At the heart of India

Dr Pranab Mukherjee, Finance Minister of India, the second fastest growing state in the world, expects India to break through the 10 per cent a year economic growth barrier by the end of next year or early 2012.

By Jonathan Power

Published: Thu 9 Dec 2010, 9:17 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 10:14 AM

Then the world’s press will all be talking about the implications of this big race when the horses are going are going at full tilt, neck to neck. In fact, India will appear to be leading by a head if after 20 years of 10 per cent growth China’s falls back a step or two, which is predicted.

I was talking two days ago with Dr Mukherjee in his Kolkata home—a simple flat in a modest building, close by a noisy, fumy, honking, main street. He grew up in West Bengal and returns to Kolkata for the weekend as often as he can. He was chosen by Euro-money as the best finance minister in the world.

I told him that I had written a column 15 years ago arguing that one day in the not too distant future India’s tortoise would overtake China’s hare. At that time the economists and journalists talked mockingly about “the Hindu growth rate”—seemingly stuck at 3 per cent a year. People said I lived in fantasyland. But there were signs of immense progress—the forward speed of the Tata companies, the agricultural revolution, the growing middle class and the high level of education in some states like West Bengal and Kerala.

More important is that India’s political system has structure and flexibility because of its democracy, its independent legal system and its free press. One western banker told me that “China has progressed so fast because it had no law but now India will be the fastest because it has law.”

I asked Dr Mukherjee, a bit provokingly, if he wouldn’t be proud when India passed the 10 per cent threshold? “I don’t see it as a competition”, he replied. “There is room for both of us and we can expand together.”

The fact is, he added, that China is far ahead because “it’s had a fast rate of growth for 20 years. Its currency reserves far exceed ours. Its infrastructure is much more developed. Its income level is much higher. It will take us a long time to catch up”. “Within 10 years?” I asked. “It will depend on their growth rate, not just ours” he replied.

I said wasn’t he being a bit easy on China? After all, away from the throbbing eastern cities, the hinterland of China is exceedingly poor. Many villages have no health centres and for big illnesses the financial cost of being in a hospital is prohibitive. In most Indian villages, there is now a clinic and hospital care is free. The same goes for schools. “You can make such comparisons”, he said, “but I don’t think it’s a good idea in my job. My staff will tell you I am always discreet”.

His discretion does not allow him to boast, he says, but the fact is under the present Congress-led government of Manmohan Singh, money is being poured into rural backwaters. Every able bodied adult is now guaranteed work for 6 months a year and, despite the corrosive and widespread corruption which creams off as much as 20 per cent of the government’s largess, the money is having a visible impact on poverty levels. In West Bengal, just to take one example, the state government recently announced it is going to test every woman for cervical cancer.

However, if by no means as bad as China, the income differential is growing. The middle class—a quarter of the population—is pulling ever further ahead.

“What are the constraints on an even faster rate of growth?,” I asked. “Is the bad relationship with your neighbour, Pakistan, undermining what a fruitful economic partnership could bring about?” “No, not much”, he said. “Pakistan has never been a big part of our trade.” “Is it the savings rate? I remember interviewing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh when he was leader of the opposition and he was bemoaning that fact it was only 20 per cent.” “Now it’s up to 35 per cent. We need to push it up to 40 per cent to get the domestic investment we need’, he replied.

Like the prime minister, Mukherjee is incorruptible and at home there is no sign of ostentatious wealth. This is what India badly needs more of—with the added ingredient a conviction that sharing a growing pie more equitably is the real way of making India number one.

Jonathan Power is a veteran foreign affairs commentator based in London

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