Asia and America - Two Tracks, One Future
by Vishakha N. Desai
Originally published in the Huffington Post, January 27, 2010
Waking up on the first day of the new decade in my hometown of Ahmedabad, India, I was struck by the buoyancy in the air and the remarkable sense of energy and confidence in all corners of society.
My brother, a mechanical engineer, left for work at 8:00 am on New Year's Day as he does six days a week. Over breakfast, I asked him the prospects for his firm, which produces an advanced form of plastic machinery. Initially developed as collaboration with a Canadian company, his firm is now primarily an Indian company with huge demand in India itself. My brother was very enthusiastic about the domestic prospects for his industry in the New Year. Indeed, India's Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh—a former economist—declared a few days later that the country would return to 9% national growth in a couple of years.
For me, coming from New York, this kind of enthusiasm almost felt jarring. Just a week before, when I left for India on Christmas night, the feeling of all the challenges faced by the US was far more overwhelming than any sense of recovery. The healthcare debate, a sense of frustration around the Copenhagen discussions on climate change, and a less than resolved approach to Afghanistan-related security issues all seemed to create a sense of fatigue and weariness as we got ready to usher in the new decade. As if this weren't enough, on that very Christmas Day, as I later learnt (since I was in the air en route to India when it happened), an attempted suicide attack on a Northwest flight bound for Detroit once again reminded us of our vulnerability to terrorist attacks after eight years of "war on terror."
In India, which has experienced hundreds of terrorist attacks in the same number of years and suffered its own 11/26 tragedy in Mumbai, even the fresh news of planned attacks against the country by Lashkar-e-Taiba operatives in Pakistan could not deter the optimistic mood prevalent everywhere. This, even though India faces even more daunting challenges than the United States in the areas of poverty, education, infrastructure, public health, environmental degradation, terrorism—you name it.
So why is it that there is a feeling of buoyancy in the country? I think part of the reason is that there is a strong sense that India is moving in the right direction. For all the issues I mentioned above, there are robust discussions and recommendations under way for change. The education minister, Kapil Sibal, has an ambitious plan to drastically change the exam system and develop more innovative ways to educate the country's children. The minister for environment and climate change, Jairam Ramesh, has begun a transformative plan to develop large scale solar power stations. And industry leaders like Anand Mahindra are talking about business opportunities in green technology. India may not be as far ahead in investing in alternative energy sources as China, but everywhere you go, you sense a change in the air.
Politically as well, unhindered by the tactics of the leftist parties, government leaders and policy makers are busy developing big ideas needed to move the country forward. For the first time in a long time, politicians feel confident of their staying power for the next five years, creating a strong sense of forward momentum.
Returning to the US, I am sadly aware that we seem to have lost any sense of momentum and ultimately any optimism about the next decade of this young century. Newspapers are full of stories about security risks, worries about our inability to have a serious climate change policy and the divisive political tone in Washington that make the formulation and implementation of transformative policy agendas— things we desperately need—highly unlikely.
I wonder, when the history of the past year and the beginning of the new decade is written, if it will only register the enormous promise that President Obama's election brought to the nation, followed by a sense of disappointment a year later. Or will we have a different narrative for the new decade? Will we develop a new education policy to revamp the disappointing No Child Left Behind Act and make our children more globally competitive and globally literate? Will we finally acknowledge that we need to be a responsible nation on the issue of climate change and develop a reasonable carbon trade and environmentally sound policy? Will we acknowledge that unfettered capitalism with a singular focus on short-term profits has created the current mess, and needs to be balanced with concern for the collective good of the nation? Will we use our enormous advantage as a culturally diverse country that has supported innovation for all of its relatively young life and move forward into the 21st century with confidence and optimism? We have the capacity. I surely hope we have the will to harness that capacity.
Scholars and observers have been talking about the tectonic shift of geo-political and geo-economic power from West to East for several years now. Traveling through India or China, it's hard to miss the energy and forward movement of the region. But this need not be a zero-sum game. It's entirely up to the US to decide how it can continue to be a great country among other great nations, not necessarily the sole superpower. We will have to wait for future historians to give us the verdict about the path chosen or not.
Vishakha N. Desai is President of the Asia Society.