Super economies: The third angle

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Published: May 31, 2015 12:37:41 AM

In just a year of the Modi government, Raghav Bahl predicts India to be a possible super economy of the future, but furnishes little evidence as support.

Super economies : America, India, China and the Future of the World
Raghav Bahl
Penguin
Rs699
Pp 416

PLAYING GOD is possibly easier than providing a sense of direction where the complex interplay of China, India and the US would lead to.

Guiding human beings must be a complex affair; when they create three continent-sized nation states like these three, one assumes the almighty, too, would want to take a break than guide them in any pre-set directions.

In less than 20 years since 2000, several key commentators on global affairs have, however, tried to understand this interplay to predict which way the relationship between the US and China will shape up. It has been a fraught exercise. All commentators, including Fareed Zakaria and Thomas Friedman, have argued that the future play would involve ceding of some space as super power by the US to China.

Despite a now accelerating rate of growth, the US, it is presumed, would be at best doing a holding operation. The rest of the world is going to be a loosely cobbled group of nations inimical to China on some or the other issue, but largely spread out like a fan around the Middle Kingdom.Raghav Bahl has added India to the salad. As Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi completed a fairly extensive visit to China earlier this month, it is worth asking if India belongs there as an ingredient, or is added as a dressing.

Bahl argues that it is possible to view this century as interplay between Beijing, Washington DC, and New Delhi. It is a line of thought one had presumed was banished as soon as the acronym BRICS went out of favour, but he argues that the return of a strong government in India in 2014 could change all that.

But after working the hypothesis in, he doesn’t adduce much evidence in support. The portents are there, but one year is possibly too short a time for them to show up as an impact. For instance, he does not stay too much with the evidence that despite a slowdown, as measured by the old GDP series, India was still above 4.5% in FY14. A growth engine purring at this speed is a striking demonstration that there is plenty of unused energy in the pipes that has just got to be tapped. It is consequently not the make of the policies one assumes, but in their implementation mostly where India has suffered in the past decade.

If domestic economic policies need time to show impact, there is another area where results can show up faster. The last time world opinion feted India, the policy mandarins were startled and behaved as a bashful bride glowing in the recognition. This time around, as Prime Minister Modi went about covering 19 countries, there is none of that. It could be an advantage, as perceptions in world capitals can be set by who starts the conversation.

And India has often been reticent about beginning those conversations. In the chapter Neutral No More, the author provides a detailed look about how the global engagement with Myanmar gradually aligned with the Indian position of engaging both Suu Kyi and the ruling junta. In fact, reading him, it is clear that Myanmar has been one of India’s clear foreign policy victories. The gradual erosion of China’s leverage with India’s south-east neighbour is a sub-text mostly glossed over within India. He draws attention to it.

The US’ move from its position of regime change to engagement with Myanmar and General Thein Sein’s move to scuttle the $3.6-billion Myitsone Project, which would have supplied power to China at the cost of pouring environmental damage on his state, are huge examples of how India has scored in this region. Yet after narrating those details, the chapter, possibly written before Modi went there, has little further to add. For instance, could it become the theatre in the emerging great game folio between India, China and the US? Just sample the others—in the past one year, Modi’s team has announced an Act East Policy, has offered aid to Mongolia lying within China’s sphere of influence, offered a currency swap with Sri Lanka and asserted hegemony in Maldives.

The first 11 of the Modi blitzkrieg were in Asia, of which 10 were in the Indian Ocean rim. Taken together, they are chains in the growing evidence of how India is taking to its role of a super economy with more willingness. There is a risk, however, in laying out possible scenarios of the new game of economic attrition, but that is what the readers would expect from him.

The volume takes off from where his earlier book, SuperPowers signed off. It assumes that the question, if the Indian tortoise can overtake the Chinese hare, is not relevant any more. The nature of the race has changed, with both playing to their economic strengths. The key element would be their staying power, so in a sense both are racing against themselves. It is a tantalising plot he has etched. The filling in of the details will possibly come later.

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