India seems unable to match China on technocratic talent

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In a historical shift, India is surpassing China to become the world’s most populous country. But the question of whether India can realize its demographic dividend and outperform ageing China economically does not go far enough. More attention is due to a fundamental and oddly neglected issue: whether India’s government has the technocratic capacity to transform the country into a major economic, scientific and tech power like China.

In a historical shift, India is surpassing China to become the world’s most populous country. But the question of whether India can realize its demographic dividend and outperform ageing China economically does not go far enough. More attention is due to a fundamental and oddly neglected issue: whether India’s government has the technocratic capacity to transform the country into a major economic, scientific and tech power like China.

For more than half a century since Mao Zedong’s calamitous Cultural Revolution, well-educated leaders have mapped China’s trajectory to modernization. Mao devised quack solutions for China’s challenge of rapid industrialization, such as making steel in family backyards. But his colleagues began to check his ideological excesses even while he was alive. Since Deng Xiaoping’s momentous tenure, China has seemed able to tap its available intellectual potential no matter who is in power. Cheng Li, director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution, argues in a forthcoming book that Chinese President Xi Jinping, considered more autocratic than his predecessors, has empowered a new generation of experts in IT, aerospace, 5G, robotics, AI and more. Many of these technocrats have experience competing globally at China’s state-owned enterprises.

For more than half a century since Mao Zedong’s calamitous Cultural Revolution, well-educated leaders have mapped China’s trajectory to modernization. Mao devised quack solutions for China’s challenge of rapid industrialization, such as making steel in family backyards. But his colleagues began to check his ideological excesses even while he was alive. Since Deng Xiaoping’s momentous tenure, China has seemed able to tap its available intellectual potential no matter who is in power. Cheng Li, director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution, argues in a forthcoming book that Chinese President Xi Jinping, considered more autocratic than his predecessors, has empowered a new generation of experts in IT, aerospace, 5G, robotics, AI and more. Many of these technocrats have experience competing globally at China’s state-owned enterprises.

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Observers of India will struggle to find a comparable consolidation of talent at the highest levels of the country’s political and economic leadership. India’s civil service, unlike China’s, is a legacy of British rule. Originally meant to enforce law and order and collect revenue, it implements welfare schemes and development plans now. Though increasingly diverse, this bureaucracy does not seem as well-equipped as China’s to tackle complex challenges.

This is hardly because India lacks talent. A handful of educational institutions in India have produced arguably the most impressive global intelligentsia of any non-Western country. Indians today occupy senior positions across Western academic, financial and corporate institutions. Indeed, the Chinese diaspora in the West, though longer established, can’t match the impact and visibility of the Indian diaspora. Yet, it would be misleading to draw a picture of India’s intellectual capacity and potential by looking at Sundar Pichai of Google and Microsoft’s Satya Nadella. Indeed, they are a reminder of how much Indian talent exists outside of India (or is eager to leave).

The occasional homecoming is rarely successful. Take, for instance, Raghuram Rajan, former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund. Invited in 2013 by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to head the Reserve Bank of India, Rajan returned to the US in 2016. His criticism of crony capitalism and ideological extremism in India did not endear him to the regime led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Since Rajan’s departure, new appointees appear to have compromised the independence of India’s central bank, with other major institutions, from financial regulatory bodies to universities and security and intelligence agencies, are not faring much better.

Facts and data in India often appear increasingly fudged; political expediency seem to have blocked even a routine national census that would shed light on India’s population. Today, it’s questionable whether a system of government that hinges on power of the kind Modi wields can help accelerate India’s modernization beyond a point, no matter how many infrastructure projects he inaugurates. Nor can this essential task be left to the ‘invisible hand’ of the market. China has powerfully demonstrated that nations that start belatedly on the task of economic modernization need long-term policy and coordinated action by a dedicated national elite consisting of bureaucrats and technocrats as well as political leaders.

Modi’s own educational credentials aren’t the issue. Nor is his Bharatiya Janata Party’s Hindu nationalism an obstacle by itself. Pragmatic-minded nationalists can learn on the job. But the regime displays elements of Mao-style, arbitrary decision-making, illustrated pointedly by India’s devastating policy of demonetization. The ruling party also seems to have prioritized its own cultural revolution against India’s previous, highly educated ruling class above all else. After nine years in power, references are still made to the BJP being victimized by entrenched secular elites. What are seen as bastions of social and educational privilege often come under fire.

Rather than catching up with China, India seems to be replicating China’s past, when ideological fervour and indoctrination of the masses disastrously took priority over social stability, political cohesion and economic growth. The world’s new largest country may need fresh leaders before it can realize its immense intellectual as well as demographic dividend.©bloomberg

Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist.

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