India and China—More Similar Than You might Think

15. 3. 2017

China is shakily “authoritarian” while India is a stable democracy—indeed, the world’s largest. So goes the cliché, and it is true, up to a point. However, have we noticed the growing resemblance between the two countries, induced by more than two decades of exposure to global capitalism?

Not long after we were told that India and China were “flattening” the world, expediting a historically inevitable shift of power from the West to the East, their political institutions and original nation-building ideologies face a profound crisis of legitimacy. Tainted by corruption scandals, by elites consisting of dynastic politicians and crony global capitalists in both India and China, they struggle to persuasively reaffirm their country’s founding commitments to mass welfare. Protests against corruption and widening inequalities rage across their vast territories, adding to the long-simmering disaffection between the neighbours, while their economies slow down dramatically.

If anything, public anger against India’s political class seems more intense, and the disaffection there assumes militant forms, as in the civil war in Central India, where indigenous peoples led by armed Maoist militants across a broad swathe of commodities-rich forests are locked in a battle against security forces. India, where political dynasties have been able the rule for decades, has also many more “princelings” than China: nearly half of the members of the Parliament (MP) come from political families.

To those in the West, who reflexively contrast India to China (authoritarianism versus democracy), or yoke them together, equally tritely, as the “rising” powers, seem the solutions to their internal crises very clear: “democratic” India needs more economic reforms— in other words, greater openness to foreign capital. Meanwhile, “authoritarian”China, now endowed with cyber-empowered and increasingly assertive middle class, must expose its anachronistic political system to the fresh air of democracy.

Such abundant commonplaces draw upon the broad Whig-like assumption shared by most Western commentators on the “developing” and non-democratic world: that middle and other aspiring classes created by industrial capitalism bring about accountable and representative governments. This was, in fact, the main axiom of the “Modernization Theory,” first proposed by American army during the Cold War as a gradualist and peaceful alternative to Communist-style revolution. It always had its critics, most notably Samuel Huntington, who in his Political Order in Changing Societies (1968) questioned whether social and economic transformation in developing societies is always benign, or leads to democracy. Certainly, Modernization Theory never took into account the possibility that certain forms of raw capitalism—primitive accumulation, for instance—violate the basic principles of democracy in a country like India, where it has long been inseparable from promise of delivering social justice, equality and dignity for the majority.

It is often forgotten that for much of their existence the ruling elites of both India and China presented themselves as socio-economic engineers, working hard to release their desperate masses from the curse of poverty, ill health and illiteracy. Rhetorically committing themselves to national development and social welfare from the late 1940s, they actually became rivals decades before the words“India and China” turned into a tiresome mantra.

Despite investments in institutions of higher learning—that would later help provide highly skilled labor to Western banks and tech companies—India was always a straggler in public health and education, left behind not just by China but also by Sri Lanka (it has now been overtaken by Bangladesh). This was largely due to what Amartya Sen, writing in 1982, called “an astonishingly conservative approach to social services,” which in turn was the product of “the elitist character of Indian society and politics.”

The limits of Indian democracy had been outlined early by the co-author of India’s Constitution, B. R. Ambedkar, who famously lamented that “democracy in India is only a top dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic.” Thirty years later, Sen was still warning that “it is important to understand the elitist nature of India to make sense of India’s policies.”

Notwithstanding regular elections, a small minority, consisting largely of men from the upper and middle Hindu castes, set national priorities, and were loath to do anything that did not enhance their own power. For instance, as Sen pointed out, “removing the quiet presence of non-acute, endemic hunger does not have high priority in that elitist morality and politics.” (Expanded by globalization, and armed by the rhetoric of neo-liberalism, Indian elites are more determined than ever to defend and extend their privileges. Deploring the many subsidies for the rich, Amartya Sen was heard lamenting last year, “Whenever something is thought up to help the poor, hungry people, someone brings out the fiscal hat and says, “My God, this is irresponsible.”) Some women and Dalit (low-caste) Hindus were elevated into the “charmed circle of the Indian elite,” but their compatriots remained exposed to violence and discrimination, often perpetrated by the upper-caste-dominated state itself.

The contrast with the fanatically, even violently, anti-elitist nature of China’s revolution was stark. The communists had empowered Chinese women, brutally cracking down on the various social “evils” of feudalism. Despite Mao Zedong’s calamitous blunders, which caused the premature deaths of tens of millions of people, Communist China took an early lead over India in all the important indices of human development.

India’s own advantages over China were substantial. But far from taking pride in India’s press freedoms or expanding its constitutional liberties, many in the small middle class created by the country’s early investments in higher education were exasperated with any manifestations of mass democracy—especially the flexing of electoral muscle by low-caste groups in the 1980s, which caused a middle class exodus to the upper-caste Hindu nationalists. Chafing at India’s protectionist policies, these Indians regarded the Singaporean strongman Lee Kuan Yew as their hero and his squeaky-clean authoritarian state a more suitable political model for India than Westminster democracy.

Ironically, it was post-Mao China that in the late 1970s embraced the Singapore model: technocrat-supervised national development of a one-party state. The country’s world-class infrastructure—airports, highways, high-speed railroads—would have been inconceivable without an efficient state that ruthlessly appropriated land from peasants while providing financial assistance and the best scientific and technical expertise. Shelving its mass ideological campaigns in the 1980s, the CCP has since then promised to deliver prosperity through capitalism (albeit with Chinese characteristics) rather than socialism while periodically upholding its own and the state’s role as the mitigator of inequality and provider of welfare.

