Alan Philps Aug 3, 2012
For the best part of a century the provision of electrical power has been one of the touchstones of development. It was Lenin who declared in 1920 that “electrification of the whole country” would create the communist paradise in Russia. So it is no surprise that the world’s largest power cut – two days this week when more than 600 million people across India were deprived of electricity – has made headlines across the world.
India has plenty of disasters – not least this year’s failing monsoon rains – but the power cut has reinforced a feeling that India’s Congress-led government is beset by drift and muddle. Some commentators conclude that the whole political system is incapable of coping with the challenge India has set itself of being a great power.
Indian newspapers were quick to point out the contradiction between India’s ambitions and its two days by candlelight. Superpower India, RIP and Powerless and Clueless were just two of the headlines.
Just as significant was the fact that the power minister, Sushilkumar Shinde, who took no responsibility for the failure, was coincidentally appointed home affairs minister, one of the top posts in government. The elevation of Mr Shinde, a loyalist of the Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, might make sense in terms of coalition-building. But at that time it seemed like a slap in the face of the electorate.
It does not help that Mr Shinde is 70, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is 79, and Mrs Gandhi herself is suffering from an undisclosed aliment on which the Indian media are silent. Her son, Rahul, heir to the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty that has been in power for most of India’s independence, has yet to show that the family’s mantle sits well on his shoulders.
Last month Time magazine ran a cover picture of Mr Singh under the provocative title The underachiever. Such a title could fit just about any national leader these days (and the Indian press shot back with a similar accusation against President Barack Obama). For some Indians, the Time cover was US revenge against Mr Singh for failing to follow through with plans to liberalise India’s retail market, still dominated by small shopkeepers, which would have opened up a bonanza for the likes of Walmart.
But the brutal fact is that India cannot generate enough electricity.
Campaigners for reform calculate that up to 40 per cent of electricity output is lost in transmission or stolen, often by key political constituencies such as big landowners or slum dwellers whose political support is required at election time. India struggles to produce enough coal or gas to meet rising electricity demand. It would be a very bold government that lifted price caps when it faces a general election in 2014.
Power is ebbing from the centre to the states, where locally based parties are growing in importance. Only a fool would predict the end of Congress. But it is beginning to look less like a dynasty of power-brokers and more like a comforting symbol.
Why does this matter? Why shouldn’t India pedal along as a middling power as it has done for years, a somehow functioning jumble of rich and poor where some extraordinary entrepreneurial talents flourish?
The answer is one word: China. At this moment the contrast between the two Asian great powers could not be greater. Under the rigid authority of the Chinese Communist Party, China has been able to take a long-term, strategic view of its development, pouring billions into improving its infrastructure. It has no ageing leaders: thanks to the terrible legacy of Mao, the party renews its leadership every decade, bringing fresh blood to the top. It too has its disasters due to breakneck growth. Global attention focused on a Chinese bullet train disaster, officially said to be due to design flaws and sloppy management, which caused 40 deaths in December. (By coincidence, 40 people were burnt to death in a train fire in India this week).
At the most simplistic level, the conclusion is that one-party rule is the way of the future. This is hardly fair: China has a history of being a single state going back centuries. India is a patchwork of peoples, languages and religions that might seem ungovernable had it not muddled through since 1947.
But India’s inability to take tough decisions will weaken its development, discourage foreign investment and exacerbate brain drain, or rather discourage Indians who study abroad from returning.
No one wants a “G2” world, where only China and the US are the major powers. It is important that an alternative model to the Communist Party dictatorship is available. Even more so, now that China is flexing its muscles in the region. The pressure exerted by China on a meeting last month of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), which for the first time in its 45-year history failed to issue a communique, shocked the region.
So there are numerous countries that want India as a counterbalance to rising China. But there are more subtle issues: India needs to learn strategic thinking from China, but the real issue is not how to make India more like China, but what China might learn from India.
China’s future is going to be more bumpy than at present. Every Chinese leader recognises that, as society becomes more complex and more people pay taxes, the government has to be more responsive, and devote more time to reducing the tensions caused by its rapid and uneven economic growth. How this will be done is not clear.
At the moment, the Indian democratic model does not offer any guidance. It seems to promise only a corrupt and inefficient bureaucracy, paralysis at the centre, growing regionalism, and a generalised fear of the electorate. That is not attractive to anyone.
It is not surprising that India has growing pains, but this is not just an Indian domestic issue. The world needs India to succeed for the sake of regional balance, now more than ever.