Utpal Borpujari

October 6, 2008

India unleashed: Lak’s vision

Daniel Lak, who worked in the Subcontinent for two decades as a BBC journalist for two decades, tells Utpal Borpujari is that India is ready to be a superpower now

 

Daniel Lak sees India as “Asia’s America”. In other words, what he means is that India is emerging as a superpower in the new global scenario. Lak’s idea about the new India of 21st century is nothing new, with authorities on governance, politics and economics coming up with similar predictions. But Lak, in his new book, India Express: The Future of a New Superpower (Penguin Viking), comes up with a set of well-argued theories to put meat to the idea of India becoming this new, improved version of “America”.

 

Lak, who worked in India and then in Nepal as a journalist with BBC for nearly two decades, starts off with the story of a street-side “press wallah” in Chennai, and how he took loans from his well-off clients to educate his two sons, and then jumps into the socio-political and economic cauldron to sieve out an image of India that is on its way to becoming a superpower.

 

But Lak’s vision of an India as a superpower is not of a military one. “Superpower is really a heady word. It conjures up notions of the US and the old Soviet Union, with fleets of ships, missiles, nuclear weapons, and going and taking over countries and places. In my book, people will find a new kind of superpower, one that has liberal values and a lot of good for the world, and one that is involved not only in the military aspects of a superpower but also in aspects like climate change, AIDS-HIV, global trade rules.”

 

Lak’s experience of working in the region as a professional journalist during a period when India started its journey towards economic liberalisation obviously has helped in seeing and putting things in a perspective – which is why he is convinced that the latest meltdown of several American financial institutions has suddenly increase the importance quotient of countries like India, China, Brazil and Russia in the global scenario.

 

But why call India a potential “America” and not a country that can have its own identity of being a superpower? Lak has his argument ready, “America is hugely multicultural, and every faith practiced by the mankind is found in America like it is in India. India in a way invented this sort of multiculturalism which gives it a head start in the superpower business – because if you can live with great diversity within your borders, you have a stronger player in the wider world, you have a more nuanced and subtle approach to the complexities that are coming up in the world.” And then, there are similarities between the two nations in spheres of Freedom of the Press, Fundamental Rights and the rule of law, he says. “The countries are not dissimilar in that sense.”

 

The India-US civil nuclear deal is a marker of India’s growing importance in the world arena, he says. “In 1998, the US was the loudest voice denouncing India for the N-tests. The reality now is that the US government not only has accepted these tests but also basically rewrote the whole non-proliferation regime to keep India on board. It is a pragmatic move, because if they had ignored reality it would not have done any good to the international non-proliferation regime,” he says.

 

However, Lak is against any comparison between India and China, though many tend to do that because of the virtual growth competition the two countries are into. “India is a democracy. In China the all-powerful state forced factories down the throat of the people at huge costs of social and population dislocation and environmental degradation. India has managed to check some of the excesses that happened in China. It is impossible to compare India with China, which, with its 94 per cent Han Chinese population, overwhelmingly comprises one linguistic group. There is no connection with the distant past except for some lines given in schools through Communism. In India people are aware of their regional history, their family history,” he says, adding, “China is a bad model to compare.”

 

According to Lak, poverty and corruption are the major impediments in India’s growth story. And to overcome them, his prescription is to India is to go truly federal. “The power needs to be devolved, and we need to have state governments just like state government in US, where they can raise their own money, through bond issues, income tax, etc., leaving to the Centre the big things like defence, economic policy, international relations, health, education. Look at Canada, Switzerland and Germany – these are federal states with maximum authority devolved from the national government,” he says debunking the theory that India would break up if power is devolved.

 

And of course, India’s neighbourhood, he says, is a problem. “Pakistan continues to lurch from crisis to crisis, but it always has. It is a tough neighbourhood but there are tougher ones. What is really needed is that Indian diplomacy needs to get better. I think India needs people like (Foreign Secretary) Shyam Saran who is an ideal example of how Indian diplomats should be – a modern, forward looking, good patriotic Indian. I am sure India’s neighbours would like to come on board for a real slice of the pie if they are treated better by the Indian diplomacy.”

 

Lak is impressed by the rise of coalition governments at the Centre, which he says is a sign of growing maturity of Indian democracy in the sense that it has led to devolution of power from the Centre. And no, coalition politics has not acted as an impediment to India’s growth story. “De facto, India’s regions and states are getting more authority through these small, state, regional or ethnicity-based parties. Under the coalition governments that have been there almost uninterrupted since 1996, some of the greatest economic strides have been made by India. If you have only two huge national parties that traded power regardless of what is their raison d‘etre, it would have been harder to push the diverse, responsive, interesting agenda than it is under a coalition government,” he says.

