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The new Great Game
Written by Alex Massie
22 April 2021
The calibre of a government may be measured by the quality of those who lead it and the merit of those who govern may in turn be revealed by how they wish to be seen by those whom they lead. Appearances really do count and perception is its own reality. So a useful heuristic is that when leaders begin creating monuments to themselves, something fishy is in the works.
From which it follows that those seeking an insight into modern India could do worse than pay a visit – when such things are permitted, of course – to the world’s largest cricket stadium in Ahmedabad. Earlier this year the 132,000-capacity stadium – for it is a stadium, not a mere ground like Lord’s or the Oval – was renamed in honour of Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister since 2014. A cricket stadium may not be a golden statue, but it is the next best thing.
This, then, is a leading indicator and a warning. The world’s largest democracy is in many ways a remarkable nation but that democracy is, unavoidably perhaps, riven with tensions and, in certain respects, a more fragile thing than is often appreciated. For, as we have seen elsewhere, a true democracy requires something more than the mere counting of votes cast in tolerably honest elections. Modi’s immodesty tells us something about him but something rather greater than that about the party, and the country, he leads.
As it happens, Ahmedabad is one of the centres of India’s fast-unravelling coronavirus crisis. If there are not, proportionally, so many patients occupying intensive care beds in Gujurat’s most populous city as there are in Mumbai and Nagpur, Ahmedabad’s hospitals are still under greater strain than Lombardy’s were a year ago.
In less than a month the number of daily infections in India has increased by more than 600%. More than 100,000 cases are being recorded and given the paucity of testing in rural parts of the country these figures are all but certainly a significant under-estimate of the virus’s true spread across India. Vaccinating three million people a day is, in one sense, an impressive achievement but it is also nothing like enough in a nation of nearly 1.5 billion people. A disaster does not merely loom; it is happening now.
This is so even if death rates, thanks to India’s relatively youthful population, remain comparatively low. This ensures that the sub-continent is likely to remain a reservoir for a virus which, thanks to its mutability, will remain a threat even after vaccination programmes have been completed. A reminder, too, that this crisis will be something to be managed, not solved, for years yet. Even so, true figures for the numbers dying are hard to come by, although the Financial Times estimated this week that in some parts of the country official numbers are likely to be only a fraction of the real figure. As many as 17,000 people may be dying from covid each day.
All of which serves as a further reiteration of the fact that, despite everything, India remains a country of the future, not quite the here and now. No wonder Boris Johnson was so keen to visit; no wonder, too, that his visit had to be cancelled or postponed given the current emergency.
Comparisons with China – and not just in terms of managing the pandemic – illustrate both India’s potential and how far it must still go before it can even approach realising that potential. At almost $10,000 a person, China’s nominal GDP per capita is almost five times greater than India’s. Although India has enjoyed rapid growth this century, the gap between it and China has widened. India’s economy is still only around the same size as the United Kingdom’s and it is not forecast to become the world’s third largest until around 2035.
The future, however, is obviously eastern and that has consequences. According to a forecast issued by the Centre for Economics and Business Research last year, China may overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy in 2028, five years sooner than previously estimated. Per capita incomes are obviously a different matter, but the slow decline of the west, relatively speaking, is something liable to accelerate.
China’s influence, globally, is not likely to be overwhelmingly positive. Beijing is not hugely interested in promoting a liberal society and expectations that trade would liberate Chinese society and political culture were dashed long ago. It turns out people can stomach plenty in a growing economy. That is a lesson that has not gone unnoticed in Delhi either.
The rivalry between India and China remains in its infant stages but a full-blown conflict between the two – rather than the skirmishes routinely seen on the Himalayan frontier separating the countries – remains one of the century’s under-priced possibilities.
Since China is a clear,obvious and current strategic threat to the United States and its allies, it follows – almost axiomatically – that India can form a partial counterweight to Chinese expansionism. That in turn justifies Beijing’s recruitment of Pakistan as a client state (paid for, in part, by lavish infrastructure spending that also, conveniently, offers China a road to the Indian ocean), the better to keep India encircled. This is, then, one facet of a new Great Game and it is one to be played for ever-greater stakes as the oriental century progresses.
That is a big picture that even a disaster such as a global pandemic cannot obscure. Day to day troubles are merely minor details when set beside the grander sweep of history. Just as China seeks to assert itself on the international stage, so we should expect India to desire to emulate its great rival. Doing so requires an ever more strident expression of Indian nationalist sentiment, which means that Narendra Modi’s cricket stadium in Ahmedabad is something more significant than a mere sporting arena, for it is also a whisper from the future.
About Beyond the Street and Alex Massie
We are all guilty of being too inwardly focused sometimes, especially as we navigate these changed times. It is all too easy to be caught up in the problems close to home, and for overarching trends to pass us by.
To remedy that short-sightedness, Charlotte Street Partners has enlisted the ingenuity and talent of the writer and commentator Alex Massie. As our new correspondent at large, Alex will look at the bigger picture for us each week. We have challenged him to come up with something a bit different: broad, lateral thinking, thematic insights and a more global perspective.
Alex is a freelance journalist and commentator based in Edinburgh. Not only is he Scotland editor of The Spectator, but he also writes a political column for The Times and The Sunday Times. He features regularly on the BBC as a political commentator and has written in the past for The Telegraph, Politico, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, the New Statesman, The Observer, and TIME magazine, among others. He was also the Washington correspondent for The Scotsman and assistant editor of Scotland on Sunday.
We hope you enjoy his work – and do feel free to forward this email on to colleagues and friends you think might be interested. They can subscribe to Beyond the Street and our other regular briefings here.