India's Olympic Reality Check

Abhinav Bindra earned India's first-ever individual Olympic gold medal, winning the 10-meter air rifle competition on August 11, 2008. (Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

by Sadanand Dhume

Originally published in the Far Eastern Economic Review, September 2008

For the world's second most populous nation, the undisputed show stealer of the Beijing Olympics was not Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt, Nastia Lukin or He Kexin. Rather, it was a bespectacled 25-year-old from the northern city of Chandigarh named Abhinav Bindra. On Aug. 11, Mr. Bindra edged out rivals from China and Finland to win the men's 10-meter air rifle competition and take home India's first ever individual gold medal at an Olympics, and the first gold of any kind since the men's field hockey team triumphed in the boycott-scarred Moscow games 28 years earlier.

Virtually overnight, Mr. Bindra became one of the most lauded figures in the country. The central government, at least eight state governments, the ministry of steel, and the Board of Control for Cricket in India, among others, showered him with cash awards ranging from 100,000 rupees to 10,000,000 rupees ($2,300 to $230,000). Indian Railways awarded him a lifetime pass to travel (first class, air-conditioned) on its trains. The budget carrier SpiceJet offered the same for its aircraft. Volvo India threw in a sedan. Dozens of Web sites, echoing Mr. Bindra's mother, branded the Olympian the country's most eligible bachelor. The national mood was perhaps summed up best by the fan who assured a Wall Street Journal reporter that, "by [the] next Olympics, India will be among the [United States] and China, on the top of the medal tally.”

Mr. Bindra's accomplishment is indeed laudable, and the country's pride understandable. Nonetheless, India's Olympic performance—it ended the games ranked 50th, behind Mongolia and North Korea—is also a metaphor for the chasm between its self-perception (and projection) and any reasonable measure of its achievements. With a booming economy and stable political system, India is unquestionably stronger than before, a fact reflected by its growing clout on the world stage. But when looked at more closely—or compared with its putative rival, China—a less flattering picture emerges.

India boosters tend to tom-tom its status as the world's largest democracy, but they ignore the parlous state of its democratic institutions. In terms of development, India boasts homegrown programs in space exploration and nuclear power; at the same time it struggles to provide its people with electricity, sanitation and drinking water. And though there's no question that soaring growth rates have dented poverty, the fact remains that nearly two decades into India's economic reforms the gap with China, in productivity and per capita income, is growing rather than shrinking.

Unlike most poor countries, India can claim Nobel laureate economists and Booker Prize-winning authors. At the same time, 50% of Indian women are illiterate, a higher percentage than in Laos, Cambodia, or Myanmar. As an idea, India stands for secularism and affirmative action for the historically downtrodden. In practice, this translates into competitive sectarianism and a crude quota system in education that devalues merit.

In short, India's considerable accomplishments tend to cloak its equally glaring weaknesses. An inwardlooking culture and a taste for fantasy predispose middle class Indians and the national media to see the country's future in terms of an inevitable march to greatness rather than in terms of a long overdue, and still incomplete, amelioration of wretchedness. In reality, as the cold logic of the Olympic medals table reveals, India is doing better than ever only when benchmarked against its own dismal past. When compared to the East Asian countries that have truly transformed themselves— Japan, Korea and, increasingly, China—the gap between India's rhetoric and its reality remains jarring.

Since their inception in 1896, the modern Olympics have acted as a proxy for a country's global standing that reflects an ineffable blend of politics, economics and culture. In 1936, Adolf Hitler used the Berlin Games to showcase German might. Over the years, the medals table has accurately reflected Japan's relative decline, the Korean economic miracle, and, of course, the ballyhooed rise of China.

The link in the popular imagination between Olympic prowess and geopolitical clout is not accidental. The capacity to spot and nurture athletic talent reflects the quality of a country's institutions, private or public. Sporting infrastructure indicates either wealth or the capacity to implement national priorities. It's no surprise that in Beijing the top ten nations included seven members of the G8 group of industrialized democracies.

A country's approach to sports also acts as a guide to its preferred method of problem solving. Relentlessly pragmatic Singapore supplements its modest homegrown talent by wielding a fat checkbook and fast tracking citizenship for foreigners. China, like military-ruled Korea in the 1980s, or the Soviet Union in its heyday, depends on the early talent-scouting and rigorously supervised training programs typical of a one party state. Unlike the Soviets, however, the Chinese also hold out the promise of corporate sponsorship and multimillion dollar advertising contracts.

