Tell A Better Story

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Sep 27th, 2010 - Oliver Stuenkel |

When Shashi Tharoor, then India’s minister of state for external affairs, spoke about his country’s future status as a great power during an international conference in November 2009, India’s rise seemed indeed inevitable to a large part of the audience. Mr Tharoor, a former UN official and skilled public speaker, argued that India’s source of strength was not its large army, growing economy, or nuclear weapons but “the power of example” — what is commonly referred to as “soft power”

Soft power has tangible value as it makes other countries align without coercion. Put differently, it is the power of attraction and India boasts plenty of attractive features: an ancient civilisation, tolerance, a vibrant democracy and civil society despite extreme diversity and a uniquely attractive culture of music, film and world-class literature. “In today’s age”, Mr Tharoor concluded, “it is not the bigger army that prevails, it is the country that tells me better story”, adding that India was the land of the better story. India’s story is, without a doubt, one of the most impressive in the world but as of late, events in India seem to put the happy ending of that story into question. The inability to implement radical reform and combat corruption on a scale that makes even seasoned politicians blush have become as much part of the Indian story as its booming software and Bollywood industry. Unless the government takes more forceful action now, India risks squandering the immense amount of soft power it has accumulated, slashing hopes that India could offer the more attractive option than authoritarian China.

Most analysts sought to avoid the explicit comparison between China’s success at preparing the Olympic Games in 2008 and India’s dismal failure to organise the 2010 Commonwealth Games properly, an event that is far smaller and less complex to stage than the Olympics. Yet India has been promoting itself so aggressively over the past years, so loudly called for a more prominent position in global affairs, and has been projecting itself in the same league as its Chinese neighbour that worldwide expectations for the Games were very high.

The collapse of the bridge close to the main venue in Delhi and the foreign sports representatives’ comments about the “filthy” Games Village revealed all too well the yawning gap between expectation and reality. Yet the crisis is not about the Commonwealth Games which turned out to be 18 times more expensive than estimated in 2003. The incident merely serves as symbol for the government’s inability to implement a more professional, results-oriented mentality in the public sector and to reduce corruption that keeps India from claiming the spot it deserves in the world. The amount of schools, clinics and streets that could have been built with the money siphoned in the context of the Games, and the lost potential for India are not only a national disaster. The globally-televised scandal and endemic corruption in India is a defeat for all those in the world who passionately argue that democracy is no hindrance to economic progress and that other developing nations should look to India, and not to China, as they devise their political and economic strategy.

As African elites discuss ways to bring their countries forward, they are usually most attracted by China’s authoritarian, state-led rise, which seems like a safe way to hold on to power and implement projects without the bothersome negotiations and consensus-seeking that democracy involves. Homes that stand in the way of a new highway, airport or production site are removed without hearing the inhabitants’ concerns, significantly accelerating development. The Chinese government’s ability to organise flawless Olympic Games in 2008 serves as a powerful example for Chinese efficiency, boosting the nation’s soft power. Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame, who has helped turn Rwanda into a model country, admires China and Singapore and his ruthless action against the opposition shows that he believes that democracy be shoved aside in the battle against poverty. The number of countries that seek to emulate India remains low and incidents such as the corruption-riddled preparation of the Commonwealth Games bring to light an ugly reality that democracies may, after all, be no more successful in the fight against corruption than autocracies.

Mr Tharoor is right that India wields an enormous power of example in the world, and its democracy, religious tolerance and unrivalled cultural diversity and richness is something they can be proud of, and that no corrupt politician can destroy. Yet precisely because the world’s eyes are on India, it can, and must do more to show that Indian democracy is a system that cannot only rival China’s autocratic model but that it is superior not only because it respects political freedom and human rights, but because of its ability to deliver to its people. The Indian government does not only owe this to the Indian people, but to all those fighting for democracy across the world.

Oliver Stuenkel is a Visiting Professor of International Relations at the University of São Paulo (USP) and a Fellow at the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) in Berlin.