In this article, the author presents ten issues that are holding India back and have crippled India to some extent. He makes the case that if these problems are not overcome, India will not be a future “superpower”, as some claim it will be.
By Mikael Santelli-Bensouda, 4 Jan, 2012
There is an increasing vigour with which international observers speak of the rise of India. According to many, it seems that those who placed bets on China becoming the next dominant power are wrong and in fact India was the right choice. This is based upon the assumption that India is destined to become the next real global player by virtue of three integral factors: it is the world’s largest democracy; it has an absurdly large and predominantly young population, and its ascension into the global elite of power economies is inevitable.
However, have we asked ourselves enough questions about the so-called emerging power? What is the reality of the Indian condition? Has hyperbolic economic growth planted the seeds for a truly gregarious society? Is democracy moving the masses forward or fostering a residue of stagnation? With the dawning of a new year, it is an appropriate time to dispel the romanticised image of the emerging Indian powerhouse by identifying 10 key areas that prevent India from being considered as a global superpower.
Democracy is the right and only form of governance. This is a concept that nations of the West are familiar with and in recent years India has become a part of that democratic axis. For reasons that may appear obvious to most, it is rare that questions are asked about the validity or potency of democracy’s utility. Essentially, the assumption stands that; if democracy is in place then there is no better system that can improve the lot of that nation. Therefore, if a democratic government is failing to address the concerns of its people; it is not the fault of the system but the fault of a group of ‘bad apples’ within society. There are no two ways about it, the Indian government over the last couple decades has not been addressing the most essential needs of its people (explored below).
Yet, despite the seemingly under-productive governance system, Indian’s are ferociously proud of their democracy. However, they are less than impressed with the manner in which it currently operates. Admissions of corruption, hypocrisy, elitism and nepotism are ever-present when discussing national politics with any Indian. Despite democracy’s ability to represent the average person’s wishes (which is in itself an illusion in a country as diverse and populated as India) there has been a distinct lack of meaningful progress across the board. It is relevant, given the feats achieved by India’s tumultuous neighbour China, to question whether a democratic system is to be blindly accepted as ‘the only way’. History tells us quite bluntly that authoritarian regimes (of varying degrees) have had as much, if not more, success in establishing functioning societies than democratic nations. In fact, a true expression of democracy has yet to engender a world power. Controversial, I hear you cry. All of the European powers, a segregated United States, Imperial Japan, the coming of China and all ancient empires share one simple fact; they did not represent all of their citizens in their decision making processes, instead they took decisions on their behalf. Democratic regimes tend to be election wary and in doing so lack a long-term vision that a country like India is desperate for. I am not arguing for a Chinese-style authoritarian leadership but I pose this simple question: do you think it is possible for India to emulate what the Chinese have done in terms of infrastructure, poverty, energy needs and generally safeguarding the future of its population on a centralised five-year electoral cycle? It seems highly improbable given the current state of affairs.
A large part of the reason democracy in India seems impotent is the fact that corruption is interwoven into the very fabric of Indian governance. The country suffers from corruption on a scale that would make Nigeria’s late dictator, General Sani Abacha, roll over in his grave. Corruption stifles the country in a number of ways. It siphons off necessary funding for: essential development, anti-poverty initiatives, energy security and many, many more. It has become synonymous with politics in India.
Perhaps one of the worst features of India’s endemic corruption is that it is unashamedly present. Like a plot from a Bollywood movie, it seems that factions within society extol their ability to command such devious power. This of course has created a backlash. Like most of the world, India has not escaped the ‘year of protests’ unscathed. The Anna Hazare anti-corruption movement has captured the imagination of millions and, rightly or wrongly, seems to be a voice for a discontented underbelly of unrepresented lower classes and the aspirant middle-classes. Despite the downturn in the intensity for the Hazare movement in recent weeks it does not signal that the Indian people are happy with the current status of the Lokpal Bill and corruption is no longer an important issue. Far from it. Corruptions synonymy with the political establishment not only affects the legitimacy of the current Singh government and his National Congress Party, but also engenders a twofold reaction as it dangerously erodes faith in the political establishment (which could lead to protest votes for extreme parties) whilst neglecting the responsibility to address the problems of tomorrow.
India is soon to find herself in the midst of a golden opportunity to signal to the world, and more importantly her own people, that the country is upgrading its infrastructure inline with the 21st Century. The current transport system is largely a continuation of what the British left behind. Despite the age and condition of much of the national train network and roads systems, they continue to defy logical explanation by servicing the burgeoning population. However, this system is slowly reaching its tipping point and will not last forever. Rather than waiting for the system to fail, it is time to ensure India keeps moving into the next century.
Mumbai is a perfect example to demonstrate the state and nations wanton disregard for the transportation issue. It is India’s most densly populated city, it is the financial and entertainment capital, it plays host to Asia’s busiest train terminus and houses some of the world’s most expensive hotels. Also consider that the city is a logistical nightmare were a one-way commute can take hours, trains are beyond overcrowded and the Chhatrapati Shivaji airport, located in the middle of the city, is serviced to death. After ten years of political wrangling planning permission has been given for another airport located in a more sensible location. Bets are off on guessing which decade the building will be completed in.
Talk to any Indian with some affiliation to Mumbai and the response is always the same: it is too crowded! A unfortunate coincidence of geography prohibits outward expansion, self-interest and political stubbornness prevents relocation to a more appropriate northwardly location. This should not stop the authorities from implementing strategies to alleviate the congestion, especially for the hellish commute. The Delhi Metro can offer double-edged inspiration in this regard. Whilst its emergence has been a great success for India’s capital it highlights the uninspiring nature of the Indian government’s perspective on infrastructure. Why the Mumbai phase of the metro was not ‘ready to roll’ as soon as Delhi was finished is simply baffling. If any city in the world was in need of a metro its certainly Mumbai, yet it seems more effort is being placed in the construction of the Jaipur metro.
