China’s Marathon is India’s Triathlon

Steve Rattner’s observation in The New York Times a couple of weeks ago that India had lost the race to China came on the heels of a year or more of global hand-wringing about India and its prospects. That had followed a few years of internal and external observers feting India as the next big thing. It brought to mind Heidi Klum’s weekly quip on Project Runway, “in fashion, one day you’re in, the next day you’re out.” If one wants to keep track of whether India is in or out, up or down, losing or winning “the race,” one only has to take a look at the latest Economist cover story or survey report headline on India. In 2004, “India’s Shining Hopes” were dazzling the world. A year later, India had been elevated to China levels with the newspaper declaring “The Tiger in Front.” By 2006, the newspaper was asking “Can India Fly?” with the answer a couple of years later being that unfortunately India was still “An Elephant, Not a Tiger.” Just a year later, however, there was “Good News from India” and a year after that the newspaper was laying out “How India’s Growth Will Outpace China’s.” Alas, by 2012, the newspaper, disappointed by developments in India, wistfully proclaimed that India needed to be “In Search of a Dream.”

These kind of report cards, rankings and ratings of India generate much interest, especially when the country’s progress is juxtaposed against that of China. Thus, predictably, Rattner’s piece laying out his view of the result of the economic race between China and India received some attention. Most of the responses tended to focus on whether or not India was losing or had lost the economic race. A different question, however, needs to be asked: Is that the only race India is in and the only race that those cheering for India want that country to win? Because it’s not that India doesn’t have the same “eye on the prize” as China does, as Rattner argues; it’s that the prize is different. Indeed, the race is different.

A few years ago, Indians and Indiawallahs might have “taken offense” – what Manu Joseph has called “India’s favorite spectator sport” – to a greater extent to Rattner’s declaration. Slowing economic growth and governance challenges, however, have reinforced the realization that victory parades are premature and the nation-building project that started six and a half decades ago continues. Many agree that India is indeed losing the race at the moment, at least the one that Rattner writes about: the economic one and, more narrowly, the infrastructure one. Some have even argued that he is late to this discovery and India lost the economic race a while back. Others have pointed out that the race isn’t over yet or that India started from behind and will catch up. Some have criticized Rattner for emphasizing growth at the expense of democracy. Yet others have responded with “what race?” either asserting that China and India haven’t been in the same league for the last three decades, or that comparisons should not be made because it’s like comparing apples and oranges.

It is perhaps futile to demand that people cease and desist from comparing the two Asian giants. Some have tried. Indian Finance Minister P. Chidambaram recently dismissed comparisons between the Chinese and Indian economic situations as irrelevant, saying that the countries faced different problems. Yet, his own prime minister has compared India’s banking system (favorably) and its scientific research achievements (unfavorably) with those of China. On the other side of the aisle, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi has compared his state’s progress with that of China, as have Indian corporate leaders. At the recently concluded Jaipur Literary Festival, a panel (“The Elephant Paradigm, the Dragon Paradox.”) was devoted to comparing the two, with panelist Gurcharan Das saying that India was a soup and China a salad, and Nandan Nilekani noting that a good diet required both.

Neither the idea of a “race” between China and India is new nor is the hope on the part of many in the West that India win that race. It is a concept and comparison that predates Rattner, Francis FukuyamaNiall FergusonPankaj MishraRaghav Bahl and Tarun Khanna and Yasheng Huang. 60 years before Rattner’s piece, in The New York Times Magazine, Barbara Ward, then of The Economist, laid out “The Fateful Race between China and India,” pitting an authoritarian and a democratic country against each other in a development race that the whole world was watching. American policymakers interested in aiding India used the idea to lobby for assistance arguing, as historian Nick Cullather noted, that while there was an arms race and space race, the development race was the third and “deciding heat in a Cold War triple crown” and the U.S. needed to help India win. The idea did not get mainstream support till the second half of the 1950s. As Washington watched the battle unfold beyond Europe for hearts, minds and stomachs, the idea stuck that if Soviet-backed China succeeded while democratic India failed economically, it would be a victory for communism. If, on the other hand, the U.S. could help India win the development race versus China, it could demonstrate to the “uncommitted” world that democracy and development could co-exist and thrive. 

