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How India is Turning Into China

And not in a good way.

CHINA IS shakily authoritarian while India is a stable democracy—indeed, the world’s largest. So goes the cliché, and it is true, up to a point. But there is a growing resemblance between the two countries. A decade after we were told that China and India were “flattening” the world, expediting a historically inevitable shift of power from West to East, their political institutions and original nation-building ideologies face a profound crisis of legitimacy. Both countries, encumbered with dynastic elites and crony capitalists, are struggling to persuasively reaffirm their founding commitments to mass welfare. Protests against corruption and widening inequality rage across their vast territories, while their economies slow dramatically.

If anything, public anger against India’s political class appears more intense, and disaffection there assumes more militant forms, as in the civil war in the center of the country, where indigenous, Maoist militants in commodities-rich forests are battling security forces. India, where political dynasties have been the rule for decades, also has many more “princelings” than China—nearly 30 percent of the members of parliament come from political families. As the country intensifies its crackdown on intellectual dissent and falls behind on global health goals, it is mimicking China’s authoritarian tendencies and corruption without making comparable strides in relieving the hardships faced by its citizens. The “New India” risks becoming an ersatz China.

TO THOSE IN THE WEST who reflexively counterpose India to China, or yoke them together, equally tritely, as “rising” powers, the solutions to their internal crises seem very clear: Democratic India needs more economic reforms—in other words, greater openness to foreign capital. Meanwhile, authoritarian China, now endowed with a cyber-empowered and increasingly assertive middle class, must expose its anachronistic political system to the fresh air of democracy.

Such abundant commonplaces draw upon the Whiggish assumption shared by most Western commentary: that middle and other aspiring classes created by industrial capitalism bring about accountable government. This was the main axiom of “Modernization Theory,” first proposed by American cold warriors as a gradualist alternative to communist-style revolution. The theory always had its critics, most notably Samuel Huntington, who questioned whether social and economic transformation in developing societies is always benign or leads to democracy. Certainly, Modernization Theory never took into account the possibility that certain forms of raw capitalism violate the basic principles of democracy in a country like India.

It is often forgotten that the ruling elites of both India and China once presented themselves as socioeconomic engineers working hard to release their desperate masses from the curses of poverty, ill health, and illiteracy. Despite investments in institutions of higher learning—which would later help provide highly skilled labor to Western banks and tech companies—India was always a straggler in public health, left behind not just by China but also by Sri Lanka (and now Bangladesh). This was largely due to what Amartya Sen, writing in 1982, called “an astonishingly conservative approach to social services.” The limits of Indian democracy had been outlined early by the co-author of India’s constitution, B.R. Ambedkar, who famously lamented in 1950 that “democracy in India is only a top dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic.” Thirty years later, Sen was still warning that it was “important to understand the elitist nature of India to make sense of India’s policies.”

Notwithstanding regular elections, a small minority, consisting largely of men from the upper and middle Hindu castes, set national priorities, the most important of which was the entrenchment of their own power. (Sen was heard lamenting earlier this year, “Whenever something is thought of to help poor, hungry people, some bring out the fiscal hat and say, ‘My God, this is irresponsible.’”) Some women and low-caste Hindus were brought into the elite, but their compatriots remained exposed to violence and discrimination, often perpetrated by the upper-caste-dominated state itself.

The contrast with the fanatically, even violently, anti-elitist nature of China’s revolution was stark. The communists had empowered Chinese women, brutally cracking down on the various social “evils” of feudalism. Despite Mao Zedong’s calamitous blunders, which caused the premature deaths of tens of millions of people, communist China took an early lead over India in all the important indices of human development.

Nevertheless, India’s own advantages over China were substantial. But far from taking pride in its press freedoms or expanding its constitutional liberties, many in the small middle class created by the country’s early investments in higher education were exasperated with manifestations of mass democracy—especially the flexing of electoral muscle by low-caste groups in the 1980s, which caused a middle-class exodus to the upper-caste Hindu nationalists. Chafing at India’s protectionist policies, these Indians regarded the Singaporean strongman Lee Kuan Yew as their hero and his squeaky-clean authoritarian state a more suitable political model for India than Westminster democracy.

Ironically, it was post-Mao China that in the late ’70s embraced the Singapore model: technocrat-supervised national development by a one-party state. The country’s world-class infrastructure— airports, highways, high-speed railroads—would have been inconceivable without an efficient state that ruthlessly appropriated land from peasants while providing financial assistance and the best scientific and technical expertise. Shelving its mass ideological campaigns in the ’80s, the Chinese Communist Party has since then promised to deliver prosperity through capitalism (albeit with Chinese characteristics) while periodically upholding its own and the state’s role as the mitigator of inequality and provider of welfare.

