BEYOND BEIJING AND DELHI
This journey through India and China is an anecdotal celebration of power from below
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.