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Is India becoming another China?

Chirantan Chatterjee | Updated on September 01, 2019

Given the parallels in policymaking between both countries, the former may soon be on a similar governance path as the latter

Is India becoming another China, and if so, should the Americans take note? This question struck me, after two recent innocuous encounters. First, the manager at my car leasing company in the San Francisco bay area asked me couple of weeks ago if India already bans having more than one child. He thought India may have already ‘done a China’ on this subject, but was not sure. Little did he know that soon, at the 2019 Independence Day address, the Prime Minister will hint precisely at this issue. Meanwhile, someone at the Stanford campus quipped (observing how India is monitoring Twitter handles and ‘free thought’) that “India is fast becoming a China”.

Recent similarities

Truth be told, India may not be there yet, but it must be conceded that this is not beyond the realm of imagination, given recent happenings. One will obviously have to introspect deeply here on what “becoming a China” means. But for starters, there are indeed eerie recent similarities in the tanks assembling in Shenzhen to quell Hong Kong protesters and signs of a growing militarisation in India.

In economic policymaking too, we can see how China is inspiring India’s model of large-scale infrastructure investment, though perhaps in a more muted, fractured and less organised fashion. The negative impact of this on the environment seem to be a second-order priority for both countries. More broadly, state response to economic slowdown both in China and India has been arrogant, garbled and at arm’s length, to say the least, not to forget the nationalistic posturing used as a tool to distract from the slowdown narrative.

What about foreign policy? Some commentators have now pointed to similarities in the two countries’ actions. Of course, India is still some distance away from aggressive venturing in the Indian Ocean, unlike the Chinese forays in the South China Sea, but it must be not forgotten that India is also among the world’s top military equipment procurers in recent times.

Also, a ‘One Belt One Road’-type offensive from China is beyond India’s reach yet, but the Chandrayaan mission of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is something that the Chinese certainly have their eye on.

What about soft power and the role of sports and celebrities? India seems to be following its own trajectory. There are still no state-run missions to organise the Olympics or to groom athletes for global places of honour, but if that is a point that Delhi prioritises on in the future, one should not be surprised.

Possible scenario

There are some factors which are hard to ignore in this argument. First, what does “becoming a China” mean? China has of course had its own trajectory from the days of the opium wars to Mao’s cultural revolution to its power and position today, but it is well-known that even now, there are some voices both in and outside the mainland who don’t subscribe to the way morality, governance and leadership has evolved in Beijing. One can probably say that this is not yet the case for Indians.

India seems to be at least stating (if not revealing) its intentions to shedding incrementalism in its development journey. This is what the Chinese call fondly as a “crossing the river touching the stones” approach.

To summarise, one can go back to Rabindranath Tagore’s words, who had after visiting China written, “Once I went to the land of China, those whom I had not met, put the mark of friendship on my forehead, calling me their own”, as a note on Asian universalism. Tagore might have pondered today whether that sharing can sometimes be more than what is necessary.

The writer is an ICICI Bank Chair in Strategic Management and Associate Professor, IIM-Ahmedabad

Published on August 30, 2019

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