India is a generation behind China. When will Delhi’s smart set admit they will not catch up?
Does Delhi really believe the fantasy it propounds, or is it just desperate to impress? Two books, one by ex-foreign secretary Shyam Saran, the other by an experienced international relations expert, Kanti Bajpai, provide a window into Indian strategic thinking.
Both are interspersed with on-the-ground experiences. One is brutally honest about India’s failure. The other grudgingly admits there is a wide gap, but then smoothly glosses over this. Like many, they know India is losing, but refuse to admit it has lost. The broader elite assumes India’s manifest destiny is to leapfrog China by 2050.
Too painful to watch
Overall, in relative economic terms, India in 2021 is where China was in 1991. The key word is “relative.” Kanti Bajpai reaches further back to 1962, when both were equally poor. Today, India’s GDP is around $3 trillion while China’s is $15 trillion. Each Chinese is, on average, four times richer than an Indian. To paraphrase Angus Maddison, a world authority in economic history, “the last time India beat China in overall GDP terms was in 1700 -- when the Mughals were at their peak.”
Here’s a snapshot. Regarding technology and innovation, India filed 10,000 patents from 2014 to 2019, China filed 25 times that number. In terms of 5G or AI, there is no contest.
Both countries do have similar-sized rail networks, but you know whose has high-speed, comfort, and greater frequency. It takes four hours to travel from Beijing to Shanghai and 16 hours from Delhi to Mumbai. Indian ports handled 16 million containers in 2018. China handled 226 million.
China generates five times the amount of electricity that India does. This ratio is similar to the relative size of each economy.
India is winning in terms of population. The UN thinks there will be 1.5 billion Indians in 2050 by when China’s will have reduced to 1.1 billion.
That fabled demographic dividend is what is supposed to allow India to overtake China.
Unfortunately, Indian labour productivity is only two-thirds that of China. About 97% of adult Chinese are literate, while a quarter of Indians remain illiterate. In other words, in terms of relative literacy, India is today where China was in 1990. The situation is even worse in higher education.
Indians are “among the shortest people on average in the world,” ranked 180 out of 200 countries. To which one Indian official “huffily” retorted that Napoleon and Nehru were also short! Great joke, but not a solution to under-nourishment.
Stunting affects cognitive development and “up to 400 million Indians could live a life with impaired cognition … (so) ... India’s demographic dividend could turn into a demographic nightmare.”
India is behind even in “soft power.” Besides Bollywood, it holds little attraction to Africans or East Asians. China hosts nine times more foreign students than India.
In 1962, the brilliant economist, John Kenneth Galbraith (then the US ambassador in Delhi) classified India as a “functioning anarchy.” Have things changed much since then?
Using the yardstick of “Comprehensive National Power,” adding up economic, military, and soft power, Bajpai calculates China scores seven times higher than India. I believe the score is more like 4-1 or 5-1 but that is still a thumping defeat. You just don’t come back from that, though in theory anything is possible.
Saran claims China has a “brittle polity and the rising insecurity within its political leadership sits uneasily with overweening arrogance of power.” Delhi’s neighbours might have their own views on Indian humility. The Chinese protest just like Indians do, but over day-to-day issues such as land and housing. There is no appetite to overturn the political system, which has delivered the goods.
Saran favourably compares India’s “cosmopolitanism” with China’s apparent insularity. That’s just blowing smoke.
He correctly states that “this is the age of acceleration.” He does warn that “India is in danger of being reduced to a mere agglomeration of narrowly conceived communities with closed minds, hostile to each other ... a shrinking vision at home cannot sustain an expansive vision abroad.”
China almost tore itself apart with its Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976. It recovered. The Communist Party celebrates its centenary in July. It has guided the country in becoming an economic giant.
Regressive Hindutva forces have plunged India into its own “cultural revolution.” Hundreds of millions of Muslims and Dalits are going backwards. Both countries are domestically unequal, but China seems to have made some initial moves to actively tackle this. It possesses wealth and resources to redistribute. India can only share out levels of poverty. The Indian state needs urgent political reform, but how? The country has systemic failure written all over it.
Farid Erkizia Bakht is a political analyst. @liquid_borders.