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Analysis: India's invisible achievements

By MARTIN SIEFF, UPI Senior News Analyst   |   March 29, 2002 at 12:36 PM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, March 29 (UPI) -- Has India's history since independence been a sad case of economic chaos and continual misery punctuated by assassinations and political chaos? From the tone of much U.S. media coverage, you would be forgiven for thinking so. But that Conventional Wisdom is wrong.

Democratic India has enjoyed a far worse press in the United States over the past 20 years than has giant, totalitarian China to the north. While China's dramatic economic progress following the reforms of Paramount Leader Deng Xiaoping was closely followed, India's own more modest but solidly successful reforms and growth over the past decade until recently was not.

This in part reflects the traditional American obsession with China, back to the days of 19th century Protestant missionaries and the popular novels in the 1930s of Pearl Buck. By contrast India, which was part of the British Empire until its independence in 1947, was always outside the traditional areas of U.S. interest and influence.

For decades U.S. policy toward Asia was shaped by Secretary of State John Hay's insistence that America maintain an "open door" into China. No U.S. leaders during that time ever made any comparable demands for an "open door" into British-ruled India.

After India's Independence in 1947, things got worse, not better.

Although India remained a stable, democratic and reliable member of the British-led Commonwealth of Nations, it also staked out an independent Third World "Non-Aligned" role for itself in the 1950s and from the mid-1970s looked to the Soviet Union as its crucial geopolitical partner in Asia.

These moves did not endear it to successive U.S. leaders during the nearly half century of the Cold War. Republican presidents in particular like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan far preferred to deal with a more compliant -- as it appeared then -- Pakistan.

Yet even before the economic free market liberalization reforms of the 1990s, India's development record compared spectacularly well with China's or, indeed, with any Third World or newly independent, formerly colonized nation in the world.

India has never suffered catastrophic civil wars such as killed at least 3 million people in Nigeria in 1967-70. It has never suffered any genocidal slaughters such as killed up to a million people in only a month in Rwanda in 1994, or up to 3 million people in the "Killing Fields" of Cambodia at the hands of the communist Khmer Rouge in the mid-1970s.

Most strikingly of all, India, for all its supposed economic efficiency in through much of the century, never suffered a single major famine after independence. China, by contrast, lost 25 million dead during the famine created by Chairman Mao Zedong's "Great Leap Forward" economic policies from 1958 to 1961. Even more than Soviet leader Josef Stalin's starving to death of 10 million Ukrainians in the forced collectivization of 1929-32, it was the greatest famine catastrophe of the 20th century.

By contrast, India's population has doubled from around 500 million at independence from Britain in 1947 to more than 1 billion today. Yet during the same time period, the average life expectancy of its people has more than doubled from age 27 then to age 65 now. Indeed, India's billion people today enjoy a greater life expectancy than Russian men.

During the same period of time, the number of people beneath India's catastrophic poverty line has shrunk from 75 percent, or 370 million people, in 1947, to 27 percent, or 270 million, today. There has been, therefore a drop of 80 million in total numbers, an immensely impressive figure all by itself, but astonishing when considered in the context of a rapidly growing enormously population that literally doubled during that period of time.

Today, even though India only attracts between only 7 percent to 5 percent of the annual foreign investment that China does, it enjoys healthy annual gross domestic product growth rates of 6 percent to 7 percent and has comfortable reserves of around $50 billion in foreign exchange.

Also, the nation that under British rule was a byword for poverty and repeated, cyclical, supposedly unavoidable famines now enjoys a stock of 60 million tons of food grains as an emergency reserve. It has even been able to contribute a million tons of grain to Afghanistan to help relieve the current famine there.

The passionate, grassroots, even existential identification with democracy of India's people lies at the heart of these achievements. Democracy has given India the rule of law, an independent judiciary and a flourishing, combative free and fiercely independent press.

Its parliamentary democratic system has often slowed economic progress down. But it has also enjoyed that catastrophic policies or blunders, both economic and repressive, cannot go unchecked for long. And it has maintained a boisterous, combative remarkably successful and stable national consensus, allowing repeated smooth changes of government between left and right wing parties without the threat of civil war or bloody purges.

The late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's attempt to undermine national democracy through the imposition of nationwide martial law was a spectacular failure and led to her -- unexpected -- humiliating defeat in the next parliamentary elections. And that, in turn, led to the almost immediate repeal of her hugely unpopular effort to impose mass forced sterilizations on India's women. Communist China, by contrast, encouraged for decades a policy that may have led to the abortion or infanticide of up to 200 million unborn or new born girls.

Democracy, as Winston Churchill liked to say, is the worst, most ineffective form of government there is, except, of course, for all the others. The remarkable and almost universally overlooked achievements of India in its three quarters of a century of national independence confirm his words.

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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