As China administers its one-billionth COVID vaccine, transfers astronauts from its space capsule launched by its own rockets to an orbiting space station of its own making, as Chinese scientists receive photographs beamed from its rovers on the dark side of the moon and on Mars, as Chinese car companies give Tesla stiff competition, the world watches in awe. China’s scintillating mass tends to obscure a clear vision of another shining object nearby, India. As China rises, it is vital that India rise, too — to keep China’s ascent peaceful and to keep the Indo-Pacific stable.
At Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, long queues form most days, of visitors to the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, the People’s Republic’s founding leader. Most of those who line up tend to be rural folk, of whom there are still quite a few in China, although rapid urbanisation has pushed their share down to 40 per cent, from over 80 per cent in 1978, on the eve of China’s open embrace of capitalism.
China’s then-leader, Deng Xiaoping, declared that the colour of the cat did not matter, so long as it caught mice. To get rich is glorious, he added, for good measure. The Chinese have been pursuing mice and glory with single-minded dedication since then, and on July 1, when the Chinese Communist Party will celebrate the centenary of its founding, the fat cats of China’s polity and economy have good reason to turn a face of cream-smeared smugness to the world.
The Chinese elite have no use for Mao and his revolutionary experiments, except as a totem of the party’s authority and validity. So, Mao and his aphorisms are still popular in China, while Maoism, per se, is strictly a made-for-export commodity.
To be attacked by the enemy is important, said Mao, because it shows that you matter. China has now been officially anointed the strategic challenger to the western alliance led by the United Sates. The specific, unfond attention the G7 and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) recently paid China underlines its geopolitical importance.
In 2019, China merited mention in a NATO statement as a concern; in 2021, it has moved up as a challenge. When North Atlantic powers deem a nation in the Far East a challenge, it underscores the latter’s global reach. China is America’s only strategic rival. Its latest manoeuvre, of flying its warplanes over Taiwanese territory, is an open challenge to US power, under whose military wing Taiwan takes nominal shelter.
US treaties offer its nuclear umbrella to Japan and Korea, in return for which protection, these technologically capable nations have eschewed their own nuclear weapons. Australia and New Zealand have a special relationship with the US, forming, along with Britain and Canada, the Five Eyes intelligence sharing pact.
Most nations of South-East Asia were part of an anti-Communist, US-led alliance, SEATO, which disbanded after America’s Vietnam debacle, leaving behind varying degrees of national proximity with America. The Quad, comprising Japan, Australia and India, apart from the US, is the latest loose coalition to come up in the region, with the unstated but unsubtle goal of containing China.
India is key to this project. It is a large, diversified and growing economy, has decent military capability and, often, the political will to use it to defend its interests. It has the largest disputed land border with China and has refused to be a pushover in the face of Chinese aggression, either in Dokalam, a place in Bhutan that overlooks the narrow strip of land that connects the north-east with the rest of India, or in Ladakh.
The Indian economy has the largest pool of young people, compared to any nation on earth, capable of being trained in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) or the assorted areas of creativity that are increasingly important for any economy. Its level of urbanisation is low, meaning that growth of towns offers itself as a major driver of growth waiting to be put to use. Educated Indians tend to be naturally multilingual and this gives them an edge in global commerce. It is not an accident that many of the world’s largest companies are headed by people of Indian origin.
Indian start-ups are graduating from being Me-Too versions of western success stories. The regulatory regime is evolving to promote the growth of start-ups. Shares with differential voting rights play a key role in letting founders retain control, while accepting oodles of funding from giant pools of global capital, and such shares are going mainstream. This would allow the next generation of start-ups to go beyond creating value and selling out, to grow big and go global while retaining the original founders’ vision and passion.
China is neck and neck with the US in mastering artificial intelligence and probably leads in quantum communications and computing. With sensible policy on data, which is yet to be formulated, and plenty of tech talent and extensive areas of life and business for creative deployment, India is well placed to at least catch up with China in artificial intelligence.
The world recognises India’s potential to emerge as a countervailing force vis-à-vis China, not with aggression or hostility, but with its intrinsic, immense potential waiting to be realised. The trouble is that India’s political class has no clue. It is busy aborting that potential in multiple ways. The biggest threat, of course, is fractured social cohesion, with the current ruling dispensation’s desire to redefine Indian nationhood in religious terms, abandoning India’s constitutional norm of non-denominational citizenship and equal rights for all. The logical conclusion of this politics of sectarian divide is to destroy democracy. That, apart from being bad for the people of the country, it will also make it difficult for the US and other western powers to include India in their ranks, as they try to pin China down on its absence of internal democracy.
Then, there is the culture of patronage and sectional indulgence. Schoolteachers who do not teach, power consumers who do not pay for the power they draw from the grid, businessmen who can mobilise their equity contribution from loans sanctioned for cost-padded projects, castes and communities that can extract undue concessions in return for electoral favour, so-called professionals who glory in their ability to evade paying tax, the VIPs who flout rules — all of them, in their own individual ways, hobble India’s potential. Then, we have a new political culture that focuses on form, with the help of millions of social media accounts, rather than on content.
Yet, India moves ahead. But how much faster would India move, if we were to rid ourselves of our assorted encumbrances? Beijing views fumbling India as an example of the foibles of democracy and validation of its own authoritarian political model. India would do the world and itself a major service, by stepping up the pace of its march to realised democracy, distinct from holding periodic elections and pretending that is all there is to democracy.
China’s new admission that enforcement of its one-child policy threatens its ability to grow rich before growing old offers proof, if it were needed, of the intrinsic failings of autocracy. By celebrating the mishaps of democracies as incentive to strengthen the Communist Party’s authoritarian rule, instead of expanding the democratic freedoms of the Chinese people, China’s rulers are setting themselves up for eventual disruption, rather than laying the ground for evolution.