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The competition between India and China is about more than raw power

Tom Porter   

The competition between India and China is about more than raw power
  • India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi had his power pegged back in elections this week.
  • It was also the 35th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in China.

Narendra Modi's strongman ambitions suffered a setback this week.

His Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) party fell short of the landslide victory many had predicted in the Indian elections.

As Modi becomes India's prime minister for a third time, his party will have to enter into a power-sharing agreement with alliance partners.

It's a chastening lesson from the Indian electorate for Modi, who, while boosting India's global standing, has been accused of stoking division and weakening India's democracy.

On the same day as the Indian election results, the world marked the 35th anniversary of the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, which saw a brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing.

In the decades since, China has slid back into Maoist-style authoritarianism.

The events this week highlighted how the competition between India and China is about more than raw power. It's also a competition between two very different political ideologies.

India is a flawed but thriving democracy

India is the world's largest democracy. Its first elections were held in 1951-52 after it gained independence from Britain. Free elections have been held in nearly every election cycle since, with a coup in 1975 briefly threatening India's democratic status.

It is a rare bright spot in a world where democracy seems to be in retreat. Even in the US, the global champion of democracy, former president Donald Trump is accused of launching an attempt to cling to power illegally after losing the 2020 election.

"India isn't a perfect democracy but it is still a role model for developing nations, large or small. And given trends in some Western democracies, I would have to say that there are several things they, too, should be learning from India," said Jabin T. Jacob, an expert on India-China relations at Shiv Nadar University, India.

India's democracy, though, faces a stern test under Modi, say critics. Global democracy watchdog Freedom House in 2021 downgraded India's democratic status, saying Modi's Hindu nationalist movement had menaced journalists, attacked Muslims, and corroded civil liberties.

Jacob said this week's results showed India's democracy remained resilient despite the pressures, while dealing a blow to a leader seen to have overstepped his authority.

"We have just seen an election in which the Indian electorate decided that their interests are best served by power shared more evenly among a set of political formations that represent diverse interests and aspirations. That is the essence of democracy," he said.

"The Indian electorate is a very mature one, and it has always intervened in a timely fashion against authoritarian tendencies in its rulers."

It's unclear whether Modi will now double down on the nationalism he's championed or seek a more moderate path based on economic reform.

China's rise comes at a high cost

There are those in India, though, who have been astonished at the speed and efficiency of China's rise to economic superpower status.

China has become the world's second-largest economy, and the lives of millions of ordinary Chinese people have been transformed. Though India has made huge economic progress under Modi, it still lags behind.

"Perhaps the greatest challenge democracy faces in India is that is has failed to deliver the kind of sustained economic development enjoyed by neighbors like China over the last four decades. It has also failed to eliminate extreme poverty," wrote Chatham House analyst Gareth Price in 2022.

But with prosperity in China, has come reduced freedom.

Since Tiananmen Square 35 years ago, China's Communist Party has rolled back many of the freedoms its citizens once had.

Its current leader, Xi Jinping, has imposed a draconian surveillance state and is considered China's most authoritarian ruler since Mao Tse Tung.

Dominic Chiu, an analyst with the Eurasia Group, told Business Insider that China's system had given it an economic advantage — but at a cost.

"China's one-party rule in the reform era enabled consistent long-term policymaking and economic planning," he said. "This benefited China's economy immensely when the leadership decided to liberalize markets, privatize industries, and open the country up to foreign investment."

But, he said, China's repressive one-party system was also deterring investors. And with China's economy experiencing a steep downturn, this poses a serious problem for its future growth.

China and India vie for dominance

Having achieved economic superpower status, China is now seeking to assert its power more aggressively both regionally and internationally.

Tensions with India are increasing. In 2020, clashes along the countries' Himalayan border resulted in the death of 20 Indian soldiers and four Chinese.

Analysts told BI that building stronger alliances to counter Chinese aggression will be one of the core aims of Modi's third term.

And its commitment to democracy hands it an important advantage, said Jacob.

"India's democratic status is critical for its international standing. It is an opportunity to develop a model of economic and political development that is both equitable and democratic and thus distinct from the aggressive capitalism of the US or the authoritarianism of the PRC," he said.

In 2021, India entered into the "Quad" partnership with democracies the US, Japan, and Australia, to counter what is perceived as growing Chinese aggression in the Pacific and Indian Ocean.

It's a political alliance that would've been more difficult to broker if India was ruled by an authoritarian government, say observers.

Competing nationalist visions

Some analysts, though, say that the competition between India and China is not, at its core, about competing political systems but about competing nationalist visions.

According to this interpretation, both Xi and Modi are committed to restoring what they see as their nation's rightful place at the top of the global order.

But in his quest to strengthen India, critics are warning Modi not to undermine the commitment to democracy and pluralism they believe is at the heart of its post-independence success.

Jacob said those in India jealous of China's economic might should look more closely at the reality.

"Indians who argue against democracy using the China comparison clearly don't understand anything about the reality of China and the Chinese people," he said.

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