Democracy and Economic Development in India


Well once again I must apologize for a prolonged silence. These past two weeks I have been travelling through parts of India most particularly Delhi and Agra and then through Rajasthan – Jaipur, Udaipur, Jodhpur and Jesilmar – etc.  This trip was deliberately far from the more rarified halls of global governance discourse.  It is always good to step away from the conference schedules and think tank encounters. Such action is an effort to get some tangible feel for the country.  But I always find it is well worth it – no more so than India.  India from the palaces and forts and bazaars is, as I found, an endlessly fascinating place.  The colors, smells and busy human activities are enticing and suggest possibilities for the future for this ancient/new land.

One of the continuing discussions I had with one of our Indian hosts was the state of progress for economic development in India.  This discussion emerged in a generally jocular discussion over the state of India’s roads.  But there was also a serious discussion as well.  It was an experience travelling on the roads through Rajasthan and Utter Pradesh.  They were, however, from a North American perspective – but for one road/expressway – quite dreadful.  The expressway was terrible for another reason that I shall relate in a moment.

These roads were filled with an enormous variety of vehicles from camel-pulled or buffalo-pulled carts, to the famous tuk tuks, to large trucks and small, bicycles and the ever-present motorbikes, all crowded on to generally badly paved and far too small carriageways.  But enough of the description.  The roads in fact are emblematic of a much larger societal issue – the tension between democracy in India – which as best as I could tell is alive and well – and the demands of development, market growth and prosperity more generally.  The ongoing discourse went something like this: the roads are inadequate for the demands of commerce, the market and people.  Their inefficiency burdens the movement of people and goods throughout the nation.  On the other side a strong Indian push back.  You, meaning me, see the roads from a “western perspective”.  These roads are satisfactory for Indian needs; Indians don’t crave what the system in North America provides.

Now it is not to say there are aren’t some expressways – I travelled on one – the Yamuna Expressway from Agra to Noida – about 10 km outside Delhi.  It is an amazing – amazing especially in the context of highways in India – but it was largely empty.  Most notably absent were the trucks – the big colorful loaded trucks.   There were some evident features that explained this rather haunting emptiness.  First there were almost no exits from Agra to Noida.  Truckers I was told prefer to connect from one community to another – offloading and taking on goods. That is impossible on this super expressway and in addition the stops really don’t accommodate trucker lifestyle, which includes stops conversation and sleep.  The end result is a magnificent highway for the tourists and individual vehicle occupants – that’s it.  Thus the critical goods and services transport is assigned to secondary hugely overcrowded roads.  Indeed in our travel from Delhi to Jaipur we ended up in a several hour delay surrounded by trucks in a very narrow stretch of this so-called main road.

So why are the roads the way they are?  And do the state of the roads threaten economic development?  Let’s look at the first issue – the terrible state of the highway network.  Here the tension with democratic wishes is evident.  Voters in the rural areas – a powerful influence in India – don’t set a high priority in enlarging and improving the road system.  This is especially the case where enlargement and improvement requires the confiscation and compensation of rural folk principally farmers.  Most farmers – with little enough land as it is – want nothing to do with shaving off portions of precious land.  Opposition abounds.  Politicians in India are not blind to the opposition and the voter impact.  So roads aren’t built, or they are built without reference to need.  Now obviously there are alternatives especially rail.  But don’t get me started on that.  My experience tells me that the rail system suffers from serious infrastructure underfunding, but I’ll need to explore further on that.

Now I don’t have the numbers on cost and time delivery but I have to assume that what I saw really suggests an inefficient costly system.  It is why many experts have come to believe that in the contest for economic growth and prosperity China and no India will achieve the better results in raising the poor from poverty.  Steven Rattner, a long time Wall Street financier and some time public policy participant has recently drawn that conclusion in a January piece in the New York Times entitled “India is Losing the Race”:

Many Westerners fervently hoped that a democratic country would triumph economically over an autocratic regime.  Now the contest is emphatically over. China has lunged into the 21st century, while India is still lurching toward it.  That’s evident not just in columns of dry statistics but in the rhythm and sensibility of each country. While China often seems to eradicate its past as it single-mindedly constructs its future, India nibbles more judiciously at its complex history. … Democratic it may be, but India’s ability to govern is compromised by suffocating bureaucracy, regular arm-wrestling with states over prerogatives like taxation and deeply embedded property rights that make implementing China-scale development projects impossible.

Maybe we “westerners” do not have the right frame of reference, as suggested by my Indian colleague, but I am willing to commit to a standard of economic growth, opportunity and increasing prosperity for India’s poor.  And right now India’s politics are failing India’s economic development needs.

What do you think?

Image Credit:


The Inflation Tiger – Rising

The announced inflation rate for China signaled again the emergence of inflation as a serious global economic issue.  At the moment it lies principally with large emerging market countries notably in China, India and Brazil.

The Chinese government has targeted 4 percent.  But China’s consumer prices rose at 5.4 percent on a year-on-year basis in March.  This level represents the biggest inflation jump since July 2008.

Meanwhile in India inflation rose at almost 9 percent in March after rising 8.3 percent in February.

Finally, in Brazil the consumer price benchmark rose to 6.44 percent, which is the fastest rate in 2 years.

These major emerging economies are responding with increases in interest rates.  Thus, China’s central bank announced recently its fourth increase in cash reserves for the large banks in China.  These banks must now set aside 20.5 percent  of their cash reserves representing an increase of half percent.  It is then hoped that banks in will reduce their loans to take account of the need to retain larger cash reserves.

