Nukes and Naan

Brian Hicks

Updated March 3, 2006

Christopher Columbus left home for India. He didn’t get there.

Our own president, George W. Bush, has found his own path, following the trail of corporations and entrepreneurs who made their way – correctly, unlike Columbus – to India to join East and West in the new and vital high-tech bridge between sides of the world.

We know about China as a rising power in almost every respect. China’s manufacturing, engineering, and entrepreneurial prowess are making the Waking Dragon what it is.

But there’s a kink in the rope. Or a bump in the road. Whatever you want to call it, China has demons it will have to stare down in order for prosperity to take hold in a true and sustainable form. China must wrestle with reform, democracy, and the essential notion of capitalism – that people, not the state, drive the economy.

India, for its part, has been the Asian elephant in the room while China has gained the hype. China has the 2008 Olympics coming and the world’s largest population simmering underneath a neo-Leninist socialist market planning model. People are intrigued as to what will become of China. It is a living, breathing paradox that has enjoyed astronomical real estate growth and a bustling new middle class even as cell phones are used as listening devices and internet searches as heavily censored.

But India is a bit more straightforward. More like us.

After the British occupation of India ceased following Mahatma Gandhi’s heroic nonviolent protests and the post-WWII attrition of British colonial holdings, the people of India blessed themselves with a system that was willing to take advantage of the western ideas that could truly benefit a multi-ethnic state such as India.

Pan-ethnic Panacea?

Though to westerners all Indian citizens may get jumbled into the same category, there are myriad individual groups within the country who consider their identities to be as distinct as if they lived in different countries.

What unites them, however, is much the same force that causes the United States to prosper economically and socially – a participatory democracy. In this respect, the U.S. has maintained a kindred relationship to India that it lacks with other former colonial states.

Quite simply, the experiment of democracy took hold in India, and that spark led to this week’s announcement by President Bush that the United States will cooperate with India in order to help that nation develop a civilian nuclear program to power India forward.

But Bush isn’t sporting a smile with Prime Minister Singh just because we like giving away atomic secrets. We are also becoming more and more dependent on India for its economic strengths, as "outsourcing" has spelled big profits and incurred wrath towards many Americans like Lou Dobbs.

If you’ve placed a call to customer service in the past few years, you’ve probably spoken to an Indian representative. Awake at all hours of the night to answer your daytime calls, "Mike" and "Tabitha" may actually bear quite different names, but firms like AOL know that their Indian workers’ command of English will set you pretty well at ease.

India is to the service industry what China is to – well, everything else. Cheap conversation with a representative is as easy to come by in the phone mills of Mumbai as sweat and stereos are in Shanghai.

Both are increasingly addictive components of the American economy.

And that fact has placed both China and India above the United States in the most recent Kearney index of foreign direct investment. By and large, companies are more confident that their dollars (or Euros) will go far in China and India than in the U.S. And the U.S. is either to blame or to thank for that situation, depending on which side of the see-saw you’re on.

With 345 shopping malls expected to be built across India by 2007 (up from just 3 in 2001!), it is clear that the infusion of international service and high-tech investment has boosted its beneficiaries into the consumption class. The contrasts are almost too perfect: cows strutting around in front of giant fashion posters in New Delhi; Bangalore’s equivalent of Silicon Valley flanked by homes built from scrap and oxcarts next to Mercedes.

In agriculture, manufacturing, electricity… you name it, and India is on the rise. Sure, it’s not the skyrocketing 11% GDP growth we see in China, but 7% ain’t shabby if it’s sustainable. And the fuel is there.

India has more members of the middle class than the United States has citizens – 300 million. That’s a future market for every conceivable product, and a labor base for more call centers, more science and technology, and more western-style amenities like themed restaurants and movie theaters.

Though India has its problems, just like the US, that is the exact reason so many are thrilled to see a balance to China’s regional stardom. As Thomas Friedman says, if the start of India’s road is rocky, soon it will be smooth and the US will reap the benefits.

– Sam Hopkins

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