The world underwent a seismic shift last month: India now has more inhabitants than China. The country that for centuries boasted the largest population on Earth has been overtaken. Indians have no reason to celebrate this new demographic status, however. In 1960, both nations had similar economies and comparable poverty rates. Today, the per capita annual income in China—around $12,000—is five times that in India. Of course, these figures fail to consider the often-spectacular regional disparities. China’s maritime eastern coast is twice as prosperous as its inland provinces, whereas the Indian South is twice as rich as the North. This simple equation also overlooks inequalities. China is the most unequal country in the world, followed closely by India. Nevertheless, China’s relative economic success has deeply shaken India’s elites.

Buoyed by this success, China’s leaders have declared that its achievements are the result of an all-powerful central government, the unchallengable ideology of the Communist Party, and the embracing of globalization from the 1970s onward. Meantime, India was insular and hostile to foreign investment until the 1990s, focusing on traditional agriculture and crafts, in line with the moral teachings of Mahatma Gandhi and his idealization of frugality.

Against the backdrop of this Gandhian heritage, Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister following India’s independence in 1947, and his daughter, Indira Gandhi (no family connection with the Mahatma) shared an admiration for Soviet-style socialism. This half-Gandhian, half-Soviet regime lasted for nearly 50 years; capitalism was frowned upon, and it was almost impossible to create even the smallest business without countless bureaucratic authorizations. This inspired the nickname “The License Raj” (a play on the defunct British Raj), referring to the system of multiple rubber stamps that fostered a notorious culture of corruption among even the lowest-ranking civil servants. Around the same time, the Indian state—or rather the Indian states, as the country remains a confederation for all intents and purposes—failed to fulfill basic tasks, leading to deplorable public schools, disgraceful sanitation, and a lack of road, maritime, and railroad infrastructure. It took the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 for India to change its model. However, China got there first, flooding the global market with cheap manufactured goods. India arrived on the scene late, behind China and Vietnam, with less experience and a less-educated workforce.

After turning its back on socialism, the Indian government under the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party, or “Indian People’s Party”), in power since 2014 and led by Narendra Modi, has taken a page out of China’s book. At great expense, it has built ports, highways, and airports to unite the Indian market. It is also staunchly capitalist and open to both domestic and international investment—ill-gotten or otherwise. Corruption has declined slightly, while education and public health have seen improvements. Modi has inaugurated several thousand public restrooms across India, which has put a dent in epidemics and particularly benefited women, who had long been ignored by Indian democracy.

India’s pro-capitalist, Chinese-inspired U-turn is also profitable. The economy is now growing at an annual rate of between 3 percent and 4 percent. These are meager gains, given the growing population, but they represent a vast improvement on the zero percent growth during the Nehru–Gandhi era, during which economists joked that zero was the “natural rate” of Indian growth.

Unfortunately, Modi also seems drawn to the worst aspects of the Chinese model, including the one-party system, a state that operates above the law, and the cult of personality. India is the world’s largest democracy, but having previously enjoyed unprecedented press freedom and judicial independence, the country now finds itself at the mercy of the BJP’s despotic whims. The party is seeking to impose a nationalist ideology based on a cheap form of Hinduism and traditions completely divorced from the linguistic, religious, and cultural diversity of eternal India. I have attended street demonstrations in Mumbai in which fanatic BJP supporters shout that Ram, one among many Hindu gods, was more powerful than Jesus and Allah. The victims of this neo-religious nationalism are the country’s 175 million Muslims, along with Christians and freethinkers. The movement has gained so much ground that the more the economy grows, the more freedoms are stripped away.

India’s economic and political evolution raises the question: What is progress? Renowned Indian economist and Nobel Prize laureate Amartya Sen suggested replacing the strictly quantitative concept of GDP with one based on well-being—an idea that the UN has since adopted. According to Sen, material production is only one part of prosperity; one should also consider the degree of freedom, the level of education, quality of life, and equality of the sexes. Sen calls this “capability.” Of course, we can see that the wealthiest countries are also the most equal and the best educated. Yet what a loss it would be for Indians to be slightly less poor at the cost of their human rights.

My knowledge of India leads me to believe that Modi will never be enshrined as a Hindu god. India already has about 10,000 lesser and greater gods. Modi may have put up portraits and statues in his honor across the country, but the public is not so easily fooled.

Muzzling the people, as the Chinese Communist Party does, might be achievable due to centuries of subjugation. But silencing Indians? No one has ever succeeded in doing that—not even the British. India will certainly become an economic and military power, finally taking its place on the world stage. Modi and his radical Hinduism will have contributed to this evolution, but only Mahatma Gandhi and Amartya Sen will remain the saints of India.

Photo: ARUN SANKAR / Getty Images


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