How can a country be reimagined?
P R Chari
[dropcap]E[/dropcap]ven while allowing latitude for some literary licence, it is hard to conceptualise how the image of a country could be adequately captured and re-conceived later to serve a defined purpose. Apparently, a similar exercise in Reimagining Japan has been undertaken by McKinsey & Company. But, this conceptualisation and re-conception become especially hard for a civilisational country like India that has had a long and distinguished past followed by a millennium-long dark period. Now, analyses are tumbling over each other in predicting that a glorious India is rising once again like the proverbial phoenix, and that it is distinguishing itself everywhere — arts, commerce, sciences, technology and political discourses — to shape its domestic and international systems. More sober analyses, of course, draw up a balance sheet of India’s current and potential strengths and vulnerabilities to present more nuanced conclusions about where India is likely to be in 2020, in 2050, and in the mistier future.
Not surprisingly, India’s growth is being compared and contrasted, almost reflexively, with China’s ‘peaceful rise,’ which reviews the speed and content of their respective growth. So much is apparent. China’s ‘peaceful rise’ has led to a great alarm among its neighbours and invited a more muscular US response in East Asia. But, India’s rise does not seem to threaten the Asian countries and is even welcomed by several of them to offset and balance China in the Asian continent.
These issues provide the backdrop for the book being reviewed here that attempts to “reimagine” India in its baffling complexities. India has its strengths and weaknesses. It has a great latent potential, which needs to be realised. But this is where its contradictions, too, become visible. For example, does it need more government to achieve its social objectives, or less government to achieve its economic ambitions? Moreover, it has been wisely observed that for every statement made to encapsulate India, an opposite statement can be made, and both statements would probably be true. For instance: India needs to open up its economy and free it from stifling regulations in the interests of its national growth. But, it needs more regulation to ensure that its poor have access to health and education at affordable costs. Perhaps the greatest contradiction that India presents to the world is that while it is home to some 30 per cent of the latter’s population that is living under the poverty line (howsoever defined) it is also home to a fair percentage of the world’s billionaires.
The book comprises a large number of short essays — 64 in all — that have been clustered into six chapters entitled reimagining, politics & polity, business & technology, challenges, culture & soft power, and India in the world. The writers of these essays comprise a galaxy from different walks of life and include well-known national and international personalities like Fareed Zakaria, Gurcharan Das, Mukesh Ambani, Bill Gates, Azim Premji, Edward Luce, Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, Nandan Nilenkani, Anil Agarwal, Ramchandra Guha, Mallika Sarabhai, Vishwanathan Anand, Stephen P Cohen, Kishore Mahbubani and Bruce Reidel.
No consensus could have been expected to emerge from essays with such a global sweep and authors from very difference backgrounds. In fairness, it should be emphasised that the editors have not tried to achieve any conformity in the views expressed by the essay-writers. What emerges, therefore, from this mélange of contributions is a series of vignettes on the issues embodied within the chapters identified. The result has been strong opinions and throwaway assertions being made, without much effort being made to balance these views or to debate them at more than cursory length. The result is a stirring of the appetite, but no fulfillment of the hunger.For instance, Ruchir Sharma in “Breakout or washout” is all praise for the new genre of “smart, dynamic chief ministers”, who have been rewarded by the voters with up to three terms in office, which is unique in the Indian political system. He concludes by noting, “In an increasingly federal nation, the dynamism of the State leaders is countering the ineffectiveness of the Centre and changing the economic map of India.” He might have qualified this over-statement by also noticing the stranglehold some border States have acquired over a weak and indecisive New Delhi in the foreign policy sphere. Recent events have revealed that Mamata Banerjee has acquired a veto over India’s Bangladesh policy in the matter of negotiating the settling land borders or sharing river waters. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s inability to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting Summit in Sri Lanka due to the objections of the Dravida parties in Tamil Nadu is yet another example of how the ‘strong-States-weak-Centre’ dynamics have played out to the detriment of India’s national interests. It is clear, therefore, that an unqualified federalism is as deplorable as mindless centralisation.
Again, in ‘The closing of the Indian mind’, Kishore Mahbubani indicts India’s “underperformance” on a host of factors — overpopulation, corruption, illiteracy, political incompetence and stubbornly persistent poverty. But, the real failure is, to a large extent, one of imagination. Many Indian leaders still seem unable to conceive their country as a confident, open-minded rising power. Again, this throwaway statement simply does not take into account the capacity of its “under-performing” civil bureaucracy and much-maligned political leadership to deal competently with natural calamities of an epochal nature like the tsunami in 2004, or more routinely, massive operations like the census or elections at periodical intervals. Contrast, for instance, the manner in which cyclones have been faced in India with the chaos surrounding the US handling of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, despite possessing all the assets of a superpower. Mahbubani’s assessment is one-sided and extreme.
That cavil apart, we have in this collection of articles a challenging set of views by eminent writers on various facets of India’s polity and how it could be harnessed to achieve its goal to becoming a major global power. There is much to disagree or to agree with in these prescriptive analyses. But they are also uniquely persuasive.
The reviewer is Visiting Professor, Institute
of Peace and Conflict Studies