The generic accusation aimed at bureaucracies is that it is detrimental to efficiency. Speed it seems is the sacrificial lamb. At present, India can do without extra delays, it would benefit much more from swift and rational decisions. The justice system in India is painfully slow and complicated much like its political decision-making. As a political risk and consultancy group, based in Hong Kong, announced in last year’s report India’s bureaucracy is one of the most stifling in the world. This derives from too much political interference in a less than transparent system. It also translates into difficult foreign business ventures that carry excessive ‘administration fees’.
Ethnicity & Religion
An obvious fact: India is an ethnically and religiously diverse concoction. What is less obvious is that no previous global super power has been heterogeneous. Yes, many have included diverse peoples but they were not founded upon the notion of equality amongst men. Even the United States was founded and unified around its white northern European immigration. Historically, it seems, homogeneity is a staple ingredient for a superpower status. As such, India faces a monumental challenge from its internal divisions that more than occasionally lead to fractious tendencies.
Difficulties have arisen and will continue to arise given the deep seeded tensions between Hindus and Muslims, people and state, and caste against caste. Unfortunately, in recent years religious violence against Muslims in the state of Gujarat can attest that diversity is not being used in a positive force. The most troubling factor is the construction and reinforcement of an ‘other’ within and across Indian society. A notion that is readily intensified by the perpetual antagonisms with Pakistan and it is for this reason it is not difficult to understand modern manifestations of religious tensions across society. The nation must come to terms with its own skin before it can even begin to project power externally.
India is an energy dependent nation. The majority of its energy needs are satisfied from imports. With the relentless rise in oil prices and perpetual instability across global commodity markets, energy dependency in the near future represents a highly volatile arena wherein states compete to satisfy their own needs. And therein lies the problem, India cannot outspend cash-rich nations like neighbouring China, India cannot match the physical capabilities to ensure energy security like the US and India currently lacks the international influence that European nations are desperately clinging on to. There is a necessity to make substantial moves now to ensure some semblance of imported energy guarantees for the coming decades. For without any energy how can India modernise?
What of the possibility for turning to domestic green energy? You could be forgiven for muttering ‘fat chance’, you really could. India aligns itself with the majority of the world in this regard, it makes the right noises about such endeavours yet does little to enact them. However, with a spot of forward planning (and a gigantic amount of political will and a substantial stack of rupees), India could move towards a sustainable energy system that services transport needs as well as business and personal consumption.
However, investment in green solutions holds little hope due to the monopolistic nature of capitalism. Power derives from those with financial capabilities and if the green option does not align with the interests of the powerful utility and energy companies you can be sure neo-liberal India will not rock the boat. The most disturbing facet of the Indian paradox is the extent to which capitalism operates. Akin to a bodybuilder on steroids, it severely distorts India’s natural economic potential, exposes her labour force to the ruthless desires of the world market and encourages oligopoly.
People will point to the fact that India has one of the highest number of millionaires on the planet, but in contrast India’s poverty index is as bad, if not worse than sub-Saharan Africa. Perhaps its most abhorrent feature is that it provides an excuse for overlooking or condemning the masses under the poverty line, as capitalism assumes your own financial situation is in your own hands.
Simply put, before India can even dream of becoming a influential player in international affairs it must lift over half a billion of its own people out of poverty.
The Caste System
Even though the caste system was officially abolished with the creation of the Indian constitution, it is still prevalent in the minds of millions. Its existence reinforces differences. Much in the same way that ethnic and religious differences impede India’s development as a truly gregarious nation, the caste system also inhibits development. When divisions amongst people constitute a significant part of societal interactions (or there lack of) yet the society itself advocates equality for all, it is possible to see that these contradictions can provide internal backlash if caste consciousness emerges.
Attitude to Foreigners
Another trait that has been a prevalent feature of ‘superpowers’ of yester year is the manner in which they see themselves in relation to others. There is a strong sense of exceptionalism that underpins the ability to rise above, one which usually comes at the expense of other people. The Indian condition seems to be largely different to this. Rather than adopt an exceptionalist identity with regards to foreigners (surrounding nations such as Pakistan and Bangladesh are the exception) they reinforce their superiority internally amongst their own people.
In many respects skin colour is an integral factor within Indian society. That translates into a strange psychological relationship between the fairer Indians who, by no coincidence of history, find themselves in the higher echelons of society, white Europeans, especially Anglo-Saxons and the large mass of darker skinned Indians. In essence, India still holds psychological baggage from its colonial history. It is something that sections of society are unwilling to relinquish due to the associated benefits of power and prestige supplemented by the international bombardment of the ‘white is right’ paradigm. However, to overcome this is a prerequisite in a country where peoples skin colours vary as widely as the colours of India’s magnificent saaris.
In no way are these ten categories impossible problems that condemn India to mediocrity and chaos indefinitely. Each category can (and should) be transformed into a positive attribute of the Indian experience. In fact, should a solid amount of foresight and vision be employed then each of these obstacles will either become a source of strength or goal to be achieved. Yet, for the time being these represent very real challenges that are in serious need of address before they escalate. Furthermore, each is intertwined with the other. No one obstacle will be overcome alone. A holistic approach is the order of the day and I harbour my doubts that the Indian ruling elite is currently prepared to meet the requirements of its people and thus ensure the prosperity of India’s future.