Thinking for yourself rather than trying to live up to the expectations of the West seems to be the key to the tremendous growth that China represents today. India could learn a lesson or two as it struggles to match up. China and India, two of the oldest civilisations, are also two of the youngest nation-states. Both came into being in their modern avatars in the late 1940s. And both looked up to paradigms from the West to chart their course for the future. For China, the preferred way forward was to imitate the USSR and its authoritarianism. India looked towards ideas rooted in western liberalism and individualism.
Since those days, much has changed. China persisted with authoritarianism even after it rejected the Soviet Union as an exemplar. India stuck to a democratic course, belying all western experts who predicted that Indian democracy would collapse soon after Independence. Indian democracy also managed to find roots among the common people despite critics who insisted that the democracy in caste and inequality-riven India was hardly democratic. Yet, there has been little effort within India to examine why Indian democracy has been successful. If anything, the focus of almost all studies on the Indian political system has been to highlight the failures of democracy in India.
The greatest failures of democracy in India, as many commentators have pointed out, is that it is not able to live up to the western expectations of a good democracy. China, of course, has no such problem since it simply claims to exist only for its people as embodied in its name: The People’s Republic of China.
Therein lies the most basic difference between India and China. China, while using western concepts, translated these into the local idiom, keeping local needs and aspirations in mind. India merely tried to live up to paradigms set by the West and found itself wanting.
A typical example is how China modified the systems by which it measured its wealth. By the 1980s, China was ready to abandon the soviet economic model as it realised that a state-controlled centralised economy can neither grow equitably nor encourage individuals to actuate economic growth. So much so that it moved away from the Material Product System (MPS) to calculate economic output, which is what the Soviet bloc of countries did. The MPS did not account for services, and used state-determined prices rather than market prices to calculate the value of goods.
China switched to using market values for all goods, tangible and non-tangible, adopted the Gross Domestic Product as the measure of its economic success, and quickly demonstrated that it could better its position in the world like no other. This provided, inter alia, a tremendous psychological boost to the Chinese. More importantly, it helped rekindle the flame of nationalism among the young in China. Meanwhile, the thinking classes of India, caught up in an economy that wasn’t growing enough, spent their time trying to convince themselves and everyone that there was nothing called an Indian nation, that India was a creation of the British and, a poor imitator of liberal democracy.
People today talk about the Chinese economy being larger than India’s. It is instructive to look at the details to understand how much larger and when. In 1993, when China adopted GDP as a criterion to evaluate the wealth of the nation, its GDP stood at $0.444 trillion — one-and-a-half times that of India. In 2005, China’s GDP had crossed $2 trillion; India’s was a little over $0.8 trillion. By the time India’s GDP crossed $1 trillion in 2008, China was already touching the $5-trillion figure. Its GDP remains almost five times more than India’s.
China used idea sets prevalent in the western world and moulded them to suit its lived experience. When they started on their path to economic superstardom, they put in place systems to create a knowledge economy. Without wondering about whether or not they had the funds to do so, they devoted substantial sums to research and set up their own peer review systems.
India remained content to serve as a handmaiden of the West in its intellectual agendas or rather lack of these. This is just how Sir William Jones had described India more than 200 years ago, when the East India Company was establishing their rule over India. Indians, despite all the furore about Independence from the West, seem to have fully imbibed those norms and ideas — not in substance but certainly in form.
The writer is professor of history, Panjab University