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Tigers … or Copycats?

“He who tries to predict the India of tomorrow would be a bold man”, Jawaharlal Nehru is reputed to have remarked, adding, “He who would predict the India of the next century would be a mad man.” Now that that “next” century is well underway with India’s resurgence on every lip and the country projected to become one of the world’s three largest economies, it is time to revisit Nehru’s answer.

His words could as well have been about China, another “Midnight’s child” that began its modern-day journey just about the same time as its southern neighbor. Ancient civilizations both, coming into their own after centuries of European exploitation, they promised to provide a unique laboratory for testing a time-honored question: what determines a society’s destiny — nature, or culture?

The debate has drawn several authors, with two famous books presenting opposite sides of the argument: Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel and David Landes’ The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some are So Rich and Others So Poor. Both were published in the late 1990’s.

Diamond’s bestseller sought to demolish notions of any inherent European supremacy, attributing Europe’s rise to a few basic divergences in the way Providence scattered her riches — things as mundane as gaining an early immunity to livestock diseases, the kinds of wildlife native to various parts, and the varieties of crops sustainable by each. And the mastery of gunmaking by Europe would seal the fates of its opponents.

Landes’ book sought to refute this thesis, arguing that factors like climate and soil alone would not explain the European surge of the past 500 years. For one thing, the development of a counterweight in society to religious/shamanist obscurantism or imperial caprice seems a giant point of difference between European societies and others. Part of this cultural makeover, according to him, is an increased tolerance of criticism, an innate fostering of debate and experiment: a good mix of innovation, adaptation and forbearance being a distinctive feature of the European mindscape.

What does the last sixty years of China and India say about these two theses? While Diamond’s view appears relevant for large parts of the world including the equatorial regions, Africa and Latin America, his thesis seems less applicable to China and India, both agricultural exponents of long standing, and (India in particular) blessed with an astonishing variety of flora and fauna.

A popular chart making the email rounds shows the relative contributions of various countries to the world GDP over the past centuries. In 1820, India contributed around 18% and China around 32%; the US came in at around 3%. By the 1950’s, the US had around 27% while India and China hovered around 5% each. In 2001 the figure was roughly: USA (21%), China (12%) and India (6%).

Even assuming GDP contributions to be the sole measure of a country’s well-being, it bears examination how China and India went from making 50% of humanity’s goods and services in 1820 to a mere 10% in 1950. It could be argued that the speed of decline is as much a commentary on the frailties of Chinese and Indian society at the time as it is on the pioneering spirit of the West (or its rapacity).

Are Chinese and Indian societies so different today that their economic supremacy is all but assured, as we keep hearing? It is a truism to call the cleaning lady with her cell phone the metaphor for a changed milieu. But it is equally noteworthy that state-of-the-art gadgetry does nothing to increase respect for the law, solicitude for the rights of others, or consideration for the commons, all more genuine indices of a culture than its technical accoutrements. China has its own stories of forced evictions, partymen running side-businesses and sundry jiski lathi uski bhains (he who has the stick has the buffalo) tales of woe.

Comes an impatient answer: in such an epic transition, surely you can overlook a few heads being broken! Both countries have in their visions some replica of the consumer heaven as they see the West. Time alone will tell how it all shakes out., but one thing is for sure. There seems very little original in the works, just a patina of Western mores, tinsel and catchphrases slapped on top of a basically unaltered ethos of feudalism (in India) and totalitarianism (in China), with proponents firm in their belief that the paint will eventually transmute the structure underneath: Seep-down economics, if you will.

Rammanohar Lohia, the Indian freedom fighter and Socialist idealogue, wrote that the 20th century had produced one innovator, Mahatma Gandhi, and one invention, the atom bomb. Recasting Lohia’s words for today, there is one invention, the globalized consumer, and the same innovator, Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj (1909) seeks to address a simple but profound question: whether a utopia predicated on unending material fulfillment is ever possible, even leaving aside its desirability. It is a question a rising West with low populations, plenty of land and colonies galore did not have to ask, especially since ‘consumption’ then was quite literally a dreaded word. It is a question the two Himalayan giants of today have sidelined in their hurry to “catch-up”.

Unfortunately it is a question which will not disappear with the icecaps.

NIRANJAN RAMAKRISHNAN is a writer living in the United States. He is looking for a publisher for his forthcoming book on Hind Swaraj. He can be reached at: njn_2003@yahoo.com.