Let’s begin with China, where things are moving fast, and then move on to India, where at some point of time the economy may unravel fast.
China: The country is moving closer and closer to a tipping point, but which may still be a few years away. Of course, a tipping point is hard to predict, but disquiet in China’s population will only increase as the prosperity increases and newer generations do not have the experiences of Cultural Revolution to think themselves as very well off in relative terms. Instead, as the Chinese become addicted to global trends, and soon to a kind of thought homogenisation that being a global citizen often involves, a boredom and a consequent disaffection with a single-party system are bound to arise. What is happening right now in Hong Kong is a case in point: the ingredients are usual and familiar. A widening inequality between the (lower) middle classes and the rich class, a stagnating economy, the perception of resources (jobs, real estate, breathing space) being stolen away by outsiders (mainland Chinese, both settlers and tourists), a deaf government: this is the stuff that has been behind the recent re-emergence of the right wing in Europe. With one exception: while Europe’s intellectuals often belong to the elites, China’s intellectuals often are not part of the elite. (When I say elite, I mean the ones who hold power in their hands directly or indirectly, who move in the upper social circles, who have a greater measure of influence over policies and policymakers.) This appears at first glance to be ironic, given that being well educated makes a Chinese person refined, gives him or her the status that mere wealth doesn’t: education (by which it doesn’t simply imply a degree on paper) is everything in China, and without it, you are merely a lout, even if you were a billionaire. Thus there is a gulf, primarily of perception rather than opportunity, between a well-educated person and one who is not. At the same time, if you look deeper into it, you will understand why China’s intellectuals often do not have to come from or belong to an elite class. Because education in China has remained so important for around two thousand years of its history, and because a system of education, including tough civil service exams, has been there on the ground in China for these two millennia and accessible for everyone (rather than the limiting, elite-serving public schools of England or ashrams of India, both of which have also had limited time periods of existence historically), any person in China, by dint of hard work, has been able to gain the respect of everyone, and has thus become a fine civil servant or a poet or a warrior, and yet remained within the class of people, beloved by the people around him, rather than becoming as something of a far-removed elite. There has been thus always, much before the American dream or even American state itself existed, a Chinese dream: though noting at the same time that the Chinese have traditionally strove for harmony, for balance, whereas the American has been aiming at one-uppance. But it is important to know this, because for the first time probably in Chinese history, the woof of the striving for harmony is getting warped by envy, by dreams of one-uppance. Inequality in China today is at its peak: it is no more enough to work hard, be a brilliant scholar or civil servant or warrior, be good at what you do. In fact, while the traditional respect for education continues intact, one also needs to be rich now: for otherwise, it would be difficult to send your children to a good school (which costs free, but living anywhere near it is costly), to not work like a slave, to stand out among the hundreds of millions who are going through the same routines. Once education becomes an assembly operation at the scale of millions, it starts producing a spirit of contestation, a disharmony, a perception of injustice, neglect and even despair. That is something that has been happening in Europe for quite some time, is going to happen soon in India and has just started to happen in China. (It is difficult to happen at a significant scale in the U.S., for it is a land which receives well-qualified immigrants, it values money over everything else, and also where many are educated, but not well educated, when it comes to homegrown population. The U.S. will continue to be a unique case, as long as it remains the destination of choice for talent from the world over.) Things in China are exacerbated because the government prefers its young (and old) citizens to remain dumb about politics and world affairs: a good way to do this is to orient the people towards a world of pop stars, fashion and luxury. While pop stars can be consumed from near and far (e.g., on a CCTV gala show shown on your television set) by you and me, fashion and especially luxury may be accessible to you, but only a dream for me, lacking enough resources. And thus the discontent starts boiling over: how many times can you paint the cage in newer colours to manage to keep the imprisoned bird happy? This is where the trade war hurts China: it increases costs for Chinese businesses, and eventually for the man on the street. Costs rise, and as always it’s those on the bottom who face the danger of being pushed into oblivion once costs rise above a threshold, inequality worsens, the pop stars continue to be ooh-aahed over, the graduates keep getting churned out, the perception of injustice intensifies. The Hong Kong situation, while of course compounded by its colonial history, is but an early precursor to what may happen in China in a generation’s time.
