The one constant in the surfeit of recent India-China comparisons is the abundant use of animal-related cliches—tigers, dragons, elephants and peacocks, dancing, lumbering or prancing about. Media guru Raghav Bahl’s debut book, Super Power?, adds to this pantheon by framing his analysis as a race between China’s hare and India’s tortoise.
The purpose of Bahl’s exploration of the differential dynamic between the two giants is ostensibly to answer the trillion Yuan question of who will win this contest. Unfortunately, the answer he provides (warning, spoiler ahead) is an exercise in prevarication: it’s “advantage China” and “odds on India” with the ultimate outcome a “Fifty-Fifty” guess.
Bahl contends that the financial crisis provoked by the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008 has spiced up the race. Where once the outcome was a foregone conclusion in China’s favour, Beijing’s troubles and India’s resilience post-Lehman have thrown the race wide open.
On the surface, it still is somewhat of a no-contest. Bahl bandies around plenty of statistics—and yet more animal metaphors—to illustrate the point. The “hare” is after all a “$5 trillion gorilla” compared to the piffling “$1.50 trillion cub” that is the “tortoise”. To cite another example: China adds 105 GW power in one year, equal to the entire generating capacity of India.
But such sobering facts aside, Bahl argues that the hare’s twin demographic and democratic deficits make it less than a sure shot to win. Meanwhile, the tortoise is steadily moving towards the finishing line of superpowerdom.
Bahl compares the countries on a variety of parameters, including legal systems, foreign policy and influence, entrepreneurship, English, urbanisation, infrastructure, education and agriculture.
There are few surprises here: China has done a better job when it comes to both physical and social infrastructure— roads, ports, schools and factories, while India trumps its neighbour in entrepreneurship and ease with English. Moreover, China’s growth is potentially unsustainable, being overly dependent on hyper-investment. India is more balanced, with stable domestic consumption.
So far, so standard. But Bahl puts forward the intriguing hypothesis that China might be rescripting conventional economic theory according to which hyper-investment (China invests nearly half its GDP) creates a bubble and eventual collapse. But by investing on a scale hitherto unknown or tested, “China might have created a new escape velocity” that allows it to escape conventional constraints on growth. By investing in “big infrastructure and life-enhancing social assets”, China might be rewriting the economic textbooks, Bahl muses, provoking an exciting line of questioning that he unfortunately fails to follow up.
Most of the book will please the Indian reader, being part of the shining-India-of-the-twenty-first-century school of thought. The blame for India’s woes is placed on a timid leadership, in direct contrast to China’s dynamic, visionary powers. But India is shining despite its leaders. And post-Lehman, the stars are aligned for its world-class businesses and demographic dividend to begin delivering on the tortoise’s solid and often underestimated potential.
Then suddenly, in his two-page epilogue, Bahl once again makes a statement that begs elucidation. He claims that having “done a deep dive into the legacies” of the two countries, he is confronted by the “shocking realisation” that India’s democratic strength “may have been overestimated by the world”, while China’s “drive and ambition” might have been “underestimated”. Bizarrely, the bulk of his book seems to have been arguing precisely the opposite, making it less than clear how and why he arrived at this interesting conclusion.
If there is an answer whether it is the hare or the tortoise that will win, it appears to be in the tried and tested answer of: it depends. Will India fix its governance ills first or will China pip it to the post by addressing its political lacuna?
Bahl admits at the outset that his book is a “work of instinct, intuition and experience”. Tomes by economists and geo-strategic pundits rarely have mass-market appeal. But Bahl’s racy, anecdotal style makes Super Power? accessible and, in parts, enjoyable.
However, a little less instinct and a bit more research would not have gone amiss. For instance, when we are informed that “Taot” is China’s eBay when in fact it is “Taobao” that is being referred to. Or when we are informed that China “is a country almost indifferent to God and religion”. Really?