I can vividly remember the first time I set foot in China. That’s not because I had a particular fascination with China or because I was there in advance of the 2008 Summer Olympics. It’s because
China was so jarringly different from the place I had just left.
As the Monitor’s India correspondent, I had seen China and India as brothers that had taken different roads to the present. Both were the only members of the world’s billion-citizen club and both shared an agrarian past beset by crushing poverty.
Yet there I was in the Beijing airport, thinking the building itself might as well have been sticking its tongue out at India (and the rest of the world, for that matter). It was so mind-numbingly massive it felt as though it must have its own weather system. And it was immaculate – cool and quiet, radiating the hum of efficiency.
The Delhi I had left behind was one of daily power outages and water that came for only a few hours in the dead of night. Roads teemed with the homeless and harried, not to mention a menagerie of animals, all with only the barest hint of lanes beneath. India was a carnival of humanity, bursting at the seams. China was a meticulously drilled marching band, trained to the last note.
In this week’s cover story, staff writer Howard LaFranchi examines why India’s journey to global superpower status remains a work in progress. Its prosperity is growing yet its prospects for joining China are uncertain.
For me, the reasons were clear in the Beijing airport and also in unraveling how the two “brother” countries had reached such different places. In revisiting that mystery today, I keep coming back to the same point: democracy.
China was able to do the remarkable because it had the efficiency of autocracy. The Communist Party didn’t need to listen to the people. Quite the opposite. When people tried to get in the way of its grand plans, they were silenced. Slowly, the Communists figured out how to marry economic freedom with absolute political control. The result is an economic juggernaut run with exacting precision.
Indian democracy, by contrast, is a cauldron of ethnicities, religions, and language groups, all with a voice, with most people just scraping by. Even the most optimistic estimates of the Indian middle class – 300 million – mean there are still more than a billion Indians below them economically. The Indian state, to a significant degree, remains a chief engine for patronage and personal power.
Can a country be too big, too diverse, too unwieldy for democracy to work? China thinks the answer is yes. India’s only path to superpower status lies in proving that the answer is no. Infrastructure woes and corruption are just symptoms of the broader problem: As a democracy, India is dependent on its people to fuel its growth, and its government must find a way to equalize opportunity for 1.3 billion people to truly succeed. It is a much, much harder road than China has taken. But if it can be done, it is exponentially more powerful.