This jour­ney through In­dia and China is an anec­do­tal celebration of power from be­low

India Today - - LEISURE - By Shashi Tha­roor

All pol­i­tics, the say­ing goes, is lo­cal. Yet most books about the two Asian gi­ants, In­dia and China, take a dis­tinctly non­lo­cal view of both coun­tries, sur­vey­ing their poli­cies from New Delhi and Bei­jing and de­scrib­ing de­vel­op­ments in both from a macro per­spec­tive. Wil­liam An­tho­lis’s In­side Out: In­dia and China: Lo­cal Pol­i­tics Go Global marks a rare and wel­come de­par­ture from this norm.

One out of three peo­ple on the planet is gov­erned from Bei­jing or New Delhi, but each na­tional cap­i­tal does not of­fer the last word in its coun­try’s gov­er­nance: There are lo­cal, pro­vin­cial and grass­roots lead­ers mak­ing many of the key de­ci­sions that af­fect peo­ple’s lives. In re­search­ing his book, An­tho­lis, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion, took his fam­ily with him, lived in eight cities and vis­ited a to­tal of 22 prov­inces or states in both coun­tries, meet­ing lo­cal po­lit­i­cal lead­ers in pref­er­ence to na­tional-level man­darins. His con­clu­sions are in­trigu­ing and rev­e­la­tory.

An­tho­lis ar­gues, in essence, that China and In­dia have their own com­pli­cated fed­eral pol­i­tics that most global an­a­lysts and pol­i­cy­mak­ers know lit­tle about. As an Amer­i­can think-tanker, his ob­jec­tive is to cor­rect that omis­sion and to urge Wash­ing­ton to re­fash­ion its diplo­macy to look be­yond New Delhi and Bei­jing to fully un­der­stand the dif­fer­ent pro­vin­cial needs of In­dia and China. The book lays out a num­ber of imag­i­na­tive and achiev­able ways to do that. But it can also serve as a use­ful tool for In­di­ans and Chi­nese to un­der­stand each other’s grass­roots re­al­i­ties bet­ter and to ap­pre­ci­ate the di­ver­si­ties within each na­tion in­stead of see­ing them purely from the per­spec­tive of their cap­i­tal cities.

An­tho­lis trav­elled with his fam­ily to dif­fer­ent re­gions and dis­cov­ered how at­ti­tudes in dif­fer­ing prov­inces are in­ter­sect­ing with global forces. Most in­ter­est­ingly, An­tho­lis asks if po­lit­i­cal lead­ers in New Delhi and Bei­jing have enough power over lo­cal of­fi­cials to steer their coun­tries in the di­rec­tion that na­tional cap­i­tals want them to go. Are there a “mil­lion mu­tinies” in the mak­ing, and are th­ese Asian gi­ants com­ing apart at the seams? Is there a dis­con­nect be­tween what na­tional lead­ers project and the in­ter­ests and pref­er­ences of state or pro­vin­cial satraps? When for­eign diplo­mats find it dif­fi­cult to per­suade In­dian or Chi­nese lead­ers to ac­cept pro­pos­als or agree­ments that they seem to be con­vinced about, An­tho­lis sug­gests, “it may be not so much that China’s or In­dia’s cen­tral lead­ers do not want to act. Rather, their greater con­cern may be that they do not have the power to act.”

I know this to be true from my own ex­pe­ri­ence in gov­ern­ment. When the UAE urged New

Delhi to in­ter­vene to un­block a log­jam in­volv­ing the takeover by Dubai Ports World of the for­merly Bri­tish com­pany P&O, which the Gov­ern­ment of Gu­jarat re­fused to recog­nise, our na­tional au­thor­i­ties could do lit­tle to per­suade Chief Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi that his op­po­si­tion to an Arab coun­try run­ning a Gu­jarati port was detri­men­tal to In­dia’s na­tional in­ter­ests. In­deed, in our fed­eral sys­tem, New Delhi was pow­er­less to oblige its diplo­matic in­ter­locu­tors: Modi’s prej­u­dice was ar­guably ir­ra­tional and a set­back for In­dian for­eign pol­icy with the UAE, but he had the fi­nal say any­way.

This story does not fea­ture in An­tho­lis’s book, be­cause de­spite ef­forts on both sides, he and I were un­able to get our sched­ules to match dur­ing his vis­its to New Delhi. As a re­sult, his view of the BJP’s cur­rent prime min­is­te­rial as­pi­rant is rather too be­nign: “On a wide range of is­sues,” he writes, “Gu­jarat is push­ing, not fol­low­ing, New Delhi.” An­tho­lis re­ports the in­flated in­vest­ment fig­ures from the “Vi­brant Gu­jarat” sum­mits with­out check­ing to con­firm how many of th­ese pledges were ac­tu­ally ful­filled (in prac­tice, very few have been). Though he men­tions the 2002 ri­ots and Gu­jarat’s poor hu­man de­vel­op­ment record, An­tho­lis con­cludes that Modi “is, and will con­tinue to be, the most dy­namic and tur­bu­lent force in In­dia’s na­tional pol­i­tics—and per­haps its for­eign af­fairs”.

To leave it like that raises more ques­tions than it an­swers, but An­tho­lis’s sweep is so broad that he cov­ers too much too quickly, whet­ting the ap­petite but skimp­ing on de­tails. Though this makes for an ac­ces­si­bly short vol­ume, the one flaw in his ap­proach is that in his en­thu­si­asm for his cen­tral the­sis, he pays in­suf­fi­cient heed to the con­sti­tu­tional and po­lit­i­cal lim­i­ta­tions on lo­cal au­thor­i­ties in both coun­tries. In­dia, for in­stance, has a strong base of three mil­lion elected lo­cal gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials in pan­chay­ats and mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties, but in prac­tice they have nei­ther the au­thor­ity nor the fi­nan­cial re­sources to make key de­ci­sions in their ar­eas, which are still largely left to the na­tion­ally ap­pointed bu­reau­cracy. Modi may be more pow­er­ful than his Sichuan coun­ter­part, but a Chi­nese Mayor has a more de­ci­sive im­pact on in­vest­ment in his city than an In­dian Mayor, who is at best the glo­ri­fied chair­man of a mu­nic­i­pal coun­cil he does not con­trol.

Still, by trav­el­ling with his fam­ily and pen­ning a lively and anec­do­tal ac­count of his en­coun­ters (his daugh­ter’s at­tempts to get her Kin­dle fixed in Chen­nai, for in­stance), An­tho­lis has writ­ten a book that man­ages to be both per­sonal and in­sight­ful. With the plethora of vol­umes about In­dia and China, in­clud­ing sev­eral that com­pare them di­rectly, it is dif­fi­cult to imag­ine that a writer could find a new way of un­der­stand­ing them. An­tho­lis’s fo­cus on how lo­cal per­spec­tives in­side th­ese coun­tries af­fect their na­tional poli­cies of­fers just that. It of­fers a valu­able ad­di­tion to our book­shelves.­di­a­to­day­im­


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