‘Superpoor’ India

(This column was published in DNA edition dated November 6, 2009.)

Venky Vembu

Recently, a US-based research agency that claims it is committed to promoting “political, economic and individual liberty in the developing and transitioning world” came out with with its most recent Prosperity Index rankings. The report was received in Indian newspapers with much triumphalist chest-thumping solely on the strength of the fact that India came in at 45th place, whereas China – our civilisational “twin brother” who (we fear) has made good and moved out of our league in the past 30 years – came in at a distant 75th place. “Yes, it’s true. We’re better off than China”, thundered the headlines, evidently looking to lace your morning cup of filter coffee with a healthy dose of feel-good decoction.

Forget for a minute that such “mine’s bigger than yours” sentiments put us in the same adolescent category as schoolboys peering over bathroom stalls to size each other up in the only anatomical attribute that matters to adolescent schoolboys. Anyone who cared to look beyond the headlines will have inferred that the Prosperity Index has been devised in such a manner as to balance a country’s (and its people’s) economic prosperity with “political and individual liberty”. And since China, the global epicentre of unvarnished authoritarian capitalism, scored  abysmally low on such parameters as ‘democratic institutions’, ‘personal freedom’ and ‘governance’ – and since India scored exceptionally well on a parameter called ‘social capital’ (which claims to measure such qualities as ‘volunteerism’, ‘charity’, and ‘community participation’) – India was acclaimed as being more ‘prosperous’ than China. 

Rankings such as this are not value-neutral indices that mirror real life: right from the way they are structured, they come with their in-built ideological biases that reflect the values of the agency that devises them. To resort to chest-thumping on the basis of having done better than China on a ‘freedom-weighted’ index and proclaiming ourselves more ‘prosperous’ is akin to shifting the goalpost to suit ourselves and crowning ourselves world soccer champions. Indeed, on that count, our index ranking of 45 – below heavyweights like Poland, Hungary, Uruguay, Latvia and Slovakia (among others) – should give us reason to feel a little less cocksure about our place in the ‘free’ and ‘prosperous’ world.

All this is not to say that political and individual freedoms aren’t important; they are. But, equally, it’s important not to get overly carried away by ideologically inspired rankings that put us on a pseudo-prosperous pedestal. In any case, those freedoms don’t count for very much if we cannot leverage them to raise ourselves to genuine levels of prosperity without the need for weightages that shift the goalpost in our favour. On that count, the sobering reality – as reflected even in the self-same Prosperity Index parameters – is that we haven’t realised our potential.

Looking beyond such momentary and fleeting intimations of greatness, the excessive Indian preoccupation with all things Chinese – and an increasingly reflexive eagerness to anoint ourselves a superpower-in-waiting – masks a deep-seated insecurity that manifests itself as hubris and an unwillingness or an incapacity to reflect inwards on the limitations that genuinely hold us back. The huge mismatch between our puffed-up perceptions of ourselves and a hypercritical external observers’ sense of the reality of India was neatly summed up in a recent headline in an Italian newspaper: ‘Superpoor Superpower’.

It’s true of course that for all its merits as a catchy headline, the idea that it encapsulates overstates India’s admittedly many failings. There is indeed much to be proud of about India’s evolution as a secular, democratic, middle-income country. Nevertheless, it’s fair to say that India’s aspirations of becoming a superpower will never be realised unless we can look ourselves in the unflattering mirror of reality and resolve to address and remedy those aspects of our society and polity that shame us – from mass poverty to widespread child malnutrition to institutionalised feudalism.

Former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Susan L. Shirk has an interesting story to narrate about how perceptions of ‘superpower-dom’ vary depending on the perspective of the observer. Shirk, who served in the Bill Clinton administration, wrote a book on China titled Fragile Superpower. Whenever she met people in the West, who hear countless glowing accounts of China’s rise and not enough about its internal vulnerabilities, they’d ask her, “What do you mean ‘Fragile’?” But whenever she met people in China, who knew from their own everyday experiences about the many problems in China that limit its growth and hold back its people, they’d ask her, “What do you mean ‘Superpower’?”

Similarly with India, only if we begin with an honest appraisal of ourselves and work earnestly to remedy our failings that make us seem ‘superpoor’ can we over time become a genuine superpower – one that doesn’t have to claim it is one and or seek validation and solace in pseudo-scientific indices of prosperity.

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About Venky

Journalist, blogger, amused observer of worldly goings-on... More about me here.
This entry was posted in China, Columns, Economy, Geopolitics, India and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to ‘Superpoor’ India

  1. Pingback: Is India a tiger or a pussycat? | It's only words…

  2. Pingback: Dateline India: why Arundhati Roy’s pants are on fire | Firstpost

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