“India’s Principal Challenge”…An Interview with Christopher Jaffrelot

Serge: India is a democracy unlike China, so why compare it to Beijing?

Christopher Jaffrelot: I never make such a comparison in terms of their political systems. For we have effectively on the one hand, a country which combines economic liberalism and political authoritarianism, and on the other hand, despite its imperfections, the biggest democracy in the world.  The comparison suffers from Occidentalism: since we perceive these countries as threats, we put them into the same category without sufficiently seeing their differences.

Guest: In the ongoing economic competition between China and India, do you think the fact that India is democratic is an asset, a hindrance or that political system has no impact?

Christopher Jaffrelot: It’s a hindrance in the short term and an asset in the long-term. That’s to say that India today struggles to develop its infrastructure (roads as well as its railway network) due to the long legal process involved in acquiring land (there’s a respect for private property that frustrates the state’s actions).

On the other hand, India will not be split like China. Again, political authoritarianism and economic liberalism can’t coexist in the long-term. One has today, a debate in India which puts democracy on the hot seat. The middle class is exasperated over the slowness of economic development, tempted by some form of authoritarianism. But, in the end, the Indian trajectory could prove to be more positive than China’s.

Marc : Isn’t there a chance that India could become the leading world power, to China’s detriment when one considers the numerous challenges facing the latter?

Christopher Jaffrelot : From the Indian point of view, the prospect of becoming a major power is located in a far off time. If one looks at indicators, certainly crude but nevertheless important, such as Gross National Product, India’s is two and half times less that of China’s.

Moreover, India cannot stem the growth in its population which could see it surpass China between 2030 to 2040. This means that the GNP per capita will have a long ways to go in catching up to that of China’s.

But if looks ahead to the twenty-first century, one can effectively imagine that sometime this century, India benefits from political stability to catch up with China.

André : Is India, being a democracy and an English-speaking country, not better equipped to adapt to globalization than the communist and non-English speaking China?

Christopher Jaffrelot: English is definitely an asset in an age of globalization. It is moreover possible, that sometime this century, India becomes the biggest English-speaking country in the world. But one shouldn’t underestimate the capacity of the Chinese to achieve an English-speaking education (Chinese constitute the largest foreign-student community on American university campuses), and also, India has not devoted enough resources to mass education. Only seven percent of any given class go on to higher education.

It’s largely in terms of soft power that India takes advantage of its linguistic ability: it “monopolizes” the literary prizes in the United States and in England and this has a lot to do with English’s cultural influence.

Benjamin : What is India’s major asset in the face of Chinese economic power?

Christopher Jaffrelot : The major Indian asset, it’s the small ten percent of its population which comprises the elite, which we can call the middle class as a misnomer. A very well educated elite, skilled in science and engineering, globalized, enterprising, entrepreneurial that has no equivalent in China.  The question is whether knowledge is sufficient to pull the country upwards.  One can worry about the entrenching of inequalities that the blossoming of this elite generates.

Eleuth : What’s the reality of the caste system today in India? To what extent does this system weaken India’s development?

Christopher Jaffrelot: Caste is an extremely complex issue. One can, to simplify, say that caste system rests on a very strict hierarchy, so in terms of status (and even of purity) that of profession. This system has been undermined with the mobilization of the lower castes in favour of greater equality, including through political parties which finally took power in many regions.

In fact, castes, today, are groups of interest in competition more than static elements in a vertical hierarchy.  This contributes to lending a social dimension to Indian democracy. Where class especially hampers social modernization, is in the sphere of education. The untouchables, notably, do not have full access there.

Wolf:  In your opinion, what will India do in the globalization of the 21st century: play its card as the biggest democracy of the world, and so of Asia? Draw closer to China in an Asian partnership? Come to terms with the United States against China in a new “cold war?” Rediscover the paths of power through a traditional alliance with Russia? Or something else?

Christopher Jaffrelot: Something even different, but in the sense that will be a little of each all at once. In the sense that India remained fundamentally a non-aligned country, a country very attached to its sovereignty, to its independence. On the one hand, India did not break with Russia which remains its biggest weapons supplier. On the other hand, India has drawn closer to the United States which has become India’s biggest investor.

But India does not want to enter into a rivalry with China, which is India’s largest trading partner and with which a conflict could be very costly at a time when the credo of these two powers is “let’s get rich!” In any case, India will not enter not into a network of alliances, it will work more through ad hoc coalitions. The most durable one could be the one already informally formed since 2003 with Brazil and South Africa.

Abhwer:  To what extent is India ready to cooperate with Afghanistan to weaken Pakistan?

Christopher Jaffrelot : It’s a question to which there’s no specific response but which is the current question in the region.  In two years, at the latest, NATO forces will have withdrawn from Afghanistan.  India fears that Pakistan will put back not one but two feet in Afghanistan while reviving its support for the Taliban.

The theory that India considers consists of supporting Karzai’s government. Beyond the simple economic and social domain, the two countries already signed a strategic partnership last summer.  One could add to it a strong military dimension but that would come back to wave the red flag in front of the Pakistanis which could cost India dearly in terms of attacks in Afghanistan or on its own territory.

New Delhi:  What could stop Indian power? An economic crisis?  Communal tensions? The risk of war?

Christopher Jaffrelot:  I do not think that India can be stopped by domestic factors. These will simply slow it down. Among them, the entrenching of inequalities is detrimental.

Even if only in a limited sense, the fact that India’s large neighbours are nuclear powers would divert foreign investors of this country.

Salam: Do you believe that India has a special role to play in the Iran crisis with Indians close to Iranians but also possessors of nuclear weapons (without signing the NTP) but partners of the West, notably Americans, with on top of everything, a post of permanent member to the security council of the United Nations?

Christopher Jaffrelot: The Iranian landscape shows us just how uncomfortable India’s positioning can be. On the one hand, Indians don’t want to break with the Iranians because they depend on their hydrocarbons and their port to reach Afghanistan. On the other hand, they can’t ignore the western pressures and the risks of instability that a nuclear Iran could bring to the region. But rather than mediate and serve as a bridge between the West and Iran, India takes refuge in abstention, mortgaging her chances in appearing as a responsible power and in attaining a post of permanent member of the Security Council.

Polo:  In all these considerations, which is above all the principal challenge which India must confront?

Christopher Jaffrelot: India’s principal challenge is human development If India falls under the illusions of its elites, it struggles to reduce mass poverty with international rankings ranking India behind several sub-Saharan African countries in terms of malnutrition, infant mortality, literacy etc.

From: “Le principal défi de l’Inde s’énonce en termes de développement humain,” an interview with Christophe Jaffrelot in Le Monde Diplomatique, March 20, 2012,  http://www.lemonde.fr/international/article/2012/03/20/le-principal-defi-de-l-inde-s-enonce-en-terme-de-developpement-humain_1672805_3210.html

Translated into English by Randeep Purewall

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