By 1957, the “competition between Communist China and India” was enshrined in official U.S. documents and linked to American national security. NSC 5701 explicitly stated that it was in the U.S. national interest to strengthen India because, “A strong India would be a successful example of an alternative to Communism in an Asian context and would permit the gradual development of the means to enforce its external security interests against Communist Chinese expansion into South and Southeast Asia.” This argument laid the basis for years and billions of dollars of aid to India over the next few administrations. It enjoyed bipartisan support, with then Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon both advocating for aid for India on these grounds. The latter, emphasizing the significance of the competition, even asserted, “what happens in India…could be as important or could be even more important in the long run, than what happens in the negotiations with regard to Berlin.” Initially, this aid was designed to help India win the race; over time, as Indian performance lagged, it was designed not just to prevent India from losing the race, but from falling off the racetrack. Eventually, frustration about this performance led to “India fatigue” and the cheerleading squad – and, with it, aid – dwindled.

The race was not just a Western concept. In 1951, it was the editor of a leading Indian newspaper who laid out in Life magazine the idea that China and India were “two testing grounds” and that the results had Cold War implications. Over the next decade and a half, Indian government officials, private sector leaders and public intellectuals used this idea of a China-India competition to attract aid. They also worried about the implications of the race at home. While Indian policymakers often denied there was a race underway, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru accepted that comparisons between India and China were inevitable. In the 1950s, he acknowledged the “great test:” if his government did not “deliver the goods…democracy will then be in peril…Then people may think of totalitarian methods…” He wasn’t the only one making the comparison to the country next door, with many in India complaining about its progress lagging behind that of China. Nehru’s responses would be familiar today: he highlighted the progress that India was making, noted that democracy made development more difficult, emphasized China’s problems, noting that its statistics were exaggerated, and asserted that China’s failures were not as evident because of the lack of openness, but that “the lid” would come off and “terrible criticism” would emerge later. Overall, he stated that development might take longer, but it would be more sustainable in a democracy, which was “the sounder way of doing things.”

More recently, Indian leaders have cited the hare-tortoise or the sprint-marathon analogies to argue that it’s only a question of time or distance, but India will eventually win. But the issue that Nehru brought up decades ago and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has brought up more recently – democracy – leads to the question of whether China and India are in the same race at all. If one must put it in sporting terms, the question is whether China is running a marathon while India is participating in a triathlon—one where it is not running, swimming and riding sequentially, but simultaneously, competing in an economic development race, a democratic one, as well as a social one.

India’s progress should be assessed on each of those fronts, even though final results might take a while to come in. Perhaps it is harder to track democratic and social progress. Perhaps statistics are easier to pick and choose from and quote than “the rhythm and sensibility” of countries are to measure. Perhaps the fact that there is nothing monochromatic about India makes it frustrating to assess. And perhaps developments in India lend themselves to different interpretations. Rattner’s piece makes this evident. For example, you can see the government’s response to the protests after a horrific gang-rape as a sign of concern or you can see peoples’ response as one of hope. You can see Mukesh Ambani’s billion-dollar home as a symbol of wealth disparity and limited economic mobility or, as Dhruva Jaishankar of the German Marshall Fund noted, given Ambani’s father’s modest beginnings, you can see it as a sign of the economic mobility that is possible. Or you can see both. Regardless of the difficulty of tracking the triathlon, it is important to look at more than just the economic race India is running. Investors looking for short-term returns might be focused on just that race, but neither Indians nor those who want it to really win should. After all, those who want India to win – and, as Rattner notes, there are many in the West who “fervently” hope that it does – are rooting for that country because it is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious democracy and not despite it. Democracy should not be used as excuse for not developing. But development without democracy is not a prize India should want to win.