 

But ultimately, it is India’s people who are its greatest assets, though their strength comes from having to tackle a difficult life everyday, Lak stresses. “To be an Indian, you have to be one of the world’s best problem solvers because you tackle such a difficult life every day. From your kid’s education to medical facilities to basic amenities, in all spheres of your daily life you need to have a strength of character to move on.”

 

(An abridged version was published in Sakaal Times, www.sakaaltimes.com, 04-10-2008)

 

And the complete interview with Lak, taken on 29-09-2008, on the basis of which this piece was written:

 

 

Do you think India is on its way to becoming a superpower?

 

This is a book I wrote for people in the world who might not know what is going on in India right now, and you have to grab their attention. If you are in India, India is the centre of the universe, but if you are living outside, India is among the many countries which are vibrant, so I wanted to grab their attention by arguing that not only India among the most important in the world by it is on its way to becoming one of the top countries if it is not one already.

 

We are seeing confirmation of this already, with this month the entire American system, the basis for its success, the Wall Street, capitalism is at risk, and countries like India, China, Brazil, Russia are all the more important than they were a month ago.

 

Superpower is really a heady word, it conjures up notions of the US, the old Soviet Union with fleets of ships, missiles, nuclear weapons, going and taking over countries and places. In the book, people will find a new kind superpower one that has liberal values and good for the world, and one that is involved not only in the military aspects of a superpower but in other aspects like climate change, AIDS-HIV, global trade rules – in all of this India is an important player.

 

But there are a lot of complexities, contradictions involved…and why call an Asian America?

 

When the wider world reads the book, the sense that I am conveying to them ….America is by no means a unitary state, it is hugely multicultural, and every faith practiced by the mankind is found in America as well as India, whereas a place like China is less diverse. America has Hollywood projected to the world. What I say in the book is that India in a way invented this sort of multiculturalism which gave it a head start in the superpower business, because if you can live with great diversity within your borders, you have a stronger player in the wider world, you have a more nuanced and subtle approach to the complexities that are coming up in the world. India plays a great role in multilateral issues now, as compared to ten years ago when it was only about Kashmir. Now India is involved in everything, it is the leading nation in the UN Peacekeeping Force, has one of the most respected peacekeeping forces in the world, I think in the coming years that is going to be almost as important as having an Army that can crush challenges in various parts of the world, being used to use the legal and other levers on multilateral issues.

 

I say Asia’s America because of a number of reasons – Freedom of the Press, Fundamental Rights, and rule of law…the countries are not dissimilar in that sense. And also, there are lots and lots of examples of rule of law breaking down, the press not doing its duty or being stifled somehow in both countries; it just helps to prove the rule that these are the most important aspect of a superpower. It is a liberal superpower.

 

Do you think the N-deal is also recognition of India’s growing importance?

 

Yes. I remember in 1998 when I was in India, the US was the loudest voice denouncing India for the N-Tests, and saying it could never get its way if they proceeded down the track and they had to roll back everything. The reality is that the US government not only accepted these tests but basically rewrote the whole non-proliferation regime to keep India on board. It is a pragmatic move, because if they had ignored reality like they did with Israel’s n-weapons outside the non-proliferation regime while trusting them nonetheless, it would not have done any good to the international non-proliferation regime. If you look at it, apart from Iraq and Afghanistan, this deal is the only significant thing done by the Bush administration has done at international level. It is a farsighted and interesting move.

 

You say that within India, the coalition governments are a sign of maturity of the Indian democracy. But don’t you think sometimes their goals overtake issues of national importance, the whole growth path?

 

I am not saying that coalitions prove that Indian is a mature democracy, but what has happening through coalition is that there has been devolution of central power through the growth of regional parties which has not happened since the British left India. De facto, India’s regions and states are getting more authority through these small, state, regional or linguistic-based parties. You have to remember that under the coalition governments in India which has been there almost uninterrupted since 1996, some of the greatest economic strides have been made by India, the continual opening up the economy has gone on. If you have two huge national parties that traded power regardless of what is their raison d’etre, it would have been harder to push the diverse responsive, interesting agenda than it is under a coalition government. Plus some of the skills being developed by some of the MPs and their staff are quite impressive due to this devolution of power. Political skills that run the US are quite similar, and though it is a two-party system their, each of the parties have hundred different thinking streams within them – from far right to far left, amply reflected in the ongoing presidential election.

 

Do you think there is a need for two strong national parties to lead the coalition at the centre as they have a pan-Indian presence?

 

Obviously that is the reality across the world. Minus some of the history of the Congress party and some of the Hinduvta of the BJP, the parties are mainstream, both of them, roughly similar and compete on various aspects of public policy. But just because we have two parties which aim for national dominance, that does not mean that is the national state of affairs. What has happened is that in Congress, the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty either ceases to mean much for the younger people because history being more and more distant for them – and India is a young country – at the same time, BJP’s historic grievances would they continue to mean significance to the people, maybe, maybe not. Both would have to compete on developmental issues and growth of jobs. Eight per cent economic growth is necessary for growth of jobs, to keep up with population growth. I think both parties are following suit as both have young leaders and they are capable of governing pragmatically.

