“The Myth of the New India”

A fascinating op-ed story in today’s Times about India kept bringing to mind another country…the name eludes me at the moment.

INDIA is a roaring capitalist success story.” So says the latest issue of Foreign Affairs; and last week many leading business executives and politicians in India celebrated as Lakshmi Mittal, the fifth richest man in the world, finally succeeded in his hostile takeover of the Luxembourgian steel company Arcelor. India’s leading business newspaper, The Economic Times, summed up the general euphoria over the event in its regular feature, “The Global Indian Takeover”: “For India, it is a harbinger of things to come — economic superstardom.”

This sounds persuasive as long as you don’t know that Mr. Mittal, who lives in Britain, announced his first investment in India only last year. He is as much an Indian success story as Sergey Brin, the Russian-born co-founder of Google, is proof of Russia’s imminent economic superstardom.

In recent weeks, India seemed an unlikely capitalist success story as communist parties decisively won elections to state legislatures, and the stock market, which had enjoyed record growth in the last two years, fell nearly 20 percent in two weeks, wiping out some $2.4 billion in investor wealth in just four days. This week India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, made it clear that only a small minority of Indians will enjoy “Western standards of living and high consumption.”

Please check it out. The article notes that indeed India is advancing at a breathtaking rate, quite beyond belief, actually. But then, nagging facts like this rear their ugly heads, raining on India’s glorious parade.

But the increasingly common, business-centric view of India suppresses more facts than it reveals. Recent accounts of the alleged rise of India barely mention the fact that the country’s $728 per capita gross domestic product is just slightly higher than that of sub-Saharan Africa and that, as the 2005 United Nations Human Development Report puts it, even if it sustains its current high growth rates, India will not catch up with high-income countries until 2106.

And so it goes. Read it, and let me know if another country comes to your mind as well. Both of these countries have inconceivable potential and will certainly be “the place to be” for many years to come. But that doesn’t make their problems and challenges less acute or more solvable, and anyone who blocks out the darker side of these countries’ ascension is only fooling himself.

The Discussion: 11 Comments

Forgive me Richard, but comparing India with China – while very tempting – is utterly misleading. Just because it’s on the up, it’s in Asia and has lots of people who don’t look like white man doesn’t mean the two must be compared.

This is something that the op-ed author himself, Pankaj Mishra, describes in detail in some of his articles here:


In summary, and I speak from experience as an Anglo-Indian who spent some time in China (!), while India and China are both exciting places to watch there’s many differences.

In India, the legacy of colonialism has left the English language and Western style institutions. India has also embraced democracy. This is not true in China outside Hong Kong.

In India, there is a long-established culture of dissent – Amartya Sen’s ‘Argumentative Indians’. China’s Confucian tradition backed by the grip of the CCP is quite the opposite.

India is wracked by religious violence and political divides – China, despite the artifice of many of its borders, is relatively stable. Though unrest in the countryside is growing stronger, it has a different complexion to the disquiet in India.

The infrastructure in India is parlous – whereas on China’s eastern seaboard at least it’s top notch.

It’s not an exhaustive list, but finally India’s boom is based on a small educated elite, who are wanted for their innovative skills. The poor are mainly left behind. China’s is based on a mass of semi-skilled people who churn out manfactured goods quicker and cheaper than the West.

Comparing India with China is not comparing like with like and therein lies a dangerous trap…

July 7, 2006 @ 10:05 am | Comment

Everyone knows there are vast, vast differences between China and India. But comparisons between the two are inevitable, as they are both hugely populated countries with incredibly high numbers of desperately poor people that are both experiencing meteoric economic ascension and change, dominating and altering the world’s economic balance. The US and the USSR were night and day in most ways, but they were always compared because they both shared certain characteristics (they were the the world’s two superpowers). Same with India and China. No one’s saying they are carbon copies.

July 7, 2006 @ 6:53 pm | Comment

Of course – but there are many out there who really do think so.

July 8, 2006 @ 2:14 am | Comment

Put my vote in the “China is becoming too polluted for it not to prevent China’s rise” category.

don’t know about India.

Richard! I’m memorising the Dao De Jing in ancient chinese. just under 1/7 memorised so far…

July 8, 2006 @ 5:01 am | Comment

LaoNei, when will you start blogging again? Tell me, and you’ll get back on my blogroll at once. You are sorely missed.

July 8, 2006 @ 5:48 am | Comment

Hey, LaoNei, hao jiu bu jian! Add my voice to the chorus – looking forward to reading about your current adventures.

After diligently saving the napkin with your email address all the rest of the way through my vacation, I came home and now don’t know what I did with it.

