A new fantasy links Britain and India


THE downbeat economic forecasts for Britain made in the early days of Brexit are finally beginning to come true.

Yet, Boris Johnson, Britain’s likely next prime minister (PM), is determined to yank his country out of the European Union by Oct 31. “Do or die”, he asserts, insisting with Churchillian pomposity that Britain can be made great again.

As the world watches aghast, Britain’s descent into political lunacy seems complete. But there is little point blaming, as many do, Johnson’s moral character or lack thereof. His illusions of regaining national power and wealth are widely shared across the Atlantic — and beyond.

In India, a conviction that the country will soon be a global superpower have suffused popular culture, as well as official discourse; it helped lead to the reelection last month of PM Narendra Modi, who denigrates all previous Indian leaders and claims to be the only one equipped to fulfil India’s long-delayed tryst with destiny.

Economic growth is asthmatic, unemployment is the highest it’s been in decades and, in the latest phase of an unfolding environmental calamity, Chennai, one of the country’s largest cities, has run out of water. Still, as the (Financial Times) reported last month, India under Modi remains “a nation seemingly intoxicated by the belief that it can muscle its way to the global high table”.

Such a damagingly poor grasp of reality in both countries raises an urgent question: How did the world’s oldest and largest democracies succumb to extreme delusion?

Boosterish outsiders didn’t help. Western politicians, think tanks and commentators greatly exaggerated India’s prospects during the heyday of globalisation in the mid-2000s. Much was made of its “new middle class” — in reality, working people who had only just escaped acute poverty.

In the obsession with their increased buying power, little attention was paid to the lack of such collective goods as decent schools and hospitals. It is now clear that those looking for a friendly democratic counterpoint to communist-ruled China became too eager to promote India as effortlessly “rising”, ignoring the grave political, economic and environmental perils in its path.

Likewise, those dazzled by Britain’s cultural prestige tended to overvalue its democratic institutions, which have proven to be utterly sclerotic, and its self-serving ruling class, even if they didn’t miss the deep problems of its economic model: An overgrown financial sector, polarised job market and — what was crucial in shaping the Brexit vote to leave — regional inequality.

These external assessments in turn barely compared to the high value many Indian and British elites assigned themselves. Boosting themselves without inhibition, they became prisoners of a fantasy derived from 19th century: The century when Britain became the most powerful nation on earth, defining with its military and economic muscle abroad and political stability at home, the very meaning of national power and wealth.

Indian leaders promised their young population a similar kind of omnipotence; Brexiteers did the same to their ageing base. Needless to say, anger and frustration were inevitable. For, regardless of what admiring foreigners said, and what Modi and Johnson might promise, the present and future of India and Britain are shaped by domestic choices made at crucial junctures in the past.

The failure of Britain to match in the 1950s and 1960s the postwar industrial strategies of Germany and Japan made it the long-term loser of World War II.

India’s failure to invest in education and health, at the same time economies such as South Korea and Taiwan were building their skilled industrial labour forces, made it a permanent laggard in the race to build a labour-intensive manufacturing sector — historically, a crucial precondition for superpowerdom.

Having made its fateful choices, Britain could, at best, manage its decline.

India’s ruling classes ought to be devoting themselves exclusively to addressing the basic needs of their largely poor citizens: Food, shelter, healthcare and education. Instead, they have busied themselves with projecting a vision of industrial and military strength, relying in the process on dodgy economic statistics and exaggerated claims about air strikes on Pakistan.

Today, as the extraordinary appeal of pipedreaming politicians such as Johnson and Modi proves, fantasy has become an in eradicable addiction for many of their citizens — a way of coping with harsh and intransigent reality. But, as Brexit, a prolonged act of national hara-kiri, has already demonstrated, this is not only no way for a nation to live. It is a pitiful way to self-destruct. — Bloomberg

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.