A few months back, I wrote in “India, the US and the Anglosphere“, that India should be positioned by the US as the next global leader “just as Great Britain gracefully passed its world power status to the United States, the United States must look to do them same with India or else face decline in the face of a raising China”.
The New York Times op-ed, “The Myth of the New India” placed forward many criticism of such a promise for India, such as stating “Recent accounts of the alleged rise of India barely mention the fact that the country’s $728 per capita gross domestic product is just slightly higher than that of sub-Saharan Africa”. Indeed, the July 11th’s Mumbai bombings is a tragic reminder of the instability and security risks facing India.
Admitedly, India is not as glowing as some articles on the July/August edition of Foreign Affairs claim (indeed, some of the articles read like well crafted press releases). And while it does face many challenges in poverty and socio-economic issues, the much talked about “The Myth of the New India” NYT articles ignores three main points: 1) the large progress India has made thus far; 2) how much potential it has already shown; 3) and how much India’s political weight is growing - all this despite the economic underdevelopment that persist through most of India.
India: Not Quite Half Empty
Pankaj Mishra, who wrote “The Myth of the New India”, astutely points to several critical areas that has still dodge India despite its high-tech boom:
- Wealth Distribution - especially in Urban versus Rural (70% of India) populations
- Extensive and Deep Poverty - “nearly 380 million Indians still live on less than a dollar a day”
- Political Instability - Kashmir Issue, Religious Militants and a growing Communist Insurgency
Mishra is correct that these issues are a tremendous obstacle to the great power ambitions many increasingly confident Indians are voicing. There are other issues too, like India’s inefficient bureaucracy and its social economic system, which is considered unfriendly towards the type of more open market that is thought needed for high sustained growth.
Yet somewhere between the hope and ambition for India to become a great power and Mishra’s dire warnings, lies progress and great hope for India. Indeed, we should keep in mind that the progress it has made, in the high-tech and financial industry, despite such underdevelopment is impressive and no small feat.
Keeping Things Within Balance
While socio-economic development should ideally be uniform throughout a nation, it is often not. Issues like Rural v. Urban populations and continuing dire poverty in the face of a small, but growing, wealthy elite are real, but common problems faced buy many developing nations and characterize the struggles of many now developed Western nations.
For example, China is facing similar issues, especially as life-time employment at public factories makes way for layoffs and semi-private ownership. And the Urban versus Rural gap is evident in China, as it is in Paris compared to the surrounding banlieue and America’s urban centers in the coasts with the rural areas in the South.
Mishra contends that India will not be considered a loyal ally that the United States hopes for as long as it continues making pragmatic deals with China and Iran. This maybe true, but to take this situation on a different view: Perhaps, India will show that constructive engagement between India and countries like Iran and like China are possible. To be sure, Containment is a valid strategy, but the US needs to be reminded that so is Engagement.
Myth and Promise
The essence of Mishra’s article is this: “Many serious problems confront India. They are unlikely to be solved as long as the wealthy, both inside and outside the country, choose to believe their own complacent myths.”
This is no doubt true. India’s growing elite must be confident, but never arrogant nor ignorant of the tremendous challenges that are clearly ahead of it.
India’s growing high-tech industry demonstrating that India is capable in developing their vast potential, not that they have already acheived it. Indeed, being part of one of the world’s oldest civilizations, Indians should know that the IT boom of the past 20 or so years, is not even a flicker in time.
But while Mishra’s article acts as a warning to those that forget the challenge, we should also take note of the following:
If a government like China’s, an oppressive authoritarian government, is beginning to address environmental concerns and wealth distribution with some postive action (see “China - Environmentalism as a National Security Issue”) - we should hope India, the world’s largest democracy, can do even better.