Brazil raised its central bank rate to 12 percent representing a quarter point increase – this after two previous increases of a half percentage each.  This interest rate is the highest of any major economy.

All these emerging markets, and others, plus developing countries are experiencing significant increases in food prices as well as energy prices.  The interest rates and inflation rates appear to contrast with the traditional economies – the US core rate rose at 1.2 percent, though the CPI is at 2.7 percent and Europe with a 2.7 percent increase though this represents the highest rate in two years. This increase though significantly lower than the large emerging markets has prompted an interest rate rise by the European Central Bank.

The rising emerging market rates – have helped fuel the appreciation of their currency – the Real has risen some 40 percent since early 2009.  Yet this interest rate efforts  – to deal with inflation – have had the perverse effect of only further encouraging capita inflows precisely what the the Brazilian government, for example, has been trying to staunch since it only causes the currency to further appreciate.  China does not suffer from this vicious cycle only because its currency is managed – indeed presumably significantly undervalued – as argued by US officials and others.

Where does this leave the large emerging markets.  For China the rising inflation may encourage a more rapid appreciation of its currency. Wage and product price increases may likely follow and the virtual circle where China growth and lower pricing may come to an end.  China may well export inflation as well as goods.  India may do the same.

For Brazil there are strong voices urging that the Brazilians need to shift to their own form of managed currency (see Roberto Luis Troster’s  Feature of the Week at the Munk School Portal) to constrain the vicious cycle of inflation and interest rate hikes leading to further currency appreciation.

The Inflation Tiger is indeed dangerous.

The Lure of Bollywood – Another Celebrity Front

The global reach of Bollywood is increasing apparent. As just one illustration, Toronto Canada has been full of buzz this week due to the visit of Slumdog Millionaire star Anil Kapoor and the announcement that the City will host the International Indian Film Academy conference and awards this upcoming June.

The question is whether or not the power of Bollywood could (or even should) be mobilized as a component of celebrity diplomacy.

When I visited India in early 2008 after my book on Celebrity Diplomacy came out I considered this a good idea and wrote about it at the time.

Struck by the “soft power potential” of the Indian film industry across South Asia, West Asia and Africa, I suggested, “If [film stars] can go through some training by the government, they can be a huge asset for the country.”

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in June 2008 publically endorsed such an approach, noting India’s ‘soft power’, especially the film industry, can be put to use as “a very important instrument of foreign policy”.

Yet, what has been revealed by WikiLeaks is not a concerted effort by India to mobilize the influence of Bollywood star power. Rather the push came from the US as part of a wider campaign of public diplomacy with regard to two sensitive and interconnected domains.

On one front the US attempted to mobilize Bollywood film directors to fight militancy within the UK’s Muslim community. According to the reports from WikiLeaks the US sent two senior diplomats to London in October 2007 amid growing concern about the rise of radicalism among Muslim youths in Britain. The diplomats met Foreign Office officials, the International Development minister (the UK’s first Muslim MP), and a number of leading British Asian film-makers. The US diplomats reported that “Bollywood actors and executives agreed to work with the USG to promote anti-extremist messages through third party actors and were excited about the idea of possibly partnering with Hollywood as well.”

On another front WikiLeaks cables reveal that US diplomats made a proposal to India that it send Bollywood stars to tour Afghanistan to help international efforts to stabilize the country. In a confidential March 2007 cable a request was apparently made from Washington for “specific, concrete ideas for opportunities for India to use soft power in helping Afghanistan’s reconstruction”.

Although there is no apparent sign that either of these proposals were acted upon in a concerted fashion, such strategic thinking is indicative that state-based diplomats have an appreciation of the power of popular culture. At the same time, however, initiatives along these lines also showcase the need to debate not only the composition of the actors who animate celebrity diplomacy but the motivations for, and the focus of, those activities.

Prevailing Winds and India

I had the great pleasure of attending a presentation at the C.D. Howe Institute here in Toronto by Montek Singh Ahluwalia, currently the Deputy Chairman Planning Commission of India.  Unfortunately these sessions, probably wisely, are undertaken as off-the-record discussions.  So, I cannot comment directly on what was said.

Mr. Ahluwalia has had a very distinguished public career spanning the World Bank, the IMF, the Ministry of Commerce and the Ministry of Finance in India as well as a special secretary to the Prime Minister in the latter eighties. His appointments, writings and research point to what can only be described as a thoroughly erudite public servant.

Not surprisingly the focus of questions centred on the state of India’s economy in the midst of the global financial Continue reading

India’s Dilemma I

I had the pleasure recently of reading two very valuable papers on India.  Both examine the challenge for this emerging great power, and the challenge for the traditional great powers, in India gaining great power leadership in global governance.  The first piece is written by Barbara Crossette, formerly of the New York Times and George Perkovich, Vice President for Studies and Director of the Nonproliferation Program at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.  In addition there is a commentator, C. Raja Mohan, a Professor of South Asian Studies at the S. Rajaratram School of International Studies at Nanyang Technical University, Singapore.

The article and the accompanying commentator article are entitled “India: The Ultimate Test of Free-Market Democracy.” This piece is one in the series “Power & Principles: International Leadership in a Shrinking World,” commissioned by the Stanley Foundation.   For anyone concerned with the emergence of the great powers in global governance, this series is well worth tackling.  As the Stanley Foundation describes it, this series “is designed to identify plausible actions and trends Continue reading