While India’s economy has received periodic attention, mostly during critical moments defined by food shortages and foreign exchange outages, the workings of its democracy have received next to none. This reflects a complacency.
Interestingly, the neglect is evident in every angle from which the country has been approached, applying to observers located both within and without its society. Thus while the rulers of the western world berate India for its deviance from the apparently superior norms of a free-market architecture, India’s nationalist elite traces her pathologies to western hegemony. Both lose the narrative by refusing to see that its condition is related to the failings of its democracy, which in one dimension has remained more or less unchanged since 1947. This dimension is that the majority of the population has been left with weak capabilities.
Unfree after Independence
Capabilities are what enable individuals to pursue the lives that they value. This, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has suggested, is true freedom and should therefore be the focus of all developmental effort. The idea is foundational in that it vaults over narrow economistic or political definitions of development. It is irrelevant to it whether we have more or less of the state or the market or whether we insert ‘socialist’ and ‘secular’ into the Constitution so long as large sections of our people are unfree in the sense that they cannot lead lives that they value. Jawaharlal Nehru, though perhaps elliptically, had expressed this in his famous speech on August 14, 1947.
He had seen Indian Independence as an opportunity to build a “prosperous, democratic and progressive nation and to create social, economic and political institutions which will ensure justice and fullness of life to every man and woman”. B.R. Ambedkar, with legal acumen and a practical bent of mind, had defined democracy as a means to bring about a significant change in the living conditions of the depressed without resorting to bloodshed. These ambitious programmes and the hard work they would have entailed fell by the wayside in the practices of India’s political class and in the discourse of its intellectuals.
Whatever may have been the vision of India’s founding fathers, Indian democracy has not lived up to their expectations. As a matter of fact, it has done far worse. In the past year it appears to have added heightened violence towards the marginalised to its sedentary character. The >incident of four Dalit youth being beaten in full public view in Gujarat is only the most recent instance of this. >Parliament reportedly heard accusations and defences the next day but it is not yet clear what impact it will have and how civil society will respond. India’s middle classes are quick to be hurt when news of Indians subjected to racial indignity in the West is beamed into our living rooms. No one could have missed the irony of Prime Minister Narendra Modi earlier this month >travelling by train in South Africa where about a century ago M.K. Gandhi was thrown out of a first class carriage because of the colour of his skin.
The scenes from India come a full century later. And the Dalit youths had, going by public sources, only skinned a dead cow, a task to which Indian society historically confined them. By assaulting them for undertaking it, not only has their dignity been denied but their livelihood snatched away. In any civilised society the perpetrators of this crime would not just be grasped by the long arm of the law but publicly shamed.
Gujarat is of course only one of the sites of violence against Dalits. It is important to recognise that it has been widespread across northern India and not absent from the south either, with Tamil Nadu featuring prominently. It is also important to recognise that acts of violence against Dalits are not of recent origin. Their oppression is systemic and deeply rooted in India. Non-Congress parties with leadership drawn from the middle castes have long ruled Tamil Nadu, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, among India’s most populous States, all of which have witnessed violence against the Dalits for some time. When in power, middle caste-based parties have replaced their invective towards the top of the caste pyramid with suppression of those at its bottom.
The socialist chimera
So what can we do now? For those outside the corridors of power the task is to shape the discourse on Indian democracy. Its goal must now be redirected towards human development while ensuring the security of all vulnerable groups. This need not in any way conflict with growing a strong economy. In fact, a strong economy, including a vigorous market, is one element in furthering development as the expansion of freedoms. Opposition to the market, which has in certain contexts come equally from the Right and the Left in India, misses this point entirely. Restriction of private enterprise does nothing to empower the marginalised in a society. Their empowerment can come about only via direct public action to build their capabilities.
In fact, a genuine commitment to socialism should have helped here. Karl Marx had defended communism as the principle “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”. Instead, socialism as the official ideology of the Indian state for close to three decades got trapped into expanding a public sector producing goods regardless of outcome and independent of its consequences for the historically outcast. The state prided itself in being interventionist in the economy and laissez faire in the social sphere. The task, envisaged by Nehru, of creating the institutions necessary to support individual freedom, did not materialise. The historically outcast were left to fend for themselves, a stance morally equivalent to allowing the devil to take the hindmost.