As in China, a generation of technocratic politicians spearheaded India’s liberalization and modernization program. But, embedded with the country’s biggest capitalists, they were much less willing or able to enhance the state’s role in national development. As GDP growth rates accelerated in the early 2000s, the market in India began to seem like yet another Hindu deity, one that would eventually shower—through the great trickle-down miracle—prosperity on all, and also empower low-caste Hindus and women by unleashing entrepreneurial energies. India’s structural weaknesses—the poor quality of its education and governance, for instance—were temporarily obscured as credit-fueled consumption transformed large parts of Indian cities. Davos-anointed businessmen and day-tripping foreign journalists hailed the “New India” of software parks and shopping malls.

Never mind that India’s much-ballyhooed information-technology and business-processing offices employed less than six million of the country’s 400 million–strong workforce or that the large majority of poorly educated Indians gained little from the booming sectors of mining and real estate speculation. India’s service-oriented economy could not create enough jobs for the swelling ranks of the young unemployed in India. Elections provided legitimacy to politicians who, as is only now becoming public, built up enormous personal fortunes. Improvising fast, they could achieve the necessary electoral appeasement of the poor majority through populist programs—such as the rural employment scheme that helped reelect the Congress Party in 2009—made possible by increased revenue. Since then, however, India’s rulers, beset by a slowing economy, inflation, and a cheapening rupee, have struggled to achieve the golden mean between economic growth and political stability. Having affirmed India as what Foreign Affairs called “a roaring capitalist success story” in 2006, Anglo-American periodicals such as The Economist and the Financial Times now worry that the country is breeding Russian- and Latin American–style oligarchies. But what is more disturbing, and little discussed, is the budding likeness to China—the onset, in particular, of an informal authoritarianism in the hollow shell of a formal democracy.

The police and army have long enjoyed a range of arbitrary powers—the infamous Armed Forces Special Powers Act allows soldiers to kill Indian citizens with impunity. Last year, 2,730 bodies were found dumped in unmarked graves in Kashmir, and human rights groups reported nearly 800 extrajudicial killings between 2007 and 2010 in the northeastern state of Manipur. Innumerable prisoners of conscience—India’s own Liu Xiaobos—have languished in Indian prisons: These include Kashmir’s Shabir Shah, who spent two decades in jail, and, more recently, the reputed doctor Binayak Sen. (India’s great advantage over China is still its large number of courageous activists and dissenters, such as Irom Sharmila, the world’s longest hunger-striker.) In recent years, the Chinese regime has, alarmingly, enhanced its ability to police the Internet and to crack down on dissent. Relatively little attention, however, has been paid to the Indian government’s schemes to censor websites and access phone records; the federal Communications and Information Technology minister recently made the absurd demand that social media sites prescreen content.

China’s integration into the global economy has created a bellicosely nationalistic, rich minority. In India, similarly, big industrialists such as the Tatas and Ambanis, together with the emerging middle class, grow fonder of such business-friendly politicians as Narendra Modi, the Hindu-nationalist chief minister of Gujarat, whose complicity in the murder of over 2,000 Muslims in 2002 didn’t prevent his landslide reelection—or dampen his ambition to become prime minister. In expropriating public resources for private industrial and infrastructural projects and suppressing his critics, Modi is the primary Indian exponent of capitalism with Chinese characteristics. There are equally significant—and worrisome—signs of a creeping populist authoritarianism in the middle-class cult of Adolf Hitler, the popularity of Mein Kampf, or the recent mourning by some of India’s best-known figures in politics, sports, and entertainment of Bal Thackeray, Mumbai’s infamous demagogue (and Hitler enthusiast).

Neither India’s elected nor China’s unelected rulers, however, have run out of ways to woo their citizens. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s scheme of cash transfers to the poorest Indians may secure enough votes for his besieged government in the 2014 elections. China’s new leaders may yet again follow the example of Singapore, a cannily adaptive one-party state, and deploy their country’s fresh elite of economists, corporate managers, and lawyers to shore up their centralized political authority and prestige. They may also draw upon the evidently inexhaustible resources of Chinese nationalism. Nevertheless, uneven development and rising inequalities will create ever-bigger problems of governance. What follows in both countries may turn out to be less rather than more democracy—and a lot of chaos.

Pankaj Mishra’s most recent book is From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals who Remade Asia. This article appeared in the December 31, 2012 issue of the magazine under the headline “Cheap Knockoff.”