Last updated: January 30, 2014 7:19 pm

India is still a contender in the great Asian race

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The chaos of democracy blunts the impulses that once held the threat of break-up
Ingram Pinn illustration©Ingram Pinn

India is rushing headlong into chaos – the chosen chaos that comes with holding national elections in the world’s most populous democracy. The promised political convulsions doubtless will tempt some to hold up China as proof positive that autocracy is the surer guardian of economic progress. There may be moments when this is hard to gainsay. It is mistaken for all that.

Visitors to Beijing encounter a nation striding onwards and upwards with a studied frown. In the Indian capital of Delhi, you find a country shuffling sideways with a smile. It is easy to conclude the expressions are the wrong way around. Surely it is the Chinese who have reason to be cheerful? After all, there was a time when experts debated which of these two great powers would emerge pre-eminent in Asia. Most have long since declared China the winner.

A week in Delhi is time enough to see why India has lost some of its international shine. Beijing is all glistening tower blocks and newly paved highways. The Indian capital shows off its flaws as well as its strengths. Great wealth collides with abject poverty, high-tech modernity with crumbling infrastructure, and urban bustle with ubiquitous begging. Business leaders complain about overmighty bureaucracy, while voters rebel against corrosive corruption. China’s leadership has recently published a blueprint for another decade of rapid economic growth. You can get the feeling India struggles to look 10 days ahead.

Indians have a taste for raucous democracy. Something like 750m people are eligible to vote. In the latest state polls turnout in some places was as high as 80 per cent. The general election, due by May, will see the ruling Congress party of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty square up against the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party, led by the firebrand Narendra Modi. The high stakes betting is on Mr Modi emerging the victor but there is no guarantee the result will be clear-cut.

Power in India has fragmented since the days of Indira Gandhi’s suffocating centralism. Now it is shared between the national government and powerful state administrations, and in parliament between the two big parties and 20-odd smaller groupings. Whoever occupies the prime minister’s office can command a majority only with help of a motley array of regional and single issue parties. Unruly coalitions have become India’s norm.

Mr Modi, who runs the thriving northwestern state of Gujarat, has a simple pitch. He offers the dynamic leadership India has lacked under the Congress government of Manmohan Singh. Mr Singh, the 81-year-old technocrat whose bold liberalising reforms during the 1990s jump-started India’s economic rise, has tired of the fight. He is taking well-deserved retirement. Rahul Gandhi, son of Sonia, looks an unconvincing opponent against the charismatic BJP leader.

Big business has lined up behind Mr Modi. Congress, you hear, is exhausted. Mr Modi’s unflinching Hindu nationalism and his controversial role during an outbreak of communal violence in Gujarat that cost the lives of 2,000 Muslims have not been forgotten. But the movers and shakers in Delhi offer reassurance: the checks and balances in the system, they say, constrain sectarianism.

They are right that someone needs to get a grip on the economy. Growth has slowed, and untamed inflation has forced the central bank to raise interest rates. Investment in the nation’s economic fabric is stalled by bureaucracy. Now, along with other emerging economies, India is being buffeted by the international headwinds created by the withdrawal by the US Federal Reserve of its monetary stimulus. The sudden rise of the anti-establishment Aam Aadmi (Common Man) party speaks to deep popular frustration with corruption.

There is plenty of ammunition here for those who say authoritarian regimes have the advantage. Such judgments miss the point. India’s weaknesses are also its strengths. Most obviously, democracy is the foam that absorbs the inevitable collisions between the nation’s jumble of ethnicities and religions. The dispersion of political power from the centre has likewise given India new sources of economic growth. Indira Gandhi’s centralised planning brought stagnation. Diversity has become an engine of progress.

Politically, federalism has been a unifying force. India still has Maoist insurgents but the chaos of democracy blunts the communal rivalries and separatist impulses that once held the threat of break-up. In their place is a resilient sense of nationhood. Sure, the country needs another sustained burst of economic liberalisation but the pessimism you hear from industrialists belies their own success in building vibrant global businesses.

The smile on the face of those Delhi residents as they confront the maddening inefficiencies of everyday life seems to the outsider to describe a nation that for its troubles and poverty feels comfortable in its identity. The frowns in Beijing hint at the underlying brittleness of Chinese society – a sense that beneath the economic success lies a suppressed anger with a political system that sees corruption flourish in the absence of accountability.

There is no linear path between rising prosperity and political pluralism. It would be a mistake to underestimate the capacity of China’s leaders to maintain their grip on power. Yet it is also striking just how nervous they are about keeping control. India, one suspects, will always wrestle with modernity, but in a spirit that holds it together.

philip.stephens@ft.com

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Letter in response to this column:

Keeping the faith in India’s democracy / From Prof Emeritus P K M Tharakan

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