Reorienting public policy
The chickens have finally come to home to roost. India today hosts the world’s largest number of the poorly educated and prone to poor health, a development disaster in spite of being the world’s third-largest economy in purchasing power terms. One need only occasionally travel third class on the Indian Railways in most parts of the country, which, recall, Gandhi did, to comprehend the scale of the deprivation and estimate how close public policy today comes to addressing it. As a quarter century has been spent focussing on India’s economic architecture in the name of ‘economic reforms’, it would be profitable to now devote the next decade to mounting an assault on human deprivation. The development of the capabilities of India’s women and Dalits, by virtue of their being the most deprived, would merit the first draft of attention and resources thus expended.
For a democracy to be complete, however, something more than just focus on the individual, however deserving they may be, is necessary as members of a democracy must engage with one another lest we remain equal but separated. Here public goods come into the reckoning. Public policy should engineer spaces where Indians meet on the basis of a participatory parity. Widespread public services from schools and hospitals to parks and crematoria are one way to bring individuals together as they struggle from birth to death in this country. Repeated interaction in public spaces would make us realise our common humanity and enable us to see any residual identity for what it really is.
There has been far too little effort in Indian public policy to create spaces where citizens may interact freely and peacefully. Many other countries have done so. For instance, the provision of public housing in ‘capitalist’ Singapore comes with the proviso that it should be shared between people of all ‘races’, namely Chinese, Indian and Malay.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has often spoken in global fora of the unacceptability of terrorism. He is right to do so. Now the incidents of assault on Dalits in Gujarat, rape of women across the country and intimidation of Muslims in Uttar Pradesh bring home to us the presence of terrorism among us. While some of this predates his arrival in Delhi, there is reason to believe that fascist forces have been encouraged to act with impunity since then.
In its inability to contain these forces, India’s democracy can be seen to be flailing. Bertrand Russell had remarked that we can never guarantee our own security if we cannot assure that of others. Tired of oppression the Dalits have finally risen in what was once the land of Gandhi. They at least have recognised our common humanity. They only dumped dead cattle at the collectorate. They did not poison the water supply.
Pulapre Balakrishnan teaches economics at Ashoka University, Sonipat, Haryana. The views expressed are personal.
What will be the world's most important cities in the future? To answer this question, the US-based journal Foreign Policy and the McKinsey Global Institute examined criteria such as economic growth and receptiveness to technology. The result? Shanghai edged out Beijing and Tianjin, followed by the first non-Chinese mega-city, São Paulo in Brazil. No Western European city ranks among the top ten "most dynamic cities." Berlin, Frankfurt and Munich don't even appear among the top 50, but other cities in China, India and Brazil do. If we are to believe the study's conclusions, humankind will be speaking Mandarin, Hindi and Portuguese in its urban centers in 2025. "We are witnessing the biggest economic transformation the world has ever seen," the experts say.
And what are currently the most competitive countries in terms of industrial production, and what will they be in the future? The management consulting firm Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu has established that China is now ahead of Germany, the United States and India. But according to the projection, for which 550 top executives of leading companies were surveyed, the hierarchy will already have shifted by 2017. Germany and the United States will drop out of the top ranks, and "old" powers will no longer lead the pack, having been replaced by China, followed by India and Brazil.
What's more, according to the 2013 United Nations Human Development Report, "the rise of the South is unprecedented in its speed and scale." For the first time in 150 years, the combined output of the developing world's three leading economies -- Brazil, China and India -- is about equal to the combined GDP of the longstanding industrial powers of the North -- Canada, France, Germany, Italy, United Kingdom and the United States. In addition, this year Beijing will, for the first time, import more oil from the OPEC countries than the United States.
Getting in on Western Commerce
It isn't just the sheer land mass and huge numbers of consumers in these three countries, which make up close to 40 percent of the world's population. China, India and Brazil are also stunning the world with their impressive performance in many areas, including research and technology. The owner of the world's biggest beer brewery is Brazilian billionaire Jorge Paulo Lemann, who acquired US-based Anheuser-Busch. The South American country is also considered an international leader in food research. São Paulo, together with the surrounding area, is the world's top location for German business, with about 800 branches of German companies headquartered in the area. Brazil has literally taken off, providing a home to Embraer, the world's third-largest aircraft manufacturer after Boeing and Airbus. And Rio de Janiero is an undisputed party capital, especially now that the city has been selected to host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics.
