Will 21st century be India's?

Nov 27, 2004 07:59 PM IST

India is now seen as a powerful economy to be reckoned with in the 21st century, writes Pavan K Varma.

 I have just returned from a quick visit to Paris to participate in a conference on India at the French Senate. Held under the patronage of Mr Christian Poncelet, President of the Senate, it was organised by the Association France-Union Indienne. The subject was 'India and the Globalization Process: Cultural Roots and Contemporary Challenges'.

I was surprised at the large turnout the conference provoked. The Salle Clemenceau hall at the Senate was packed to capacity. There was a smattering of Indians, but most of the people were French, and they sat through the day long meeting and its many sessions with a great deal of interest.

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The enigma of India is fertile ground for seminars and seminarists, a new breed that always has something to say and is willing to say it in any part of the world. I say India is an enigma, because it is a difficult country to easily categorise. Many layers of India exist simultaneously. There is an ancient—and much studied and romanticized—India; there is a newly emergent India, and the old and the new often coexist in seemingly impossible ways. Perhaps, Indians are a sui generis people. They cannot be colour coded for convenience into white, black or yellow. They do not belong to the Christian world; they cannot be included in the Islamic. They cannot easily fit into a mould. They are not post-communist, nor are they pre-democratic. They are not theocrats, nor are they irreligious.

But, with every fifth human being on the planet now an Indian, they are too numerous to be ignored. And not only because of their numbers, but for a variety of reasons, India is now seen as a emerging power, and an economy to be reckoned with in the 21st century. Dr Vijay Kelkar, who has been Finance Secretary to the Government of India, and an economist of international repute, gave a comprehensive presentation on the current status of the Indian economy. His essential point was that thanks to the policy reforms initiated over the last two decades, India is today at the threshold of ‘a golden age of growth’. A stable and democratic political system, human capital accumulation, and the diffusion of new technologies such as IT, would, Dr Kelkar argued, see double digit growth rates in India for the foreseeable future.

NK Singh, one of India’s most high profile bureaucrats, who was until recently Economic Adviser to the Prime Minister, shared Dr Kelkar’s general sense of optimism, but with a few reservations. The co-ordinates in India for a high growth trajectory were strong, he said, but there were some worrying exogenous factors, such as the likely course of the world’s most powerful economy—the USA. The US economy, whose health can impact the whole world, and especially the prospects of a developing economy seeking to integrate globally, is today incurring a debt of $1.5 billion a day, and there are no indications that policy correctives are being taken on the scale that such a situation warrants. Singh was also concerned about the supply and prices of hydro carbons, a factor of critical importance for a large oil-importing economy such as India’s. 

Many of the French speakers, who were very well informed on India, were still a trifle taken up I thought by well worn themes such as the continuing role of the caste system in the making of modern India. Christophe Jaffrelot, the learned Director of the prestigious Centre for International Studies and Research in Paris (CERI), touched rightly upon the challenges remaining to be tackled—poverty, illiteracy and basic medical care for the poorest—even as India looks to the achievements of the future. There were presentations too on the communications and satellite revolution, and the impact of Bollywood, not only in India but in France and Europe.

I spoke on the changing values in India and made the basic point—which is also the theme of my latest book Being Indian—that Indians today have stumbled on to a critical equilibrium in which four elements are in a complimentary interface.  These are: the unexpected triumph of democracy, a new openness to enterprise and entrepreneurship, dividends in the area of technology including IT, and a new sense of pan-Indianism. A large and complex nation needs all these elements to be in place before it can take-off on a stable and predictable course.

Paris was colder and quieter than London, but as always beautiful. But I was happy to return to my corner of London, and next morning, as per routine, was in Hyde Park for my walk.

(A Stephenian, Pavan Kumar Varma is a senior Indian diplomat and presently Minister of Culture and Director of the Nehru Centre in London. Author of several widely acclaimed books likeGhalib: the Man, the Times and the recently released Being Indian, he will be writing the column Hyde Park Corner, exclusively for

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