Saturday, January 11, 2014

An Uncertain Glory: India and Its Contradictions by Jean Dreze & Amartya Sen

Two things drew me to this book. First, the co-author, Amartya Sen, winner of the Nobel Prize in economics, whose work goes far beyond mere economics into history, political theory, and a good deal about his native India. He’s co-authored works with Jean Dreze before. (And, he's the keynote speaker at the Jaipur Literature Festival this year!) But even if the authors hadn’t captured my attention, the sub-title would have: “India and Its Contradictions”. Sometimes a subtitle tells us more than the title, and this is such a case. As an extended visitor here in India, nothing has impressed me so much as its immense contradictions. 

When talking with friends and family back in the U.S. about India, I usually preface my remarks by saying that within sight of any trait that I identify is a counter-example. Extreme poverty, opulent wealth; beautiful buildings, collapsing buildings; bright capable individuals, ignorant masses (ignorant as in unschooled)—I could go on, but you get the idea. In all, India holds huge but largely unrealized potential. Compared to its neighbor China, which I visited this fall, India lags far, far behind. Why? 

Both India and China entered the post-World War II era with similar states of deprivation. China, of course, went through hells of famine, The Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution. India, a democracy since its birth, did not suffer such calamities. Yet today, China has entered the modern economic world at rocket speed while India remains at a plodding pace similar to the speeds of the animal carts one still encounters on the roads. Did India make a mistake opting for democracy? 

Sen and Dreze address these questions and others. They note the impressive rates of growth of the Indian economy in the last decade and more (now significantly slowed). Despite these growth rates and other markers of success, India lags behind many of its peers in the arenas of education, healthcare, inequality, and other markers of social well-being. China, on the other hand, performs much better in almost all of these areas. Indeed, Sen and Dreze note that China’s lead in education and health came long before the market reforms beginning in 1979 with Deng Xiaoping. Mao’s regime established basic standards. Indeed, within India the authors find significant gaps between many of the states, with Kerala (where we now live) and Tamil Nadu performing much higher on many of the measures of performance. Both have competitive elections with Communists and other left groups having held power. 

Toward the end of the book Sen and Dreze address the need for political action in India. Indeed, this book seems to bolster the contentions of Acemoglu and Robinson in their book, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty. My one line summation of the Why Nations Fail: it’s all about the politics. Sen and Dreze seem to arrive at the same conclusion: a different direction of the political body politic would have taken India in a better direction, and it still can. Overcoming old mindsets, clientism, corruption, caste and class loyalties, and so on, won’t be easy. But until India decides to take a very different course, it will remain toward the back of the pack, all of the new billionaires notwithstanding. 

Anyone familiar with Indian politics might despair at this point. Both Congress and BJP seem wedded to the status quo. However, there are rays of hope. The Aad Adami (Common Man Party), running primarily on an anti-corruption platform, ran very strongly in Delhi recently and has now formed the government there. This may be the middle class political uprising that India needs. I’ve contended that until a politically motivated middle class takes the helm of politics, governance here—which remains poor—will continue to lag, and with it, the whole nation. In addition, the outcry from women’s groups after the ghastly rape and murder in Delhi last year suggest the political agenda may move away from the status quo, client-driven politics that mark the current climate. Some political leaders should be able to establish an agenda that provides the poor with both protection and real opportunities, while providing the middle class with a better quality of life. (The rich can take care of themselves.) 

India should exist as a beacon of hope as the largest democratic nation in the world, not as a laggard compared to its authoritarian, non-democratic neighbor China. An Uncertain Glory should serve as a bucket full of icy water in the face to wake-up Indian elites and the middle class to their current plight. A successful government isn’t one that will simply see a successful mission to Mars or focus on diplomatic tit-for-tat, but one that strives to provide a billion plus people the potential that can be theirs, one where disease, ignorance, and poverty aren’t driving forces in their lives and where those who’ve made into the middle class can enjoy a better quality of life.

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