Centre for Science and Environment recently announced that a mind-boggling 71 per cent of Indians cannot afford healthy food. (Representational Image/ DC)
India looks good. Especially from the outside and, better still, from a distance. Yet, the mad scramble to surrender Indian citizenship — even New Delhi’s ministry of external affairs confirms that more than six lakh Indians gave up their nationality between 2016 and 2021 — suggests a sinking ship.
Not that there’s any sign of crisis at home. A political party with an assured vision of the future and a strong sense of power has controlled large swathes of territory since 2014. Indian cities bustle with glittering shops and smart restaurants as never before. Thanks to the reforms introduced by P.V. Narasimha Rao and Dr Manmohan Singh in 1991, the middle class doubled in size from 300 million to 600 million. Dr Singh’s abolition of wealth tax undoubtedly helped to create 166 dollar billionaires, third only to the United States and China. The ripples of this wealth extend far beyond India’s shores, making Akshata Murthy, wife of Britain’s chancellor of the exchequer (finance minister) Rishi Sunak and daughter of N.R. Narayana Murthy, who co-founded the tech giant Infosys, richer than Queen Elizabeth II.
Resplendent in picturesque ensembles, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi exudes confidence when he speaks on a few selected topics of his choice.
Abroad, his government negotiates spiritedly with the United States, Japan and Australia over the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, "Quad" for short, and nuclear submarines for Australia. Despite a huge disparity between the Indian and Chinese economies and the setback in India’s own border conflicts, Mr Modi’s India is seen as a robust deterrent to Chinese expansionism.
Why then the paradox of Indians seeking to flee what should be a land flowing with milk and honey? Why does the number of Indians applying for foreign citizenship and residency rights abroad go up every month? Why should a leading Indian politician, Mani Shankar Aiyar of the Opposition Congress Party, claim that Indians living along the border with China are consumed with envy for the "simply spectacular" development on the Chinese side?
Perhaps there’s a certain mismatch between India’s rhetoric and reality. The language is uncompromisingly modern. "Digital India has become a way of life", Mr Modi booms from a series of public platforms. But not for everyone. The updated passbooks of two leading banks, Punjab National in the public sector, and IndusInd, which the billionaire Hindujas founded in Mumbai, recall the old joke that if a monkey were let loose on a typewriter for a thousand years, it could not but produce a masterpiece.
This mismatch is reflected in the unattractive quality of life for the vast majority of Indians, the result of persistently insufficient attention to factors like housing, hospitals, schools, public transport, hygiene, sanitation and the environment. A Singapore institute’s comparative study of public health in China and India compared China’s free-for-all state-run health system with India’s expensive private clinics, which only the rich can afford. There was no Indian equivalent of the Chinese system. India’s Centre for Science and Environment recently announced that a mind-boggling 71 per cent of Indians cannot afford healthy food. India dumps 72 per cent of its sewage without treatment, mostly into water bodies, and 30 per cent of the country is geographically degraded. More than 29 farmers and farm labourers commit suicide every day.
Yet, the world courts India. That is not because India is the largest democracy in the world, as we are so fond of repeating, or because ancient Hindu seers and sadhus have supposedly enriched us with the wisdom of the ages, but because, as Pope Pius II wrote in the 15th century, when Venice was at the height of its imperial glory, every Venetian was a slave to "the sordid occupations of trade".
Six centuries later, that was the raison d’etre of a dynamic Singapore and the basis of Lee Kuan Yew’s courtship of India. Similarly, US President George W. Bush Jr did everything he could to secure a profitable partnership with a rising India. He explained his rationale with remarkable candour to the Asia Society in Washington on the eve of visiting New Delhi in 2006: "India is now one of the fastest-growing markets for American exports, and the growing economic ties between our two nations are making American companies more competitive in the global marketplace. And that’s helping companies create good jobs here in America."
Indian politicians are not usually very receptive to such essays in pragmatism. Think of the buying power of a billion Indians, President Bush urged. Think of the scope for selling Domino’s pizzas and Whirlpool washing machines in an upwardly mobile nation with the largest middle class in the world. By bestowing on India such a special position in the global nuclear pecking order, Mr Bush hoped to unleash India’s economic potential so that more Indians could afford more Domino’s pizzas and Whirlpool washing machines. Even President Barack Obama’s later visit was measured by the number of jobs it had created for Americans.
Two recent seeming hiccups in the relationship bear noting. The first arises from India being the world’s third-largest consumer of oil, over 80 per cent of which is imported. Only around two per cent of India’s total oil imports last year came from Russia, but even this displeases President Joe Biden, who is bent on punishing Moscow for invading Ukraine. Second, the 2021 edition of the US state department’s annual report on International Religious Freedom prompted US secretary of state Antony Blinken to accuse "India, the world’s largest democracy and home to a great diversity of faiths" of "rising attacks on people and places of [Muslim] worship".
Both are serious charges but Prime Minister Modi need not be too worried. As already noted, the Americans are pragmatists, and will not break with India so long as a flourishing economy allows Indians to buy American. But danger might lurk ahead. In April, the International Monetary Fund lowered India’s growth projection to 8.2 per cent against the nine per cent estimated in January. Next year’s figure might be 6.9 per cent. The Reserve Bank of India forecasts an even less encouraging 5.7 per cent.
Now, despite the differences over Russia and Muslim rights, the White House spokesperson dismisses any question of "adversarial" exchanges between Mr Biden and Mr Modi. "It’s a relationship that is vitally important to the United States and to the President." He might not be quite so accommodating if a flagging economy restricts the scope of Indian purchases. After all, trade is a nation’s lifeblood.