The most expensive private residence in the world, owned by entrepreneur Mukesh Ambani, is in the Indian city of Mumbai. Anyone who drives a Jaguar or a Land Rover is driving a car made by an Indian company, now that Tata Motors has bought the traditional British automaker. India is the world's largest producer of polyester and a leading force in renewable energy. Pune in western India is home to wind turbine maker Suzlon, which acquired Hamburg-based REpower. New Delhi is one of the world's leading producers of computer software and space technology. Though, on a less positive note, India spends more on arms imports than any other country.
Volkswagen has been selling more cars in China than in Germany for a long time, and the company plans to open five new plants there in this year alone. Conversely, the Chinese are also investing in Germany, where they already own automotive supply companies and have purchased some of the pearls of Germany's mid-sized companies, known as the Mittelstand. Changsha-based Sany, for example, has acquired Putzmeister, a concrete pump manufacturer based in southwestern Germany's Swabia region. The people who assemble London taxis, which are about as quintessentially British as Bobbies or plum pudding, report to Chinese bosses, as do many workers at the port of Piraeus in Greece. It seems that nothing works anymore without the wealthy Chinese, who have accumulated the world's largest foreign currency reserves. Beijing is also home to the world's fastest computer.
Forming a Front
Politically speaking, the new major powers are also becoming increasingly self-confident -- and sometimes form a united front against the West. In the United Nations Security Council, China blocks every Middle East resolution it doesn't like, while the Chinese navy flexes its muscles in the waters of the Far East. India is bucking the international trend by beefing up instead of reducing its arsenal of nuclear weapons. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff demonstratively cancelled a trip to the United States and a meeting with US President Barack Obama to protest the NSA's surveillance practices. It's difficult to imagine German Chancellor Angela Merkel taking such decisive steps to represent Germany, which has seen similar treatment by the NSA.
A few years ago, the three emerging economies joined forces with Russia and South Africa to form the BRICS group. In March, the BRICS leaders decided to launch their own development bank, with a starting capital of $100 billion. It is apparently intended as an alternative to the US-dominated World Bank. Together, these countries are also trying to thwart the imposition of stricter environmental protection rules on their industries and gain influence in the traditional international centers of power. With Beijing's and New Delhi's votes -- and against the wishes of the United States -- Brazilian Roberto Azevêdo was chosen as the new head of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in May, and is now in a position to help shape the flow of goods around the world.
Forty years ago, Brazil was still a bankrupt military dictatorship, India was a backward agricultural country and China was groaning under the harsh dictates of the Cultural Revolution, with no private automobiles in the streets. But today we are on the edge of a new historical turning point.
Confronting Domestic Turmoil
But that's only one side of the success story that is constantly and proudly repeated in Beijing, New Delhi and Brasilia, not to mention by international institutions. There is another truth that isn't as pleasant: China, India and Brazil are currently being shaken by inner turmoil. In all three countries, people are taking to the streets to protest corruption, nepotism and inefficient government. At the same time, the economic recovery is flagging.
Ironically, the emerging nations have begun to see a considerable weakening of their economies in recent months, just as they pull ahead of the West. Growth rates in 2013 are expected to be about half of what they were in the boom year of 2007, declining in China from 14 to about 7.5 percent, from about 10 to 5 percent in India and from 6 to an estimated 2.5 percent in Brazil. These are still better figures than in the United States and the European Union, but they are not good enough to satisfy the rising powers' expectations. And now that the glitter is fading, differences are also coming to light once again. The three new powers may be in agreement most of the time when it comes to opposing Western dominance and a possible dictate on CO2 emissions, but their political differences are substantial.
They couldn't be more different when it comes to their own development models. China is a centralist, one-party dictatorship with clear elements of brute capitalism. India is a federal, chaotic democracy that is often its own worst enemy. And Brazil has a presidential governing system with a calcified party landscape. Shockingly, little has changed for hundreds of millions in the rural areas, where farmers have generally not benefited from the booming economy. But a new urban middle class has also taken shape. And, while earlier it seemed to be politically sedated by the steady rise in standard of living, priorities are shifting now that their basic economic needs have been met and the economic upturn has slowed down, at least temporarily. People are increasingly noticing societal injustice, the nepotism that enriches officials and the sharp divide between rich and poor.