Graduate students doing research on India in the 19803 would be told by their professors that if they wanted to be right about India, it was safer to be pessimistic. Not surprisingly, a deep pessimism had permeated the study of India, and scholars and analysts (when not preoccupied with the exotic maharajahs, the snake charmers, or the Indian rope trick) vied to write about the disintegration of India, the collapse of Indian democracy, and India's inability to break out of the so-called "Hindu rate of growth." Such pessimism was not confined to foreign scholars but also given credibility by distinguished Indians. Bashing India passed for academic objectivity; any hint of optimism was dismissed as the apologia of an emotionally charged nationalist.
But what a difference two decades can make to our perceptions.
Today, India has become the favorite poster child for the success of globalization. It is the most popular destination for corporate board retreats: businessmen, journalists, academics, and in fact all and sundry are headed for India. In 2006 alone more officials, congressmen, and corporate CEOs from the USA had turned up in New Delhi than in the entire decade prior to 1985. That India had come of age was confirmed belatedly by Foreign Affairs in July-August 2006 when it described India as a "roaring capitalist success." The enthusiasm for the shining India is best summed up by my friend Gurcharan Das, the author of India Unbound:
India is poised at a key moment in its history. Rapid growth will likely continue-and even accelerate.... India has improved its competitiveness considerably since 1991: there has been a telecommunications revolution, interest rates have gone down, capital is plentiful, highways and ports have improved, and real estate markets are becoming transparent. More than ioo Indian companies now have market capitalization of over a billion dollars, and some of these-including Bharat Forge, Jet Airways, Infosys Technologies, Reliance Infocomm, Tata Motors, and Wipro Technologies-are likely to become competitive global brands soon. Foreigners have invested in over 1,000 Indian companies via the stock market. Of the Fortune 500 companies, 125 now have research and development bases in India-a testament to its human capital.1
India's success is quite spectacular. It is no longer a question whether India will join the coveted ranks of the global powers in the 2 ist century. One can assert with confidence that this destiny is irreversible. The euphoria and adulation that India has evoked, both at home and abroad, is every bit well deserved, but there is an important reason to be cautious about such a narrow business-centric view. It tends to obscure important issues and real challenges that lie ahead. Just as the earlier pessimism detracted us from recognizing the true potential of India, the euphoric focus on globalization and economic liberalization misses two crucial issues.
First, many recent commentators, unburdened by knowledge of the past, have ascribed India's success to globalization and its policy of economic liberalization. In his new best seller, The World is Flat, Tom Friedman provides a scintillating account of the ways in which India has been affected by globalization and the breathtaking speed with which India has transformed itself in the last decade. Not only has the landscape changed, but there is also a palpable sense of excitement and optimism that one had rarely experienced until even a few years ago. (Friedman, however, forgets to note that his observations are derived mainly from the big urban centers of India and his conversations with the urban consumers who have benefited most from the opening up of the Indian economy.) It is true India has benefited from globalization processes, but its rise has little, if anything, to do with globalization. India, like China, has never actually played by the rules of globalization and has only selectively and belatedly pursued economic liberalization. …