India's traditional invisibility at the Olympics—the gold and two bronzes won in Beijing mark its best ever performance— can be viewed as a legacy of the flawed policies it pursued in the early decades after independence. For long an autarkic and socialist economy, India has lagged in establishing the competitive culture and market incentives that spur excellence in the developed world. At the same time, as a democracy, it has never had the option of emulating the intrusive controls and collective purpose that mark the authoritarian model.

The blunders began with Jawaharlal Nehru, who led India from independence in 1947 until his death in 1964. An admirer of the Soviet Union, Mr. Nehru sought to modernize India's economy through fiveyear plans and state-led industrialization. His daughter, Indira Gandhi, shared her father's faith in the state and distaste for the market. During her rule (1966-77 and 1980-84), the government tightened its grip on the economy even as it became obvious that India could not keep up with marketfriendly and export-oriented competitors in East Asia. Only in 1991, faced with a balance of payments crisis, did India seriously embark upon economic reforms.

This background explains a rarely acknowledged truth: though commonly compared with China, in terms of development India has yet to catch up with some of the poorer parts of Southeast Asia.

The early decades of Indian independence also witnessed the coarsening of the country's political culture. By and large, the men (and occasional woman) drawn to public life under British rule represented the best educated and most idealistic in the land. But by the mid-1980s politics had become the vocation of choice for assorted crooks, sycophants and hucksters.

To be fair, even today both major national parties—Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party—can point to senior leaders known to be both competent and clean. But they tend to be the exception. The smaller regional and caste-based parties that occupy about 40% of the seats in parliament, and rule 11 of 28 states, are almost uniformly family fiefdoms or one-man cults of personality.

Only in India are law breakers in charge of making the laws. According to Social Watch India, a New Delhibased watchdog group, more than a quarter of India's 543 directly elected members of parliament face pending criminal charges— including murder and kidnapping. In August, an accused (and once convicted) murderer was sworn in as chief minister of the eastern state of Jharkhand. By now the vast fortunes and lavish lifestyles of politicians are taken so much for granted that reporters don't consider them worthy of investigation. In India's vaunted democracy, the capacity to brandish hysterical threats of self-immolation and a reputation for violence are considered assets by the young entrant to public life.

The equally hyped economic story is marked by an unusual mix of private excellence and public ineptitude. The success stories—the Tata Group's global expansion, the giddy growth of software services and the increasing sophistication of scientific research done in India—reflect entrepreneurial flair and the middle class work ethic. But wherever government is in the picture, India remains a laggard rather than a leader. Its roads, ports, and airports hardly compare with Southeast Asia's, let alone with China's. For most Indians, brownouts and spotty power supply remain a fact of life.

A visitor from Bangkok or Jakarta in Beijing or Shanghai sees a city visibly more developed than his own; the opposite is true when the same person visits Delhi or Bombay. In the United Nations Development Programme's Human Development Index, India ranks 128 of 177 countries, 37 places below China and 21 below Indonesia. Indeed Indonesia, hardly a stellar performer over the past decade, still leads India by virtually every measure—literacy, life expectancy, per capita income, and, yes, medals at the Beijing Games.

Comparisons with China are misleading in another respect as well. India is growing faster than ever at an average of 8.8% in each of the past four years. But rather than catching up with China it is falling farther behind. In 1993, in terms of purchasing power parity the average Indian earned about $1,000 a year, 85% of his counterpart in China. By 2008 Indian per capita income had nearly tripled to $2,900, but thanks to China's lower birth rates and higher growth rates, the average Indian is now only about half as wealthy as the average Chinese.

The prominence of ethnic Indians in international business, technology, academia, and the arts further distorts the picture. Over the past decade, India-born CEOs have led US Airways, the consulting firm McKinsey, the telecom giant Vodafone, PepsiCo, Standard Chartered Bank and Citibank. Sabeer Bhatia, the creator of Hotmail, and Vinod Khosla, the co-founder of Sun Microsystems, exemplify the Indian impact on Silicon Valley. Jagdish Bhagwati and Amartya Sen are among the most highly regarded economists alive. Directors Shekhar Kapur and Mira Nair have taken Hollywood by storm.

