A separate path
China has done much better than India in human development measurements, particularly in those concerning health and education. The centralist, as opposed to the federalist, system has contributed towards much of this difference; the rest occurs because India is still burdened with overarching liabilities in the shape of caste, religious inhibitions and superstitions. Hinduism is not egalitarian and nor is Islam, Sikhism and Christianity, as these faiths are commonly practised in India.
Both India and China have hard choices to make between permitting dissent and imposing stability, and their responses to both are very different. The centralist style of governance may not be an unmixed advantage for China. Paradoxically, strong-centred states can be vulnerable and brittle, whereas soft states, being malleable, are harder to smash. India has been ruled by many and sometimes by none, but it has the social underpinning provided by the traditional and pervasive Hindu culture. The State here is a secondary phenomenon, and the peasantry has gone about its business over the centuries almost oblivious to changing rulers.
On the other hand, China has suffered huge and spasmodic nationwide breakdowns — the Taiping Rebellion (1851-64), the Boxer Uprising (1899-1901), four decades of warlordism, the Great Leap Forward (1958-1960) the great famine in 1962, probably the worst and most understated in world history, and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). China’s progress has, therefore, hardly been uninterruptedly smooth. Mao Zedong had a propensity to take great risks and plunge the country, its society and economy, into upheavals and catastrophes, and he was the dominant figure in China in a way that the Nehru dynasty never could be in democratic India. Given the Indian political culture, reform can only take place here by consent, and potential opponents have to be convinced, cajoled or corrupted. Contradictions have to be reconciled, for example, regarding foreign investment, over which the suspicion of foreign capital remains strong, oddly enough, even among Indian capitalists, to say nothing of the communists.
China has thus far been able to separate the political institutions of a one-party supremacy from the economic dogma of State ownership of all means of production, but how long can China persevere with this separation? Can the one-party system continue to co-exist with a private enterprise economy, and is State capitalism possible in peaceful and prosperous post-revolutionary times? Every economic and political theory claims that economic freedom must spill over into political freedom. Once property rights are granted, certain liberalizing tendencies will necessarily follow. Neither the communist party nor the buyer and seller of property can be above the law. With this development will come the need for law courts, an independent legal profession, and freedoms of speech and association — which, in turn, will lead to group interests, lobbies and parties. Can China defy the forces of historical inevitability and avoid a transition to a more pluralist political system?
If China cannot, which accords with conventional theory, it will be forced towards a new political system, but the final result may nevertheless not be one of any Western model — it may be turn out to be a less-than-liberal democracy like Singapore or Hong Kong; or a single-party dominance like Japan or Malaysia, or a duality of power like the Ayatollahs and the Majlis in Iran. The Communist Party of China shows no sign whatever of relinquishing any part of its power, and the political shape of things to come in China therefore remains completely ambiguous.
India has constructed its version of democracy against all the odds — illiteracy, multiple languages, religions, races, and social diversity. It has maintained its territorial integrity while some other multi-ethnic federations elsewhere, like Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, have fallen apart. India has confronted sub-nationalisms, internal dissension, communal strife, and class- based revolts, and somehow has survived. This past history makes its future trajectory easier to predict, and while the future of China’s political system is a favoured field for academic speculation, no analyst has ever presumed that the future in India will be much different from the past. India’s version of democracy may well survive for decades to come, but it is highly likely to be even more dysfunctional than it is today.
India’s burden is the negative effect of the politicization of all aspects of its economic life. A centripetal nationalist regime in future could accelerate growth, but it will lead to greater social disharmony. So it becomes Hobson’s Choice. India will continue to remain a ‘soft state’ with a consensual and compromising political culture, and will not be able to sustain its growth at the kind of peak levels that China has attained. It has been described as the land of a million mutinies and a functioning anarchy, and Rabindranath Tagore called it a ‘no-nation’. Its complex neighbourhood environment is aggravated by complicated politics, and its social, religious and security issues are almost impossible to resolve. Its federal structure, dominated by local potentates and satraps, veers dangerously closely at times to anomie, domestic colonialism and political warlordism. To stay stable and peaceful, India has essentially to be a muddle and a mess, a dystopia that at times verges on the edge of anarchy. It is a matter of astonishment that modern India has come as far as it has, in trebling its per capita income, and justifiably inspiring great optimism for its future both domestically and abroad. The answer is to be found in the Indian culture that reconciles even democracy’s impossible dreams with our parochial passions and aspirations: Hindu civilization has absorbed democracy as it has absorbed everything alien, and just as everything else left its mark on India, so has democracy.
India has not only endured as a democratic political entity but it may also be a beneficiary of making a late start economically — it took England 58 years to double its per capita income from 1780 to 1838, 47 years for the United States of America from 1839 to 1886, 34 years for Japan from 1885 to 1919 and 11 years for South Korea from 1966 to 1977. China has doubled it from 1978 to 1987 and once again in the succeeding nine years. For more than two decades, China had sustained an annual growth rate of nine per cent or more — which is unprecedented. To progress further, both India and China will now have to manage multiple transitions; from farm to non-farm, from rural to urban, from analogue to digital, manual to automated, low technology to hi-technology, and, the mindset — from insular to global.
India and China will cease to be bywords for poverty and misery as they were in the 18th and 19th centuries. Already three of the four biggest economies in the world in terms of purchasing power parity are in Asia — China, Japan and India. Suddenly big is beautiful; big populations, big markets, big military machines and big ambitions. China will become a viable great power on a global scale, probably one of the greatest that the history of our planet has ever seen. India will remain a big, muddled, laudable and exemplary free society. The journalistic phrase, ‘Chindia’, might suggest an expected convergence in the roadmaps to the future of the two countries, but this will never occur — the ultimate destinations for India and China will be very different.
This is not to discount the effect of various other factors, the moving parts and variables that will influence the location of State power in this century, such as globalization, the geo-political and strategic environment, military prowess, nuclear weapons, access to resources, and the ability to export capital and knowledge-based information. But it is a safe bet to assume that young persons everywhere in the world will live to see a very different politically and economically multi-polar planet in which Asia will be a major participant. Together, China and India will cause the century we live in to be known as the Asian century. The Indian elephant will not be able to breathe fire like the Chinese dragon, but we should keep in mind that few creatures have the stamina of the elephant.