July 8, 2006Economy

Puncture Mishra

The 21st century will be India’s (though some people simply won’t get it)

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

In a recent op-ed first published in the New York Times, Pankaj Mishra misunderstands or misrepresents the motivations behind the Bush administration’s policy of reaching out to India: far more than a sop to the Indian-American lobby, it is a result of a keen recognition of America’s long-term geopolitical interests. He misunderstands or misrepresents capitalism: for it is the presence of functioning, well-regulated stockmarkets rather than the movement of their indices that characterises capitalism. He misunderstands or misrepresents electoral politics in India: for every losing Chandrababu Naidu, there is a winning Buddhadeb Bhattacharya. For despite dissing the India shining” story, the coalition government that came to power in 2004 had to put India’s best known reformist in charge.

He misunderstands or misrepresents the nature and demands of jihadi and Naxalite terrorists: for few in India believe that only regular elections will satisfy them. He misunderstands and misrepresents facts about economic growth and reduction of poverty: and these have been pointed out by several commentators. And most surprisingly of all, in spite of being a journalist in Britain and the United States, he misunderstands or misrepresents the foreign media’s coverage of India: by insinuating (not directly alleging, mind you) that publications like Foreign Affairs, The Economist and TIME take their cue from the Bush administration, and also by ignoring what they actually say in some of those articles. But if Mishra is right, what of the New York Times’ unsympathetic treatment of India, the nuclear deal and, for that matter, even its publication of Mishra’s own article? Who did it take its cues from?

Little wonder that he ends up totally misunderstanding and misrepresenting what the new India story is all about: that regardless of its problems (and no one denies it has many), the world—and India—believes that there is a good chance that India will be a 21st century superstar.

But like the metaphorical stopped clock, Mishra did get something right:

Many serious problems confront India. They are unlikely to be solved as long as the wealthy, both inside and outside the country, choose to believe their own complacent myths [IHT/NYT]

Unlike what Mishra suggests this does not constitute a major risk to India’s rise as a global power, which is achievable even at the current, sub-optimal pace. What it means is that Indians—wealthy or otherwise—cannot be complacent and continue debating whether the 1991 reforms worked. Economic freedom and good governance are necessary to accelerate the rate at which Indians improve their lives and livelihoods. However, both the New York Times and the Guardian stand out as a curious platforms to remind Indians—even the wealthy ones, for the foreign wealthy have less care and lesser influence over the state of India’s poor—of the need to shake off complacent myths’.

Indeed it is Mishra’s three-fold misunderstanding of the Mittal example that sums up why he doesn’t get it. First, unlike Google’s Sergey Brin, steel magnate Laxmi Mittal was not only born and educated in India, but he also cut his teeth doing business at home before stepping abroad. Second, the fact that he decided to take on European protectionism before turning his attention to Indian red-tapism suggests that he considered setting up a plant in India a bigger challenge. Absent the red-tape, thousands of Indians would probably have found jobs in the steel industry. Third, that in spite of knowing all this, he still could not ignore India. Credible evidence of India’s emergence as a global economic power comes from the likes of Mittal and IBM who are backing up their opinion with billions of dollars. Mishra’s attempt to pass off the shrinking underbelly as the whole elephant is just cheap talk.

This post also appears on The Indian Economy Blog

Update: Falstaff examines Mishra’s arguments more closely

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