We can shun China all we like, but remember India’s just its alter ego

Be it the trait of authoritarianism under the Modi government or the uncanny similarities in development models, Indian society and politics have been largely inspired by Chinese characteristics

The recent scuffle between Indian and Chinese troops at Ladakh has triggered a spate of anti-China protests with people boycotting Chinese products and businesses scrapping investments. Photo: PTI

Whenever there is a confrontation with the Chinese on the borders or when China thwarts India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group, blocks our attempts at securing permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) or swats down our efforts at isolating Pakistan by getting the UN to designate it as state-sponsored terrorism, organisations affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) spring into action calling for a boycott of Chinese goods and investment.

Chinese traits of Modi government

But India is becoming more Chinese in its embrace of authoritarianism – the cult of the prime minister’s personality, the identification of the government and ruling party with the voice of the nation, the tagging of those opposed to Hindutva ideology as internal enemies, the use of media ─ whether mass or social ─ for propaganda, the centralisation of power, the erosion of checks and balances, the deference of Parliament and judiciary to the executive, the surveillance of citizens, the harassment of religious minorities, the use of the police and lawless laws for arrest and detention of dissenters without due process, and in the homogenization of society for national unity.

The prime minister’s fascination with China began after the 2002 riots, when as the chief minister of Gujarat he was worried about foreign investments drying up in the business-friendly state. The United States had denied him a visa for a decade from 2004 onwards and the diplomatic corps of the EU countries had informally boycotted him. But China had kept the doors open. He is the one Indian leader who has made the most number of official visits to China, both as chief minister and prime minister.


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There is an uncanny similarity between Modi wearing the mantle of ‘Development Man’ after the 2002 riots, the Vibrant Gujarat investment summits and the development of Shanghai’s Pudong financial district as the ‘dragonhead’ of the Chinese economy after the Tiananmen massacre to counter western economic sanctions. In a book I wrote on Modi in 2014, I said Gujarat’s development is Chinese in characteristics with its combination of Hindu cultural nationalism and economic development.  “So many things work in Gujarat that it hardly feels like India,” gushed the Economist in a 2011 report, headlined ‘India’s Guangdong’.

Modi, an eternal campaigner – like China  

India is called an argumentative society; China is a mobilising one. In the past, China has had mass movements for raising agricultural production through the collectivisation of agriculture; catching up with industrial Britain in steel production through the Great Leap Forward, and ─ to cover up for those grand failures ─ the Cultural Revolution where the intelligentsia was banished to the countryside to work with peasants and imbibe their native wisdom. Though the Chinese Communist Party taps into nationalist fervour when it sets South Korea and Japan in its crosshairs, mass mobilisations and industrial-scale social disruption have ceased after 1978 when China embarked on its unique state-guided capitalist development.

Modi is also a mobiliser; he is an eternal campaigner. He likes to campaign not only during elections but also between them. However, people have been mobilised not for development but for the assertion of Hindutva. The fault lines in Indian society run deep; even families have become polarised between diehard Modi supporters and those resolutely opposing him.

A mobilising society economises on political thinking with the use of slogans for the efficient translation of leaders’ decisions into people’s action.  Its essence is captured by the “Two Whatevers” formulation of the Chinese Communist Party after Mao Zedong’s death:  ‘We will resolutely uphold whatever decisions Chairman Mao made and unswervingly follow whatever instructions Chairman Mao gave.’ Shades of the two ‘whatever’ were evident in India during the lockdown. Another Chinese slogan that might find resonance in the our ruling party is the “Three Represents, ’ which for the Chinese Communist Party in 2002 meant it must represent the overwhelming majority of the people of China, the development of its advanced productive forces, and the forging of its advanced culture.

Not matching up in Chinese Atmanirbharta

In India we have an alphabet soup of acronyms from prime minister Modi for telescoped thinking which editor TN Ninan has summed up in a June 13 article in The Print: The 5 1s: Intent, Inclusion, Investment, Infrastructure and Investment; the 3 Ps: People, Planet, Profits; the 5 Ts: Talent, Tradition, Tourism, Trade and Technology and the 3 Ds: Democracy, Demography, Demand. There are many more like PM-CARES, UDAY and PM-KISAN.

But the one area where we have not emulated the Chinese is in the development of our manufacturing sector. China made rapid strides despite suppressing private enterprise for 30 years till 1978 when Deng Xiaoping opened up the economy in instalments calling it “crossing the river by feeling the stones.”

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In 1978, India and China were at similar levels of development but the gap has widened considerably since then. India imported goods worth $1.5 billion from China in 2000-2001 or 3 per cent of its total imports. In 2018-2019, its share in our imports had risen to nearly 14 per cent ($70 billion), while its share in our exports during this period has inched up from 2 per cent to 5 per cent.

In 2003, when Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee visited China, there was much talk of complementarity: China was the world’s workshop; India’s would be its services centre.  Seventeen years later, that ambition has eluded India as much as another of Modi coinage: INCH to MILES or India-China towards a Millennium of Exceptional Synergy.

Now, when import substitution has staged a comeback, there is much talk of a self-reliant Atmanirbhar Bharat and Chinese goods are being smashed, contracts cancelled and investments blocked, it is wise to remember Deng’s pragmatic call to ignore the colour of the cat so long as it catches mice.

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(The writer is a journalist and blogs on www.smartindianagriculture.com)

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not reflect the views of The Federal)