Bet Big On India: With One Big Caveat – OpEd
By Nikhil Vaish
Anyone who has spoken with me recently will likely be tired of hearing me say how there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that this next decade belongs to India, but depending on how India chooses to traverse it, will decide if the next century is also ours. It is true that I have always been among India’s most vocal cheerleaders, the eternal optimist and jingoistic patriot. I believed in her potential even when I was in the extreme minority during the lowest ebbs of our license Raj. I never stopped believing in her despite the tremendous odds and the contrary viewpoints of many an expert. Today, the landscape is far different, and I imagine few people will challenge my views based on the last decade of economic data.
First, let’s discuss why I am optimistic before I spell out the major caveat. The reason for my optimism lies in two parts: one has to do with forces within India, and the other a set of external factors which squarely benefit us. It is true that in the 21st century, no country can thrive on its own because of our global economic interconnectedness and interdependence. These connections will only grow deeper in the next century and serve to further isolate economies like Russia, Iran, North Korea and others that pursue isolation over smart dependency.
We can all agree that we owe a debt of gratitude to the Congress Party for ushering in an era of liberalisation, without which we would not be among an elite group of economies, the third largest in the world. However, I also believe the greater debt we owe them has to do with the unmitigatedly corrupt, greedy and dystopian second term they presided over. Their unchecked gluttony is directly responsible for shaking the lethargy of the Indian public; we would not have seen the rise of Narendra Modi onto the national stage without it. As a direct result of our frustration with the Congress, the majority of Indians were willing to give Mr. Modi a chance, and not based on his Hindutva philosophy.
This combined with his promise to beat China and provide economic development for all Indians. It is why the youth voted for him in large numbers, the same youth that carries no baggage from 1984 or 2002 – a generation born on WhatsApp. Mr. Modi would do well to recognise and remember this because if he is seen to pander to the vocal minority within his base, the same winds that ushered him in will push him back into regional oblivion. Indians want innovation over idol worship and pay cheques over pogroms; they do not want a Hindu nation.
The second factor that helped put the wind in India’s sails (around the time of Congress’s demise and Mr. Modi’s rise) had to do with the course that the other much vaunted BRICS economies took. In a word, they are all in the shit hole with the exception of China, which is a little different. I don’t need to spend time explaining how Russia has faltered, but will point to one thing worth noting with regards to Brazil’s and South Africa’s demise. Without question both suffered from poor leadership, institutionalized corruption and flimsy economic policies that were based on riding the global financial bubble, not on investments in domestic growth. We can argue that India had many of the same problems with corruption and lack of strong leadership under Manmohan Singh, but there is one major difference; we have a much stronger democracy. One that can withstand medium-term failures, and has the ability to course correct when things go deeply wrong. Look no further than the decimation of Congress, the rise of AAP and the BJP wave.
The fundamentals of our democracy are strong, not just in terms of people and ideas but also civil institutions, our judiciary and bureaucracy. We are better equipped to withstand bad government for a term or two and bounce back than any of the other BRICS. China is the only other BRIC standing, and here I will argue that it is our democratic values that will help us win the day against them. While China’s economic growth has been sputtering of late, I believe the final drain on their storied growth will come from a social implosion. Simply put, you cannot give people a little taste of capitalism and then expect to continue to control their thinking and freedoms, certainly not in a world where there is a world wide web and the ability to travel. Once people taste freedom of thought and expression, they tend to want more, not less.
There is no question that the demise of the BRICS has been another major gift for Mr. Modi. Now he must make sure he does not waste it. Their demise has made us the cynosure of all global investment for the foreseeable future. This, before Mr. Modi did anything to prove himself, or have time for his policies to have a substantial impact on India’s economy. It has provided him with a one-term carte blanche of sorts but he now very quickly needs to start putting this foreign investment where his development (mouth) is.
Now the big caveat I mentioned. What made America the greatest economy and strongest nation over the last century is the fact that the majority of Americans found a way to rise beyond petty politics, religious rabble-rousing and superficial differences, to unite under common cause. As a society they understood that capitalism is driven purely by great ideas, not by ideology. For this reason their leaders have always embraced inclusiveness (slavery aside) and not for some other higher altruistic purpose. It is why they have encouraged freedom of thought, expression and strived to build a homogenous melting pot of diverging cultures and viewpoints.
Diversity makes a nation richer and more powerful, as long it can find a common capitalist cause to rally behind (not a political or religious one). The American motto “E Pluribus Unum” can be found on everything from their coins and currency their Presidential seal; it means “out of many, one”. Americans have rallied behind this motto and worked hard to attract the brightest and best minds from every corner of the globe; this diversity has paid great dividends with world-beating innovation, and years of economic growth and military dominance.
India’s veins are bursting with rich and diverse talent. Mr. Modi must now strive to create an even more open-minded and inclusive society, one that convalescences around education, skill development, economic opportunity and growth, not around Hindutva. Now is the time to stand united, not to divide further. This alone will allow Mr. Modi to deliver on his promise of the Indian dream. However, if he continues to allow the forces of Hindutva to hijack his agenda, then he will very quickly squander the Indian century that is now finally, and firmly, within our grasp.