India’s political class began to reformulate its own compact with the Indian masses in the 1980s. As in China, a generation of technocratic politicians spearheaded India’s liberalizing and modernizing program. However, embedded with the country’s biggest capitalists, they were much less willing or able than China and other East Asian countries to enhance the state’s role in national development. On the contrary: many Indians exposed to neo-liberal orthodoxies of the Reagan-Thatcher era and often, like the present Indian Prime Minister and Finance Minister, attached to the institutions of the “Washington Consensus” (the World Bank, the IMF), seemed convinced that diminishing the role of government was as much the right thing to do in India as in a developed economy like America’s.

As GDP growth rates accelerated in the early 2000s, the market in India began to seem like yet another Hindu deity, one that would eventually shower—presumably through the great trickle-down miracle—prosperity on all, and also empower Dalits and women by unleashing entrepreneurial energies among them. India’s structural weaknesses—the poor quality of its education and governance, for instance— were temporarily obscured as credit-fuelled consumption transformed large parts of Indian cities. Davosed businessmen and day tripping foreign journalists working synergistically with various “analysts,” “experts” and hack-economists that proliferated overnight in Mumbai and Delhi hailed the “New India” of software parks and shopping malls.

Never mind that India’s much-ballyhooed information technology and business-processing offices employed less than 2 million of the country’s 400 million-strong workforce; that the large majority of illiterate or badly educated Indians gained little from the “booming” economic sectors of mining and real estate speculation; or that India’s service-oriented economy could not create enough jobs for the swelling ranks of the young unemployed in India—described in the cloud cuckoo land of “New India” as a “demographic dividend.”

For a while at least, elections provided legitimacy to politicians who, as is only now becoming public, built up enormous personal fortunes. Improvising fast, they could achieve the necessary electoral appeasement of the poor majority through populist programs made possible by increased revenues, such as the rural employment scheme that helped re-elect the Congress party in 2009.

Since then, however, India’s rulers, beset by a slowing economy, inflation and a cheapening rupee, have struggled to achieve the golden mean between economic growth and political stability. Several corruption scandals in the previous two years have clarified that economic liberalization, presented as the fastest means of reducing poverty, provided cover for a wholesale plunder of the country’s resources by some of the country’s best-known politicians and businessmen, often assisted by media figures eager to get a piece of the action. Anglo-American periodicals such as Foreign Affairs, Economist and Financial Times that in 2005 affirmed India as a “roaring capitalist success story” now wonder if the country is descending into a Latin-American-style oligarchy. Yet what is more disturbing, and only little discussed, is the budding likeness to China—the onset, in particular, of an informal authoritarianism in the hollow shell of a formal democracy.

The police and army have long enjoyed a range of arbitrary powers—the infamous Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) allows soldiers to kill Indian citizens with impunity. Innumerable Liu Xiaobos—intellectuals and activists arbitrarily detained for their political views, and denied legal recourse—languish in prisons in Central India now as well as in the “disturbed” territories of Kashmir and the North East. In recent years, the Chinese regime has alarmingly enhanced its ability to police the internet, and to crackdown on dissent. Relatively little attention, however, has been paid to the Indian government’s schemes to censor websites and access mobile phone records; the federal Communications and Information Technology Minister made the absurd demand that social media sites pre-screen their content.

In India, it is not just an overbearing state that mocks the ideals of freedom and justice. The recent beneficiaries of global capitalism also show contempt for them; and they have a particular scorn for the courageous intellectuals and activists of the country’s civil society—India’s continued great advantage over China.

Modernization Theory never considered the profound isolation, insecurity and aggressiveness of the newly prosperous in the largely underdeveloped and extremely unequal countries. China’s integration into the global economy has created a bellicosely nationalistic rich minority. India’s big industrialists such as the Tatas and Ambanis, and the emerging middle class and its representatives showed an explicit preference in the media for such politicians as Narendra Modi, India’s new Prime Minister, and the first to be accused of involvement in a murderous assault on a minority group—over 2000 Muslims died in 2002 under his watch. Indeed, expropriating public resources for private industrial and infrastructural projects, and ruthlessly suppressing his critics as the chief minister of Gujarat, Modi was the primary Indian exponent of capitalism with Chinese characteristics.

Certainly, the cold-war binary of democracy and authoritarianism will be an even more unreliable guide to India and China as they host fierce battles over inequality and corruption. “The natural counterpart of a free market economy,” John Gray warned in False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism (1998), “is a politics of insecurity.” Not surprisingly, political stability and legitimacy have become harder goals for governments everywhere, elected or not, European and American as well as Asian, in an age where private wealth creation is deemed more important than national wellbeing, and politicians with journalists as well as businessmen stand exposed as paid-up members of transnational elites.

It is true that neither India’s elected nor China’s unelected rulers have run out of options yet. Modi may turn to the mix of nationalism and crony capitalism that was patented by Malaysia’s Mahahir Mohamed and Indonesia’s Suharto. China’s new leaders may yet again follow the example of Singapore, a cannily adaptive one-party state, and deploy their country’s fresh elite of economists, corporate managers and lawyers in shoring up their centralized political authority and prestige. They may also draw upon the evidently inexhaustible resources of Chinese nationalism. Nevertheless, uneven development and rising inequalities will create ever-bigger problems of governance, perhaps even the upending of the established order in China, following the model of the Arab Spring. What follows then may turn out to be less—rather than more—of a democracy, and a lot more of chaos.

Pankaj Mishra

Indian essayist and novelist. His literary and political essays have appeared in The New York Times, the New York Review of Books, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the Guardian, the London Review of Books and the New Yorker. His most recent book is From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt against the West and the Remaking of Asia (2013).

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