By David Watts
As India and Pakistan celebrate their independence day their trajectories since 1947 could hardly have been more different. As India and Pakistan celebrate their independence days their trajectories since 1947 could hardly have been more different. As India celebrates her birthday the world is beating a path to her door. In the case of Pakistan, her existence has never been more in question as the war against al-Qaeda in her northern territories is pursued aggressively by the United States with drone attacks and Islamabad struggles with internal radicalism.
The international interest in India is not particularly remarkable; 'twas ever thus. But what is remarkable, in light of her history, is the type of people who come visiting today. Time was when they would have been researchers and scholars; Third World leaders in search of the secret of keeping a desperately poor population stable and contented; religious believers and Westerners in search of something more substantial in their shallow and vacuous lives; the leaders of socialist nations keen to have Delhi on their side in the latest international leftist ideological stand-off or spies in search of a fault-line to exploit in the great socialist paradigm.
Today the visitors still come but they are of a different stripe: businessmen eager for investment and trade; show business people joining in the latest Bollywood excesses; international diplomats currying favour; 'peace-makers' seeking to lower the temperature of neighbourly disputes and, more recently, nuclear salesmen of hardware and policy.
India has come off the international economic and ideological fence and, for better or worse, plunged headlong into a Westernizing phase, not only in the cultural sense but also in the geopolitical sense. Its even-handed approach to international affairs appears to have been abandoned in favour of joining the American camp at a time when it is arguably on the decline. It is building its military power through that connection at an unprecedented speed and scale as part of that international dispensation. Like it or not, part of that bargain is to define its powerful neighbour China as a threat not only at their land border, where it is already seen as such, but through the oceans of South-East Asia and into the Indian Ocean. Military spending is accelerating at almost 12 per cent per annum at a time when real domestic needs are ever more pressing, with some 300 million or so below the poverty line and HIV/AIDS on the march. There are countless social needs on which the annual defence budget of $36 billion would be better spent in terms of advancing the nation as a whole.
India's diplomats should be working overtime to alleviate the geo-political competition with China. The economic competition is inevitable, and not necessarily negative, but reducing the burden on the defence budget of a potential conflict with China is work of great value in an era when such tensions are an anachronism. The Chinese leadership is fully open about relatively few things but we can be sure that avoidance of international conflict is high on their agenda where the number one spot is taken by economic development, just as it is in India. It is only a matter of regret that tensions with Pakistan cannot be alleviated in the same way, at least for the present.
For its part, Pakistan seems ever more to be in the hands of those with a radical bent as the government struggles to meet the expectations of the American 'war on terror' while a large percentage of its army has sympathy with the jihadists, as do the people.
The most important difference between the two countries is the establishment of democracy in India and the fact that Pakistan has floundered desperately without it as the people are held hostage by an elite that is not responsive to their needs or those of the nation as a whole.
At the heart of the country's problems is the grinding poverty and lack of education with low levels of literacy that holds back Pakistanis. Unemployment remains stubbornly high and, sadly, for many of the young the best option is emigration.
For the present India is revelling in a booming economy while its international trade and economic status are at all-time highs; but it must ensure that other things are being achieved other than merely making hay while the sun is shining. Air quality is declining as the economy accelerates and the national metropolitan and rural infrastructure languishes.
Consumerism has gone mad to a degree unimaginable in the country that used to subscribe to Gandhian values. The Indian middle and upper classes are becoming known for excesses that put their Western brothers and sisters in the shade, while traditional values are melting away like Himalayan snow in the era of global warming.
Both AIDS and the need for infrastructural development are problems that the country is intellectually and technically capable of overcoming, especially with the generosity of Bill Gates in the background. But here, as in so many aspects of Indian life, there is no sense of urgency. The government shows no sense of having grasped the need to deal quickly with the AIDS epidemic or the necessity to speed infrastructure development so that it helps to develop the economy as a whole, thus drawing more people out of poverty and helping to stabilize an exploding population which is expected to reach 1.6 billion by 2050, having overtaken China as the world's most populous nation in 2032.
The point of the economic reforms and opening up of the country in the early 1990s was exactly to help alleviate these social and economic inequalities. No-one believes that they can be satisfactorily tackled in a couple of decades, or even in a couple of generations, but in a nation that has qualities of mercy and understanding which are the envy of the world there needs to be a re-balancing of priorities. By some estimates India is on track with its programme of poverty reduction and, despite 100 million more people being thrown into poverty by the recession, it is still expected to achieve a poverty level of 20.3 per cent or 268 million people by 2020. That will certainly be progress, if it is achieved.
But the reality is that in almost all aspects of Indian life, it is corruption that is sapping the potential vitality of the best efforts of government and the private sector. And it is not just the mind-boggling $40 billion lost to the exchequer through the corrupt administration of the second generation mobile phone licences and other headline-grabbing incidences, it is the petty incidences at street level. Getting children into school and winning due rights from local authorities are just some of the myriad ways that local people and initiatives can be stifled. Preventing the course of justice running justly, accessing medical care through personal influence and bribing politicians are also high on the list of abuses.
The fact that knowledge of the $9 million paid out in bribes by the ruling party to minority politicians to approve the nuclear pact with the United States only came to light through Wikileaks' revelations shows that the problems of corruption are not taken seriously at the highest levels. Until those changes, Indian society will remain like a man trying to walk with a block of concrete tied to his leg.
For the Pakistanis, they must hope that their security forces can make the right choices in taking on the jihadists and that they can be successful before more damage is done to their country.
Pakistan is in the unenviable position of being unsure who its real friends are. America takes an interest when it requires something of the Pakistani elite. China is a more constant friend but is the overall beneficiary of the relationship. But in the meantime, Islamabad is moving fast to build a relationship with Iran, with two high level visits to Tehran in less than a month. The tectonic plates are moving again.