A Model of Development Worth Building
PONDICHERRY, INDIA — President Barack Obama arrives in India this weekend, accompanied by a 45-car convoy and a retinue that occupies two jumbo jets.
His visit coincides with Diwali, the Indian festival of lights, and his meetings will no doubt have a bright, upbeat tone. But his trip is unlikely to ease a nagging sense in India that ties between the two countries have suffered something of a downgrade under his administration.
The anxiety stems not from any overt hostility toward India, but rather from a perception that Mr. Obama’s much-vaunted pragmatism, combined with a litany of woes in the United States, leave little room for the type of strategic relationship the countries seemed to be building under President George W. Bush. As the Indian columnist Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar recently wrote, “Obama is focusing on urgent short-term issues and not on the strategic long term.”
The short-term focus is perhaps understandable. But a relationship with India based too purely on pragmatism — on immediate, tangible returns in the battle against terrorism, for example, or in bolstering trade — does not do justice to what is potentially India’s most valuable contribution to the United States. It overlooks the fact that the United States’ true strategic opportunity comes not from what might be called India’s overt power — its military might and economic clout — but rather its symbolic power: the possibility it holds to serve as a model for developing nations around the world.
In recent years, there has been growing talk about an Indian model of development and governance — what Lawrence H. Summers, the director of the White House National Economic Council, recently referred to as the Mumbai Consensus. He positioned this as an alternative to an ascendant Beijing Consensus, which emphasizes the role of the state, plays down the importance of democracy and human rights, and has been embraced by authoritarian regimes around the world, particularly in Africa.
This Mumbai Consensus is far less established than its Beijing counterpart. Still, with India’s economic success now receiving general — and sometimes exaggerated — international recognition, and with a growing number of Indian companies embarking on acquisitions around the world, including in Africa, the outlines of an Indian model that could light a path toward development for other countries are starting to become clear.
Economically, the Indian model is marked by a reliance on domestic consumption rather than exports, services rather than manufacturing, and private enterprise rather than state-led companies and investments.
In all these ways, and particularly in its reliance on the private sector, it represents a striking contrast to the Chinese model. Ashutosh Varshney, a political scientist, points out that, while “India is producing world-class private companies, China is not.” Indeed, in contrast to many Chinese companies, which have benefited from state support, Indian companies have often succeeded, as Gurcharan Das, an author and businessman, puts it, “despite the state.”
The big difference between the two countries, of course, is in their political systems. Mr. Summers contrasted Indian democracy and Chinese autocracy, praising the former as “people-centered” and characterizing the latter as being based on “ideas of authoritarian capitalism that ultimately will prove not to be enduringly successful.”
To an extent, this distinction seems to revisit the Asian Values debates of the past, when many observers attributed Southeast Asia’s rapid growth to authoritarian governments. But the rise of India and China over the last few decades has recast this debate. The question is no longer whether economic growth stems from autocracy or democracy (clearly, it is compatible with both), but rather about the character of that growth. What does India tell us about the kind of prosperity that accompanies democracy?
India’s vibrant private sector may be one of the chief benefits of its democracy. Mr. Das suggests that democracies inherently allow greater room for entrepreneurial activity. “Freedom of enterprise is a function of democracy,” he says, arguing that Indian businesses have more room for innovation than those in China.
Political freedom doesn’t just breed more adept capitalists. It can also contribute to what the author and academic Sunil Khilnani calls “growth with legitimacy”— a path to development that is less unequal and more sensitive to human rights. Although India is certainly struggling with tremendous problems of exclusion, its democratic processes arguably curb the worst excesses of capitalism.
India’s robust private sector and its democratic pattern of development could also mean that the Indian model will ultimately prove more viable than the Chinese one. India’s critics often point to the nation’s inefficiencies to argue that democracy is inimical to growth. But these are not failures of democracy; they are failures of governance.
If in the coming decades India can reform its governance — a big if, admittedly — then its model of democratic growth might ultimately prove more flexible, and therefore more resilient, than China’s top-down, state-centric approach.
For the United States, what’s most striking about the Indian model is the extent to which it embodies values traditionally associated with America. Free enterprise, democracy, equality of opportunity: over the last 60 years, and especially over the last two decades, India has staked its claim to representing these principles as fully as the United States.
This confluence of values represents the true foundation of Indian-U.S. ties today. It also represents something of an opportunity for the United States.
If the Indian model gains widespread currency, if it starts being adopted by other nations as a viable path to development, then that could ultimately enhance the United States’ own influence and soft power around the world.
Washington’s true strategic interest doesn’t just lie in forging closer security or trade links with India. It lies in India’s potential to spread American values.