India: As a drought rages on, with floods in some parts, India’s inept political class continues to make the country flounder, and the situation is only going to be worse in the decade to come. India’s economy was (and continues to be) spectacularly mismanaged by the BJP government, which has been voted back to power for its machismo: a colonised people with a deep-set inferiority complex were always going to give the batons back to bravado, without caring for the substance. India has always been on the wrong path since becoming ‘India’: Nehru, an atheist, and after having seen the mass upheavals of a partition instigated by narrow meanings of faith, wanted to wean India off from its religious roots, and keeping India an agrarian-based economy would never have allowed that. Thus, India’s industrial future was born: which never really got off the ground, except to some extent in the automobile sector, since the country, in short, was not ready for the very change to its nature: from a balance-striving spiritual, peaceful land to an efficiency-seeking material, restless world. This, and not the China war, was Nehru’s biggest mistake; this was also Gandhi’s mistake in not looking beyond Nehru and Patel, both. (We live in interesting times that everything is blamed on Nehru, but no one thinks of this.) Look at France, Canada, Australia: they are all well developed economically, and they are all agrarian-based societies. Yes, they have good industrial sectors, but those countries, their economies, are powered by their agriculture. But India chose to fritter away its strength and tie its population to a rote-learning, neighbour-envying, vapid culture of aspirant engineers, doctors and MBAs. Even after the green and white revolutions of the 1960s, India, a land blessed with fertile soil and good climatic conditions, did not choose to play to its strength: what was needed, and is still sorely needed, was hundreds of silos, local processing units and cold chain warehouses, and transportation networks to sustain the above, which would not only have made India into a global powerhouse but also managed to retain its traditional lifestyles, culture and diversity of crops. Even today, it won’t be too late to attempt it. Instead, in India, we have been imitating the West (rather, what we think as Western) in everything, most notably the import of nationalism, and amid the feeling of inferiority that has justifiably taken root in us, we clutch straws of some ancient, imagined glorious Vedic heritage to tide over our dysfunctional present. The very first duty of a state to its people is that they tide over the matter of survival: if a human being remains tied to it, then he or she can often not progress further. Poverty, collapsing bridges, a corrupt policeman, some lustful politician, terror from within and outside, a greedy doctor: if people live in abject fear, the state has failed miserably. By now, we should have come to the stage where we have surpassed the fate of other animals of the wild, we are quite certain about survival and we can think of creative options to our life. (That doesn’t always happen: witness the grand arrival of complacency in Scandinavia when survival became a near certainty. Think also of why Vamana kicked Mahabali into patala.) But Nehru chose the industrial path, ill suited to India, and from there on, we have only progressed to bullet trains and smart cities and whatever else looks, or at least sounds, spectacular: and as we are ill suited to all of this, of course this will happen, but shoddily, unspectacularly, with interminable delays, with more promises of the spectacular. In the mean time, the spirit of contestation rises, as the assembly system produces more and more graduates (who, on top of it, are often not as well qualified as, for example, in China), the falling back accelerates and with that a self-perpetuating, intertwined cycle of inferiority complex, envy and violence becomes more and more rapid. At some stage, the party in power may need to bring in surveillance tactics and tools, as in China, so as to completely de-humanise a human being, to surveil ‘it’ better: that should preclude the possibility of losing power to anyone else. But India, of course, is still hard to summarise, it’s still complex, though homogenising now under the influence of nationalism, IPL and a raucous media, and the very nature of India, the same that makes it ill suited to become an industrial mecca, sustains hope that in a remote future the spiral will turn to better days, better ideas. What India is in the dire need of, it is the salve of meekness. It will take time to come, if it does at all, for currently they are led by a man of all hubris and hardly any humility or intelligence. A society’s leader after all only is a mirror of the majority that composes that society and their values, and this even more so in a democracy.