In Contrast To The U.S., India Economy Thrives

A day after President Barack Obama stressed innovation as a means to turn around the U.S. economy, Tell Me More focuses on India, where the economy is flourishing. Host Michel Martin talks with reporter Anand Giridharadas who is the author of "India Rising" about whether India's ideals of democracy and capitalism will work for other nations in the developing world.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

The president, last night, used India as well as China to illustrate the manner in which the U.S. must work harder to remain competitive worldwide.

President BARACK OBAMA: Meanwhile, nations like China and India realized that with some changes of their own, they could compete in this new world. And so they started educating their children earlier and longer with greater emphasis on math and science. They're investing in research and new technologies.

MARTIN: India is the world's biggest democracy, with over a billion people. And it's modeled itself, in some ways, after the U.S. We've invited Anand Giridharadas, columnist for The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune to join us to talk about India on this India Republic Day. That's a holiday celebrating when India's constitution first went into effect after independence from Great Britain.

Mr. Giridharadas is the author of the new book "India Calling." He grew up in the U.S. and then moved to his parents' homeland, India, to report, research and write. He still spends months out of the year there.

Anand, welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us once again.

Mr. ANAND GIRIDHARADAS (Author, "India Calling"): It's wonderful to be here.

MARTIN: How do you think Indians will react to the president's shout out last night at the State of the Union?

Mr. GIRIDHARADAS: It's interesting. There were a lot of shout outs. South Korea, I think, got the most. I think they got more shout outs than gets in South Korea's own State of the Union speeches, probably, and China and India.

MARTIN: But still being held up as a country that the U.S. needs to keep an eye on in order to remain competitive and emulate in some ways.

Mr. GIRIDHARADAS: Absolutely. And I think there was - the interesting thing to kind of read from last night's speech is in some ways there was the familiar mantra that we've all heard of economic - a threat of economic competitiveness. But I think President Obama very wisely also pointed out the kind of cultural competitiveness that we don't talk about as much.

For example, when he talked about how teachers in South Korea are referred to as nation builders. That's not an economic threat. That's a cultural threat. That's a threat of people seeing the world differently and seeing it in ways that allow them to really pull their countries up. And I think what you're seeing in India and in China and in many other parts of the world, are countries that were in many ways dormant, not just economically, but culturally for long periods of time and that are now waking up, ready to go, ready to fight.

MARTIN: Well, let's talk about the sort of the two faces of India today. You have this great quote in your book, when talking about some of the people you came across in the Indian middle class. You said, quote, "They spoke as if they had just surfaced from an American Chamber of Commerce seminar. A rising tide lifts all boats. The government that governs least governs best." Do you think that's a widely held point of view?

Mr. GIRIDHARADAS: You know, nothing is a widely held point of view in India, but I think what I was trying to get at is among those who have done well in the last 20 years in India, and who therefore dominate the conversation to a great degree, there's a conviction that markets solve all problems. And this is in some ways an overreaction to the belief in the preceding 40 years that markets are no good and that the government and socialism solves all problems. So, now India's kind of pivoted the other way.

And it's interesting because in many ways, a lot of this, and you see this elsewhere in the developing world, consists of a misreading of the American experience. There's this kind of view in a lot of other places that America is just this bustling free market where the government does absolutely nothing.

Whereas, in fact, any Republican or Democrat in America will tell you the government does all - a whole number of things to provide a platform for the market. So that was what I was trying to get at in that particular passage.

MARTIN: You also talk a lot and you also spend a lot of time reporting on this. China was one of the other countries that the president referenced as a country to keep an eye on. And of course China's president, Hu Jintao, was just in the U.S. How does China compare when talking about the same living standard issues you bring up for India? Because one of the things you've been writing about is in the basic sort of quality of life issues that are addressing matters like poverty and hunger, China is in fact doing much better than India is. Why is that?

Mr. GIRIDHARADAS: It is. This is part of the fascination of what is happening with the rise of these two side-by-side giants, India and China. They began their experiments roughly around the same time in the last 20, 40 years. They were both feudal, huge, massive, mostly rural countries, great ancient civilizations that are now trying to become modern and parallel. And of course one is the greatest democracy in the world and the other is kind of the greatest authoritarian regime in the world.

And what is sad and striking on the question of poverty is that the big authoritarian country has done a lot better. It has eliminated, at least from its cities and not just its cities, a kind of totally at the bottom, degrading existence for millions, tens of millions, hundreds of millions of people that is still all too visible in India. And I think that's something that people who care about democracy and care about the idea that it's a useful way to fight poverty need to kind of think about and reflect on.

MARTIN: You said that they need to, but are they? I'm reminded of and I don't mean to trivialize the importance of the conversation, but I'm reminded of when "Slumdog Millionaire" became a global hit. But it kind of opened up some larger questions about why do these conditions exist to begin with? And, you know, an outsider, a non-Indian calling attention to these issues in a manner that, you know, some people found disturbing and other people just found embarrassing.

So the question is, on this India Republic Day, is there a kind of reflection about these real disparities?

Mr. GIRIDHARADAS: The fascinating thing there is it's a very successful democracy in terms of having those regular elections, not having coups and revolutions all the time. But India has built that very successful procedural democracy on top of a foundation, philosophical foundation, I think, of people not entirely believing that all men are created equal.

A good friend of mine, Sudhir Kakar, who's a phenomenal psychoanalyst in India, has written that India is the world's largest and most plural democracy with the world's most undemocratic people.

India has the structures of democracy, but I think never implanted the idea that it is wrong for certain people to live in a certain way if we are all kind of God's children.

MARTIN: And, finally, you know, the State of the Union is a time for a national assessment of where the country is. And, of course, you know, there are different visions of where the country is, which is one of the reasons we heard three different speeches last night. Will there be speeches today for India Republic Day, just to have that national assessment? And what do you think some of those speeches will say? And taking your point entirely, then, in a country of more than a billion people, there will not be one assessment as there is not one here.

Mr. GIRIDHARADAS: There will be many speeches. There will be many media commentaries. There will be people in the op-ed pages and on TV and in their homes debating what the new India means. The thing to watch for is this: Over the last 20 years, it needed to be established that India could grow, that it could be dynamic, that it could get respect and power on the world stage and that more importantly than any of that, it could begin to empower millions of its own people one at a time, give them their own personal independences, not just the independence from the British.

I think the conversation over the next 20 years is, OK, we are big. We are powerful. We have money. Now, who are we? What are our values? What do we want in the world now that we have power in it? And that question is beginning to happen, but it's not happened enough. And it's a very important question, because once you grow, and once you gain influence, it begins to matter a lot more to everybody what you want to do with it.

MARTIN: Anand Giridharadas has lived in and reported on India for many years. He's the author of the new book "India Calling." We reached him in Cambridge, Massachusetts today. And he's with us now from there. Anand, thank you so much for joining us once again.

Mr. GIRIDHARADAS: Thank you.

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