India’s biggest problem is its old and tired leadership

Financial Times, July 20, 2011

Corruption in India is not only pervasive but threatens to reach predatory levels. This has spurred pessimism in some quarters about India’s future. Such gloom, however, misses the larger picture.

No nation’s potential can be measured by one yardstick alone. Corruption poses a serious challenge to India, but to contend that it will block India’s great-power ambitions is to forget history. The United States, for example, rose as a world power in spite its robber barons. And now China is demonstrating that rampant corruption is no barrier to a country’s dramatic rise on the world stage.

The pessimists also miss out one key development in India – there is already a public backlash against corruption that has galvanised judicial activism, sent several important politicians to jail, put the government on the defensive, and created new crusading icons. Contrast this with the Chinese system, which reeks of unbridled and unchecked corruption, with the public helpless.

In world history, periods of rapid economic growth have often been accompanied by rising wealth and income inequality and widespread corruption. It took the US more than half a century to bring the era of robber barons to an end, although big-bucks corruption still remains a challenge. In India, the backlash against crooked politicians and entrepreneurs – and the public campaign for cleaner politics and business practices – has started in earnest barely two decades after the advent of rapid growth.

India’s economic and military rise is threatened neither by corruption nor by its ethnic diversity. India has demonstrated that unlike the traditionally homogenous societies of East Asia, a nation can manage diversity – and thrive on it. As one of the oldest and most-assimilative civilisations in the world, India can truly play the role of a bridge between the East and the West.

Rather, India’s rise is threatened by a political factor – a leadership deficit, which is compounded by a splintered polity. India is still governed by a pre-independence leadership – an anomaly even in Asia, where age is supposed to be wisdom. India today boasts the world’s oldest head of government and oldest foreign minister. Old, tired, risk-averse leadership can hardly propel any country to greatness. Worse, India’s coalition federal governments, which have become a norm, tend to function by the rule of parochial politics – in fact, by the lowest common denominator.

Yet, democracy remains India’s greatest asset. It not only helps instil fear among the corrupt, but also makes India’s future less uncertain than China’s.

The writer is professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, and the author of ‘Asian Juggernaut’ and ‘Water: Asia’s New Battlefield’.

(c) FT, 2011.