Naturally enough, Indians seek validation in these stories. But they could just as easily ask why so many must emigrate to achieve their potential. No other country bases as much of its intellectual and creative firepower overseas. In their day to day lives, non-resident Indians do not deal with the tax man who demands a bribe. Their dental care and retirement plans are Canadian, American, or British. Their children avoid Indian schools. In many ways, they have more in common with other talented and hardworking minorities who contribute to—and benefit from—the open economies and meritocratic institutions of the English-speaking world than with their compatriots in India.

As if the burden of playing catch-up while hobbled by shoddy governance isn't enough, India must also contend with endemic violence within its borders and on its periphery. Maoist groups challenge the state across a broad swath of central and eastern India; they are active in about a quarter of the country's 600-odd districts. Last year they claimed 1,400 lives, including 55 in a single, audacious attack on a police camp in the central state of Chhattisgarh. Meanwhile, long-running insurgencies continue to pockmark the troubled northeast. A dispute over temple land between Hindus and Muslims in Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir has plunged the sensitive border state into a crisis. In August, tens of thousands of protestors took to the streets in the capital, Srinagar, shouting pro-Pakistan slogans.

In the rest of the country, India's peculiar brand of secularism—well-intentioned but shortsighted—leaves it ill-equipped to cope with terrorism and transnational Islamism. Most Indian Muslims are peaceful, and the 140 million-strong community enriches the nation in countless ways— most visibly in sports, movies, and the arts. Nor is religious zealotry in India a Muslim monopoly. Nonetheless, a hide-bound leadership and adherence to Shariah in civil matters such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance have contributed to the development of parallel societies in ghettoized enclaves. Unlike their co-religionists in Turkey and Tunisia, Indian Muslims have largely failed to shed cultural markers of backwardness, such as high birthrates and an aversion to educating girls.

At the same time, in addition to the long-running sponsorship of terrorism by Pakistan, India must contend with growing radicalism in Bangladesh and the rise of homegrown groups. The Students Islamic Movement of India, an offshoot of Jamaate- Islami, has long espoused the idea of bringing the Indian subcontinent under Islamist rule. This goal may be unrealistic, but Islamist terrorism could not be more real. According to the National Counterterrorism Center in Washington, between January 2004 and March 2007 the death toll from terrorist attacks in India was 3,674, second only to that in Iraq. Since then, more bombs have gone off in Hyderabad, Jaipur, Bangalore, and Ahmedabad.

Instead of facing up to these realities, much of the Indian middle class appears to inhabit a mental bubble. In a survey two years ago by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the Asia Society, respondent s from six countries ranked themselves and each other according to criteria such as global influence and leadership in innovation and technology. Indians placed themselves second, behind the US; every other country ranked India last of those on the list. The Chinese, by contrast, more soberly assessed themselves as second in overall influence and fourth, behind the US, Germany, and Japan, in terms of innovation. Complacency robs India of urgency. Since returning to power in 2004, the Congress- led government has stalled the privatization of state-owned enterprises and enacted a wasteful populist law "guaranteeing" employment for adults in rural areas. Much-needed reform of antiquated labor laws, fertilizer subsidies, and foreign investment caps in insurance also remain unresolved. On a deeper level, irrational exuberance and a general distaste for politics prevent the Indian middle class from coming to terms with its governance problems. In the US, the most educated are most likely to vote. In India, the opposite is true.

Needless to say, India's challenges are far from insurmountable, and over the past 60 years the country has repeatedly confounded pessimistic prognostications. India can justly take credit for housing one of the world's fastest growing economies and for fostering centers of educational excellence, such as the Indian Institutes of Technolog y and the Indian Institutes of Management. Private sector participation has begun to transform infrastructure, and rising incomes will continue to make deep inroads into poverty. The stick of a vast security apparatus and the carrot of adult franchise remain powerful weapons against insurgencies and political violence.

Nonetheless, it's useful to recall that over the past 100 years only a handful of Asian countries have made the leap from poor to rich. For the foreseeable future, India will belong to a much larger club—poor countries striving to become less poor. Of course, its sheer size—by population equal to 50 Malaysias—means that even modest gains will ripple across the world.

Only when India's politicians are comparable to its managers and engineers, when its human development and per capita income no longer lag behind Indonesia and Thailand, when it boasts at least one world class city, and when an Olympic gold medal does not invoke national hysteria, will talk of great power status or comparisons with China make sense. Until then, like a Bollywood film, they should be treated as fantasy.


Sadanand Dhume is a former Asia Society Bernard Schwartz Fellow and the author of My Friend the Fanatic: Travels with an Indonesian Islamist (Text Publishing, 2008).