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Commentary (January 11, 2006)

India's Rise: The Facts and the Fantasy

Chandar Sundaram (Assistant Professor, Lingnan University)

We are assailed these days by stories detailing how India is poised to become a world power within the next quarter-century, second only to China. While such pieces are a refreshing change from the less-than-flattering "dowry-burning, Hindu-Muslim-violence and train-wreck" press India usually gets, they have to be tempered by a dose of reality.

Yes, it is true that India is a rising power, with the resources and know-how to make a difference in the 21st century. But India also has serious problems that it must surmount before it can do so.

The fact that India has more than a billion people is meaningless if at least half that population lives in abject, heartbreaking poverty. The Indian government must do something substantial to remedy this situation, and so turn the potential liability of a massive population into a potential asset.

Much is written, too, about the commitment of successive Indian governments, including the present one, to economic liberalisation. However, it is not usually mentioned that this is rooted in fear: the fear of bankruptcy, which India was perilously close to in 1991. Moreover, India's present Congress-led government was elected because of widespread popular dissatisfaction with the untrammelled free-market policies of previous administrations: they showed no signs of benefiting India's largely peasant electorate.

To them, economic liberalisation is a rope trick, utterly meaningless unless the Group of Eight leading industrialised countries abandon the farm subsidies that prevent Indian and other developing-world farmers from competing on a level playing field.

Technocracy is sometimes seen as new in India, but it isn't. It dates back to the governments of Jawaharlal Nehru, from 1947 to 1964, which were just as technocratic as the "new" India, albeit in a socialist way. The really stultifying thing about India is that the country is still strangled by a bureaucratic system that is shot through with corruption at every level. This mindless bureaucracy has stymied the development efforts of successive generations of India's technocrats, with the result that many have left the country for more initiative-friendly shores.

India's potential to be a regional "big brother" - to bring about democracy in neighbouring Southeast Asian countries - is also much touted. This is total cloud-cuckoo-land rubbish. India has a more pressing foreign policy problem to solve before it even begins to be a regional America.

That problem, which has festered, ulcer-like, since 1947, is Kashmir. Unless the leaders of India and Pakistan really and sincerely put their heads together and come up with a viable solution that is acceptable to the Kashmiris as well, India's hands will be tied.

And, realistically, what "big brother" action can India take? A Bushite invasion of Myanmar would surely result in an insurgency, as the Myanmese are just as fiercely independent as the Iraqis. While sympathetic to Myanmese activist Aung San Suu Kyi, India is not about to run the gauntlet of military intervention again.

Unlike the United States, which clearly has not learned from the Vietnam quagmire, India has learned from its disastrous military intervention in Sri Lanka in the late 1980s.

As a person of Indian origin, I feel India's international position, as well as the challenges it faces, require informed, balanced and careful factual analyses. As with most matters relating to relations within or between nations, glib superficialities can be counterproductive.

India has the potential to be a major global power, but unless it sincerely tackles these problems, it won't be one any time soon.

(Originally appeared in the January 10, 2006 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, reproduced here with permission.)

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