Battle for supremacy
Reviewed by Parshotam Mehra

India and China: The Battle between Soft and Hard Power
By Prem Shankar Jha.
Penguin/Viking. Pages ix + 398. Rs 599.

THERE is no dearth of literature on India and China; to be candid, there is a veritable glut. No wonder the sophisticated reader finds it difficult, if not indeed impossible, to separate the grain from the chaff. In this unenviable task, this book comes handy. At once scholarly and well researched, it is an attempt at a good understanding of much that is happening in the two neighbouring lands. And insofar as its author is an astute observer of the Indian political and social scene, who has of late also made a serious if detailed study of the Chinese economy, his book deserves notice. Comparisons are odious at best but this appears to be balanced—and reasonably fair.

The aam adami or the average reader in this country carries the impression that while Beijing is forging ahead, New Delhi is a laggard and trails way behind. That one is by no means on the same pedestal as the other. A visitor to China is struck by the gigantic strides its people have registered in agriculture, industry, technological skills, infrastructure, etc. In the cities and towns, especially those on the tourist circuit, one is struck by the relative prosperity of the people one accosts—on the road, in the railway train, at the air terminal. More, it is by no means easy to locate pockets of raw poverty unless one repairs deep into the hinterland of Yunnan or Sichuan, Tibet or Xinjiang for that matter.

To say all this is not to unsay that New Delhi is not important in the counsels of the world or nearer home lags far too behind its Chinese neighbour. To start with, it has a proud record not only of not going under in the global recession that holds the world today in its vicious grip but has registered a significant positive growth in its economy. Its agriculture may not be in robust health or booming but still compares favourably with some of those in the front row. Its business and industry are on the upswing, too. What Jha’s book is trying to tell us is that projections for the future for both countries are somewhat overblown for the economic data by itself is not relevant. Here, the societal transitions and transformations that are concurrently taking place are of the utmost significance and both countries face daunting problems if indeed doughty challenges on these counts. And unless they make a success of it and tackle such conflict and contention that political change invariably brings in its wake, their future would be far from secure.

In the first few years that followed the revival of investment and growth in 2003, the bits and pieces of India’s piecemeal economic reforms began to fall into shape. The growth of GDP accelerated to an average of 8.9 per cent from 2003 to 2007-8 with the result that there was a palpable improvement in the quality of life. Employment also began to rise much faster. These years marked a surge in tax revenues of the central and state governments which increased from 14.4 per cent of GDP in 2003 to 17.8 per cent in 2007-8. Increase in national savings too registered an upswing, they rose to 14 per cent of GDP.

China, Jha is emphatic, "lacks" the political institutions that absorb social and political conflicts born out of growth. And, more importantly, reconcile growth with equity. India has them both but through neglect and sheer cussedness let them atrophy. The two powers’ ability to contain this rising social threat, the author is strongly persuaded, "cannot be taken for granted". More to the point, the global recession that hit the world in September 2008 has made the task of both China and India "harder". China’s future conflicts, if any, will be over regional and local issues with its neighbours, not with the established industrial powers. Two obvious ones are a declaration of independence by Taiwan and the outbreak of a general uprising in greater Tibet, encouraged and supported by the exile government in Dharamsala. For the international community, it should follow, for the task would be the "management", not the "containment", of China.

The author who has had a long and distinguished career as an academic and visiting scholar focuses mainly on developments in both countries so as to analyse the social and political conflicts that the market has unleashed and their successes—and failures—in trying to contain them. A work of considerable scholarship and in-depth research and analysis, Jha’s book merits serious study.