I started writing this column in my head while listening to John Mersheimer, the famed father of the offensive realism school of international relations from the University of Chicago, talk about why the rise of China will not be peaceful, at the Oxford China Centre.
Mersheimer has written a new book called – The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities, whose ideas underpin the argument why China cannot rise, as it has in the past, peacefully, and without entering a conflict with America. In a nutshell, the argument is this – for years the Washington Consensus of liberal hegemony in America believed that if only they could get China to buy into the capitalism, liberal democracy was bound to follow.
Guess what? China did buy into capitalism, in fact it seems to be out-capitalism-ing American capitalism – but its government is growing ever more authoritarian. As Chinese President Xi Jinping vows to unify Taiwan with the Chinese mainland on the back of unprecedented economic and military strength, and China emerges as a serious contender to American power, its actions underline Mersheimer’s argument that China’s rise in the long run is unlikely to be peaceful.
Alongside this story of the collapse of the Washington Consensus, I noticed a set of data from Oxford Economics research put out by the World Economic Forum. It showed a chart predicting the top 10 fastest growing cities in the world 2019-2035. The list began with Surat and ended with Vijayawada – all 10 were from India.
The migration researcher Chinmay Tumbe has shown how, in a sense, Surat today holds the beacon of the light of prosperity and dreams, in the way Bombay once did, for tens of thousands of migrant workers. This is the point when angry men on Twitter will point out that Bombay still does, and it is called Mumbai, but here’s the thing – Bombay distinctly feels like the city of dreams of the past, whereas Surat could well be the city of dreams of the future. And changing the name has had no impact on the sinking fortunes of Mumbai.
Think about it – the real growth is happening in Surat and Agra, Tiruppur and Rajkot, Tiruchirappalli and Vijayawada. Sure, old guard names like Chennai, Hyderabad and Bengaluru are on the list but they are the minority – and they are not at number one or even number two on the list.
You may argue that this is because some of these cities are rising off a smaller baseline than the bigger metropolises, but it is undeniable where the energies of new enterprise lie today in India.
This change shall bring, indeed is already bringing, unprecedented change in the socioeconomic outlook of India. The centre of gravity is shifting from what one could call the Khan Market consensus – after a famed market in the heart of New Delhi’s most elite enclave – to places most people who brunch at Khan Market and pretend to change the destiny of the country with every gossip, cannot point out on a map, or even spell.
This change lies at the heart of India’s notorious culture wars – a battle as much of ideas as it is of electoral politics. Why? Because we know that culture and power follow only one thing – money.
When Calcutta was the jewel of the crown of the British Raj, the sensibilities of the elite of Calcutta spread through the land, causing the brown sahibs to gloat that what Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow.
As more than three decades of Communist rule destroyed the economic might of Bengal, the intelligentsia, slowly but surely, stopped taking its cues from Bengal.
The action moved to Bombay where the bustle of the bazaars and the sizzle of Hindi cinema unfurled – a city where no one went to bed hungry, the streets were paved with dreams, but who had time to dream in a city that never slept?
Sometime in the 2000s, especially after floods and terror attacks showed Bombay for what it was – a crumbling city where everything shut down at 11 pm – the action moved to New Delhi. The political power had always been here but now there was a glorious hint of globalisation. When I first arrived in Delhi two decades ago, it was still dismissively referred to as an overgrown village. Then Delhi changed – and became cosmopolitan. It started to sniff at Bombay for being too ditzy. Delhi was the home of the clever crowd. Bombay had films, but Delhi had books, and books were cooler than films.
The techie billionaires from Bangalore (Bengaluru) muscled in on the action but even they had to come to Delhi to enter the durbar of intellectuals; they had to come to Khan Market – to have shopped there is to have arrived.
Today, through the hell-smoke of some of the world’s worst air pollution in Delhi, and traffic that makes any talk of growth seem distinctly Faustian, Khan Market’s status as having some of the highest real estate rates in the world sounds more like a scam than anything else. These days friends in Delhi tell me how its middle lane smells of pee – but why is that new? (note here that India’s cleanest city today, and which is not on the Oxford Economics list but is worth mentioning, is Indore. It transformed itself from a shabby little nobody town to making headlines for cleanliness in the last few years. What Indore thinks today, India thinks tomorrow?)
The chorus will rise – who on earth is taking cues from Surat?
To them I say, hold on.
This could well be a new beginning when the power structure of opinion-making decentralises in India. I smell a new confidence in smaller towns that I have never smelled in a decade of travelling to every part of India. If this level of growth continues, these towns will convert into the new engines of ideas in India. Unsurprisingly when I tweeted out the Oxford Economics list a couple of days ago, the first comment from a follower came within seconds. It said: ‘I love living in Surat. Great roads. No pollution. Wonderful food.’
What’s that smell? Oh, that’s rising from the burn on the Khan Market consensus. Bring in the Burnol.