India's law and China's order

The Chinese premier's recent visit to India was a good thing because it took our minds off Pakistan, even for a fleeting weekend. We really must learn to ignore Pakistan and heed China. If Pakistan pulls us down into an abyss of terrorism and identity politics, China will lift us up, I think, firing our ambition for better roads, schools and health centres. I used to either admire or fear China, but now I am more relaxed. Both our economies are among the world's fastest, and both are on the verge of solving their age-old economic problem. China's success is induced by the state, however, whereas India's is due to its private economy. Although slower, India's path may, in fact, be more suited to its temperament.

Our different pasts explain a great deal about us. In the last 100 years China suffered devastating violence while India was spoiled by amazing peace. China's 20th century opened with the ravages of warlords; the Nationalists followed with their butchery in the twenties. Japan's invasion of Manchuria in the thirties made our British Raj look angelic. In the forties came Mao's massacres as Communists took power. Mao's ambitions sacrificed 35 million in the Great Leap Forward in the fifties and brought more misery during the Cultural Revolution. It was not until 1978 that the Chinese breathed easy, and then they went on to create the most amazing spectacle of economic growth.

Saints, on the other hand, created India (in Andre Malraux's words) and this happened in the shadows of Hitler, Stalin and Mao. Not only did we escape the World Wars, but we became free without shedding an ounce of blood, thanks to Mahatma Gandhi. Yes, half a million died in the Partition riots, but it was not state sponsored violence. Because we were addicted to peace, I think, we created the world's largest democracy. Although Nehru's socialism slowed us down for three decades, we did not wipe out our private economy with its invaluable institutions of corporate law and the stock market. So, when we broke free from our socialist shackles we had this advantage over China.

This explains why India's recent economic success is driven by its entrepreneurs. The best thing that its government is doing is to slowly get out of their way through its reforms program. India is spawning highly competitive private companies, such as Reliance, Jet Airways, Infosys, Wipro, Ranbaxy, Bharat Forge, Tata Motors, Moser Baer and Hindalco. China's government, on the other hand, is suspicious of its entrepreneurs. Only 10% of China's banking credit goes to the private sector, although it employs 40%.

Nothing quite illustrates the difference between India and China as their approach to the English language. While many states in India are still debating if English ought to be taught in primary schools despite huge popular pressure from parents, the Chinese government has decided to make every Chinese literate in English by the 2008 Olympics. It seems bizarre that India, whose success in the global economy derives from its facility with English, should remain hostage to the deep insecurities of its vernacular chauvinists. As for the Chinese, I am confident they will win plenty of medals, but I don't think learning English will be quite as easy. Even though I cannot help but admire their ambition, I console myself that India has been spared their earlier ambitions at social engineering, notably the Cultural Revolution.

Because India's government is ambivalent, the market is solving peoples' enormous appetite for English. Thousands of English teaching shops and schools have mushroomed. Unlike my generation, today's young think of English as a skill, like learning Windows. Their minds are 'decolonized' and to them English is one of India's many languages. They are quite comfortable mixing English with Hindi words in a fashionable mix called Hinglish, which has become increasingly pan-India's street language. Advertisers, in particular, have been surprised by the terrific resonance of slogans such as Coke's 'Life ho to aise or Pepsi's 'Dil mange more'. David Crystal, author of the Cambridge Encyclopaedia of the English Language, claims that India may already have the largest number of English speakers in the world.

India's public debate over teaching English in primary schools seems inconceivable in China. Nor will India grow at eight percent (versus six) because it has too much law and not enough order, too much democracy and not enough governance. If it came to a trade-off, however, I don't know anyone in India who would give up democracy for a two-percentage points higher growth rate, even though it might put us twenty years ahead. We have waited 3000 years for this moment–to wipe out poverty–and we would rather wait another 20 years if necessary, and do it in our own way with democracy. And frankly, life is more than just a race between China and India.

Mr. Das, former CEO of Procter & Gamble India, is the author of India
Unbound (Profile Books, 2002).

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