July 8, 2006 @ 11:02 am | Comment

pankaj mishra is a very well known india-basher.So let us not get carried away bywhat he is saying.
some anglo indian in this group is saying that india’s economic revolution is elitist.
Welll let me say that his observation is very superficial.The economioc growth in india is quite real and spreading rapidly to a large section of the population.
As for the comparision with china is concerned
let me say that china’s strength is its highly
efficient government.
India’s beauracracy on the other hand acts like a speed breaker.India’s big strength is
human resource.We have the smartest people in the whole world.Unfortunately our polity is fractured and society is divided on the basis of caste and religion.
So china is growing because of its government
and india inspite of it.

July 8, 2006 @ 12:28 pm | Comment

I’m Indian. From my experience, which has been lifelong, Indian people come in 2 extremes.

Those who are complete pessimists who believe that India is total garbage even when presented with evidence to the contrary.
And those who are complete optimists who believe that everything about India is great even when presented with evidence to the contrary.

From shriprasad: “We have the smartest people in the whole world.”

Give me a break. How many Nobel prizes have Indian’s won? How many research universities are in India that can compete with MIT and Stanford? Even in an industry where India is strong: software, how many Indian software companies are making innovative products vs. writing code for cheap to the exact specification from a western company?

shriprasad you are an embarrasment to people everywhere who possess common sense.

July 8, 2006 @ 4:07 pm | Comment

Pankaj Mishras analysis of the “straw man” Indian success story certainly merits analysis. Having been “home” three times in the last year and a half I have had an opportunity to make certain observations on a purely personal basis.

When Indians crow about the rise in literacy they generally omit the fact that it is a literacy that is strictly regional. The state of Kerala (from whence i hail) has always boasted a literacy rate in excess of eighty percent. Tell me,why is the ability to read and write Malayalam of any use to anyone living outside Kerala ? Despite laying claim to the likes of Arunduthi Roy( 1/2 Keralite ), the knowledge and use of English or Hindi is woefully lacking.

Outsourcing, call centers, and code writing, are the latter-day buzz words of the newly educated middle class yet, there is one instrument, not a computer, that I see, is more widely available, easy to use, and directly impacts the bottom line of even poor Indians. The cell phone. if you have ever seen a fisherman just off the shoreline on his dhow in the Aabian sea, calling in his catch to his partner on shore, you’ll know what I mean.

This is still a country where women are not valued as much as men. Where disease is still rampant in poorer quarters. Where political corruption is wide-spread. Nepotism and influence peddling are still the order of the day. India does not corner the market here. Im sure its worse in countries like Pakistan Haiti and Myanmar. Not exactly, good company !

July 9, 2006 @ 7:04 am | Comment

As an Indian who visits the UK and the US often, let me say this.

We may not be the smartest in the world � but we are very good at �adjusting�. Watch a pack of bewildered Americans bumble through a Paris suburb looking for the closest McDonalds and compare them with an exuberant tribe of Gujjus who queue up to use the one pay-per-use public toilet that has a turnstile jammed open with a 50-paise coin.

Unfair comparison? Life is unfair. The only ones who think that we need a free ride are the offspring of the educated elite who flock to MBA nurseries, intent on graduating to that big happy post where they can own the fancy house and car � ASAP and with as little effort as possible.

Our glory is not in the super-fatted youngsters who dream of their own personal gratification in the best traditions of over-consumption, but in….�

the young girl who topped the 10th Std night school merit list. Who wishes to be a doctor so that she can work for the others in the slums. Someday.

the man who lost one leg and one arm to railway accidents, but still labors for a living as he does not wish to be a burden.

and the Muslim who rose from humble antecedents to be India`s President and a shining beacon of hope to so many.

Long after the lotus-eaters of the west will lie satiated in their torpid slumber, we Asians will still be around.

Chinese and Indian.

July 11, 2006 @ 1:20 am | Comment

i am an indian.i am also an iitian.personally,i’m ashamed of pankaj mishra.he professes to be indian,but is almost certainly biased against india.

we in india,and more specifically at iit all know that india is beset with countless problems,what with corrupt politicians,inefficient bureaucracy,poverty,illiteracy et all.

but it is also true that over the last decade,progress has been made in almost all sectors.a lot needs to be done,specifically for the villages,which constitute more than 70% of india but are still out of the ambit of development.but i beleve we are on the correct path and democracy will ensure that resources get directed to the poor as well so that over the next 20 years,we have a much better balance of wealth.this cannot be said of china.

given china’s extraordinary progress and generally much better goverment,i still doubt whether given a choice,i would live in china.from what i know,i feel china is a great country,but without freedom greatness is meaningless.we can protest and demonstrate all we want in india,but look what happened when china’s students tried to demonstrate in tianmen square.is greater wealth worth the loss of this vital freedom??

July 12, 2006 @ 4:45 am | Comment

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