilisation and the BJP’s ascendancy to power. It’s a great achievement that the Indian people have beaten back some of these threats — by defeating the Emergency-era Congress, bringing the hitherto disenfranchised into public life, and voting out the NDA.
Democracy and popular empowerment are India’s greatest gains. It must build further on them. The best way to do so is to frontally attack poverty, combat income and regional disparities, and create social opportunity, so as to create a truly participating democracy, in which, as Dr Singh put it, there will be "no barriers between the government and the people".
None of this can be done by pursuing free market policies. Market forces won’t bridge social divides, nor reduce disparities in access to health and education. The task needs public action. That’s the challenge before the UPA government. It cannot rise to it merely by adding a ‘human face’ to inequality — enhancing globalisation. To make India a truly great nation, the UPA will have to radically change its economic and social policies — by putting people before the market. Is it ready for this, or will it drift towards status quoist elitist policies?
Copyright 2005 Khaleej Times