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Will building temples save India?
October 27, 2003
Some months ago, there was a spate of articles accusing China of fudging its growth figures. Many Indians eagerly latched on to the China-bashing bandwagon, and insisted that China's miracle was actually a debacle but how could one check in a communist country anyway.
These prophets painted a scenario of China lying through its teeth on its growth, or that its high growth was not backed by sufficient reform and was taking the country to doom. And then there was this Foreign Policy magazine article by a Chinese and an Indian arguing that India's growth model was better for the long term. The point being made was that India, with its more modest figures and a democracy, was the more reliable growth economy.
Perhaps these articles contained some truth! But they missed the basic point: fudged or not, China was progressing well, amazingly well. And to harp on the figures was akin to deny that we in India faced severe competition.
Yet, now, no one can miss that China has sent a man into outer space, becoming only the third nation to do so. And that, if anything, should bring home one point: even if China's growth figures were fudged, even if China is eventually heading for a collapse, the fact is that today, China has grown by leaps and bounds and is way ahead of India. In fact, China is a trillion dollar economy, India less than half that at $400 billion.
This is not to denounce India or by any standard deride our nation, but to stress that those who seek to underrate the competition only harm us. If anything, the presence of this colossus just behind the Himalayas should spur us to work harder to catch up with it. Whether China's growth was 12 per cent or a mere 8 per cent, either way it is amazing. India's best so far was 7.8 per cent in 1996-97, hopefully this year we will breach the 8 per cent barrier and maybe, just maybe, touch double digits.
But can India actually match China's growth rate? There are reasons to be sceptical.
Newspaper headlines on October 16 could not have been starker. One set of lead headlines showed China's 'taikonaut' getting ready to go into space in his rocket, aptly named 'Divine Vessel'. The other set was about some Indians ranting about a 'divine structure', only it was about making a temple for Lord Ram.
What a contrast. China has built rockets to take man to the heavens; here some seek to reach heaven through a temple. There is little that a manned Chinese in space will discover that is not known; the entire effort is to give the Chinese people a sense of pride, to invest heavily in technology, and to tell the world that China is no pushover (and that the debate about its growth rates seems kind of irrelevant).
By contrast, the BJP-led central government plays a two-faced game: it lacks the guts to tell the VHP cadres to stay quiet; so it tells the Uttar Pradesh chief minister to be gentle with them, a classic case of the tail wagging the dog.
Where the central government should be concerned about China's space ambitions; about wondering how our expected growth rate of 8 per cent of GDP this year can be pushed to 10 per cent next year; about why so much of this country still depends on the monsoons for its crops just as it was in Emperor's Akbar's reign; about divestment; about permanently ending terrorism in Kashmir rather than piecemeal measures; we have a ruling party that is obsessed by a temple in Ayodhya; a temple it will not disclaim nor go ahead and construct (hey, if the temple is built now, what would be the issue in the next election?).
Henry Kissinger once wrote that every government, regardless of its size or depth, can only handle one major issue at a time. He wrote that while North Vietnam was solely focused on capturing South Vietnam, the US government's many other concerns never allowed it to focus singularly on the Vietnam issue, thus handing the US its first military defeat ever.
Similarly, no matter what we might want to believe, the present government can only handle so much at a time: and if a temple is the top priority, rest assured everything else is secondary. China's sole objective is becoming a superpower and ideology be damned; in contrast, the present Indian government cannot decide whether it wants to be a superpower that can match China or just a great Hindu nation with temples galore?
Merely sending an Indian up in space in an Indian rocket (not very difficult) is not really the answer to meeting China's competition and challenge. India needs to excel across the board. In most human index parameters, such as life span, literacy, infant mortality, etc, China beats us. On most economic indicators too, China is ahead, whether it is in investment or growth rates (irrespective of the fudging controversy).
It is not negative all the way. At least there is a competitive spirit in India to want to do more than simply applaud the Chinese. Narasimha Rao's lasting legacy of liberalisation is that now we in India compare ourselves with China and, mercifully, no longer with Pakistan (why we ever did so is difficult to understand). We need to fuel that competitive spirit; if our technology can awe the West, there is no reason why our economic and social indices cannot be on a par with that of China, or better still, ahead?
But for all that, the country needs a single-minded focus. The government, more than any individual or organisation, needs to create an atmosphere and a situation so that by 2020, we may realise President A P J Abdul Kalam's vision and be a developed nation. And perhaps even have an Indian on the moon, sent up in an Indian rocket! But such tasks cannot be achieved when the central government is busy playing temple politics, when its fear of votebanks prevents it from telling mobs to behave and obey the court's decision and the laws of the land.
Is it a civilisational flaw? Over a year ago, Discovery channel was showing great constructions of the past from across the world. The episode on China was on the Great Wall, built to keep out invaders. In India, in contrast, the channel showed how a great Indian king in the 11th century built a temple to appease the gods. Why? Because in carrying out his kingly duty, he had killed his enemies and felt that for the sin of killing, he needed to appease the gods or he'd be punished in his next life. Not surprisingly, this king's dynasty disappeared shortly afterwards but the Chinese dynasty that was featured survived a bit longer.
But this was then. The tragedy is that nearly a millennium later, have we learnt nothing? Are temples still the most important things to build all these centuries later? Building temples then did not save India from successive invasions and the devastation of Indian (then primarily Hindu) society. Will building temples save India (now predominantly Hindu) from future threats? Will it put an Indian in space, seated in an Indian rocket?
Amberish K Diwanji