Renown as "the world's largest democracy" has long since worn thin. You can't eat or bank renown. It won't expand prosperity for what may before long be the world's largest population.
So India - like its fraternal twin Pakistan - is at last seriously reforming its economy as it celebrates 50 years of independence this week. Its aim: growth, jobs, and at least a modest rise in prosperity for the world's largest single bloc of impoverished people. India is home to more than one- third of Earth's poor.
This note of grimy realism may seem a harsh way to salute a great nation and its people on their 50th. But one measure of how far India has advanced in those five decades is the maturity with which its thought leaders now address their problems and pursue solutions.
During the heady early years of independence many Indians were smugly complacent. They felt their combination of (1) the democracy of the West, (2) socialism of the East, and (3) leadership of "nonaligned" nations in the cold war gave them moral and economic superiority. That complacency has long since given way to critical examination of how the world's largest democracy might create more prosperity for its masses.
The new realism produced today's remarkable boom in technology, modern industry, and technical education. (Anyone visiting a US or British software firm finds a disproportionate number of Indians.) The new realism also sped the breakdown of rigid caste limits hampering society. It led to '90s reforms that are freeing the economy from its so-called "Hindu growth rate" of 3-plus percent. And realism is also a factor in the welcome talks between the leaders of India and Pakistan aimed at ending their long cold (and three times hot) war.
If India's political and business leaders have become more realistic, so should America's. We note with approval that Bill Clinton will become the first US president since Jimmy Carter to visit India. He ought to add Pakistan when he goes (in 1998).
Through the Kennedy and Johnson years the Indian subcontinent was excessively romanticized in Washington. Then, after Nixon's trip to China, India became the un-cola to China's Coke. China's vast market, work ethic, birth control, network of overseas traders, and the tugboat-like guidance of surrounding Asian economies stole attention from India. Even the budding nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan failed to dent America's China fixation.
That should change. In the past six years India has become increasingly serious about freeing its economy to invest and grow. It must make sure the resulting growth produces lots of jobs. And it should expand efforts to slow population growth. But it commands the Indian Ocean, is a growing trade and investment magnet, and will be crucial to the next century's efforts to curb global pollution and arms exports. All those factors are more important than mere renown.