 

What about the contradiction of two Indias – the rural left behind in the growth pattern?

 

It’s a democracy, and there has to be a lot of give and take. It is not China where the all-powerful state forcing factories down the throat of the people at huge costs of huge social and population dislocation and environmental degradation. India has managed to check some of the excesses that have happened in China. Yes, poverty is huge challenge, and yes there is a rural-urban divide. But a lot of urban areas – Bangalore, Hyderabad – are doing very well, and so are some rural areas. And while I am not quite up to it about what happened to Tatas in West Bengal, let’s not forget it’s West Bengal, it’s a state with huge amount of social activism by the Left and around it.

 

Do you feel there are some traits of China which India should follow in the quest for development?

 

Comparing India with US is possible, but not with China, as it is 94 per cent Han Chinese, overwhelmingly one linguistic group. Ethnically, people are different but those differences have been submerged by Communism. There is no connection with the distant past except for some lines given in schools through Communism. In India people are aware of their regional history, their family history.

 

But Indian Diaspora can take a few lessons from the Chinese Diaspora, how they have taken interest in the country’s development. Ten years ago, Indian Diaspora had no interest in their country, but now it has, but in China’s huge FDI, is all thanks to Chinese Diaspora. Maybe the two Diasporas can have an annual meeting! China is a bad model to compare as it is unique model where the state did industrialization when it wanted to through one policy, but just to do that they had to kill 70-80 million of their own people through Mao’s policies. Until Deng Xiaoping came in, nobody wanted to be a China. Even now, because of lack of a free press, not much is known about China, though we saw what they are capable of when they hosted the Olympics. I don’t think India would want to do much with China apart from trade. I love this talk of this railway line coming down from Lhasa to India. I think they have solved all their differences since the 1962 war.

 

What about corruption in India?

 

It is a huge impediment in the growth path. But it used to be worse. The Press was more involved and had more money to take on issues, now vernacular journalism has come up, quality has improved, and corruption exposure is probably number one that readers like. But the state is a little too powerful here even now. That is what I say in this book, the power need to be devolved a little more beyond coalition governments. We need to have state governments in India just like state government in US, where they can raise their own money, through bond issues, income tax, leaving to the centre the big things like defence, economic policy, international relations, health, and education. Look at US, Canada, Switzerland, Germany – these are federal states with maximum authority devolved from the national government. There is no threat of India breaking up. Delhi has got to give up some of its powers. It is better to have a de jure thing than just coalition governments.

 

India’s Middle Class is the largest in the world, but it is often accused of not being involved enough, and becoming more and more consumerist…

 

In the modern world, we cannot be too dismissive of consumption because economy is driven by consumption. It is going to be remarkable when it takes off in a big way in India. Consumption does not being one is being consumerist and does not take care of social issues. Things in India like developing a food industry that really delivers decent food to all the people and allow people in the value chain is going to vastly improve the situation to be many more people. Modernization of agriculture is going to happen because the middle class is going to demand a regular and quality food supply that is known in every advanced economy. And as for the consumption of cars, electronic equipment, that’s how the world works. I have a whole chapter devoted to social entrepreneurs. The two developments need to go hand in hand.

 

What about India’s neighbourhood?

 

It’s a big problem, Pakistan continues to lurch from crisis to crisis, but it always has. Neighboughood can be an impediment, but look at it this way – Nepal has the hydroelectric potential that India can benefit from, Bangladesh has natural gas and hydrocarbon reserves need to general clean electricity here. It is a tough neighbourhood but there are tougher ones. What is really needed is that Indian diplomacy needs to get better. Some of the smartest people in India today are working with companies like ONGC or Infosys – you are talking to some of the smartest people in the world, and in the next room you talk to some from South Block and they are a bunch of sticky types that are prickly about you got to respect my country. It should be the same first category kind in both rooms. I think India needs people like Shyam Saran who is an ideal example of how Indian diplomats should be – modern, forward looking, good patriotic Indian. Satish Mehta, now off to LA from Toronto, people like that – those who know how to mix the deals. India needs to take a more leadership role in the neighbourhood. Gujral had a good relationship with Pakistan and Bangladesh. Canada and Mexico prosper because of their ties with US, Bangladeshis, Sri Lanka, Nepal are calm neighbours. I am sure they would like to come on board for a real slice of the pie if they are treated better by Indian diplomacy. As they say in Nepal, we border Bihar and UP. If we border TN and Karnataka, Maharashtra that would have been a different story! To be an Indian, you have to be one of the world’s best problem solvers because you tackle such a difficult life every day. Getting kid’s education, daily life you need strength of character…

 

 

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