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Why India is More Like Europe than China


The Nobel laureate and Harvard professor Amartya Sen penned an op-ed for the New York Times that in many ways is a useful discussion of the differences between India and China, the two giants of Asia, but which misses some important elements.

In the first place, perhaps because he is writing to encourage Indian reform, Sen understates the pent up problems with the Chinese model. As China’s ruling technocrats succeed in building a more modern and productive society, they are constructing a society that is more complicated and that needs more effective governance systems. It’s easy to rule and direct a society of 5 million educated people and 400 million peasants in which most people work in agriculture using simple tools and traditional methods. It’s something else entirely to handle a bustling urban middle class society where you need to manage everything from complicated financial market systems to industrial pollution to modern infrastructure and on and on. The signs are growing that China’s society, in part because of its very success, is outgrowing its governance system and this is a problem that is likely to become more dangerous and harder to solve as time goes on.

Sen also dramatically understates some of the problems that India faces. While Indians share a strong sense of identity and common destiny, India is a much more complicated place than China. There are many more different languages and different cultures, many different political traditions, and deep divides in religious and political history. In some ways India is less like China—a large relatively homogenous nation state with some minority groups and regional differences—than it is like Europe: a society made up of many different cultures and groups. Many of the differences in politics and political outcomes between India and China have less to do with the difference between democracy and autocracy than between the decision-making process of a nation state and the decision-making processes of a multi-cultural confederation. If India were a communist country like China, its decision making would likely be slower, less effective and more corrupt than China’s. If China were a democracy, its government would likely be more effective than Indian democracy.

Modern India is truly a noble experiment. In some ways it is more audacious even than the European Union—an attempt to use democratic methods to allow people of many different histories and backgrounds to build a common future using democratic methods. India’s success, partial and sometimes disappointing as it is, is a great sign of hope to the whole world that we can perhaps one day live together reasonably well despite our cultural and social differences.

But geopolitical analysts need to keep in mind that the challenges facing both societies are formidable and they are in many respects quite different. We shouldn’t exaggerate their similarities or view them through the same lenses just because they are rapidly developing countries with more than a billion people in them. They need to be studied on their own, experienced on their own and analyzed as two quite different places following two very different roads. Both will be severely tested by social and economic challenges in the 21st century and neither will have a smooth path to affluence and global power, but what happens in both places will have immense implications for everyone on Planet Earth.

[India image courtesy of Shutterstock]

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  • Anthony

    “Both will be severely tested by social and economic challenges in the 21st century….”

    I would hazard a guess and say WRM many countries/nation states will be challenged and tested politically, economically, and socially into 21st century.

  • Vadim Pashkov

    Population of India are Indo-Europeans and Chinese are Asians: two different races.Strange that author missed this important point

  • Jim__L

    “India’s success, partial and sometimes disappointing as it is, is a great sign of hope to the whole world that we can perhaps one day live together reasonably well despite our cultural and social differences.”

    If India can be a country, so can the Equator?

  • froginthewell

    I am afraid you may be disregarding the many ways by which being a democracy slows India down, of which here are two :

    1. Quota systems for the underprivileged classes also means that politicians come to power mainly by manipulating caste quotas and not through developmental politics. This is changing as the success of Narendra Modi et al shows,

    2. Just like the US, and unlike China, India cannot acquire land for infrastructure easily.

    That aside, sorry Amartya Sen is not encouraging Indian reform. He is rarely seen recommending a concrete policy for market or for economic freedom. He wants high taxes and lot of welfare economics.

    He wants more Governmental welfare programs to bring about an “expansion in human capability”. I have nothing theoretically against wanting to improve human capability, but the Governmental programs have mostly proved ineffective and have only stunted the economic growth. We need less government and more economic freedom in India.

    Did you notice that he [edit] usually does not utter one word against bureaucracy/license raj?

    Indian economy sucks mainly because we have been following Amartya Sen instead of Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya.

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