‘Saare jahan se achha’ is a better economic mantra

US secretary of state Mike Pompeo says a new Cold War has already begun with China seeking global hegemony that must be combated by a combined front of democracies. Sadly, President Trump has wrecked trade and political relations with Europe, Japan, India and other traditional allies. But the Chinese hegemonic threat will remain the big challenge of the 21st century. In this context, clashes In the Galwan Valley or Doklam are tiny, irrelevant skirmishes. The real battle will be fought and won at the highest technological level.

China has made huge technological strides even as the USA loses steam. India has woefully under-appreciated this. India’s new mantra of Atmanirbhar (self-sufficiency) is an unfortunate throwback to Nehru’s failed self-sufficiency. Industries cowering behind protective trade walls will never beat China economically or strategically. Indian businessmen still accuse China of using cheap labour and subsidies to dump cheap exports. Stop this nonsense. Far from specialising in cheap-labour goods, China has become the world’s technological leader in many areas. In 5G, the telecom of the future, China’s Huawei is well ahead of competition from Sweden’s Ericsson, Korea’s Samsung or Finland’s Nokia. Amazingly, no US company is in contention.

For decades, Intel was world leader in microchips, doubling their computing power every two years. But suddenly Intel has fallen a full generation behind Taiwan Semiconductor in microchips. When France’s Notre Dame cathedral caught fire, Chinese drones were used to guide firefighters because they were the best. JinkoSolar is the world biggest, best supplier of solar cells and panels. Chinese battery companies are forging ahead.

President Xi plans to make China the world’s top power by 2025 in 10 fields, including artificial intelligence, robotics and space technology. China is already number one or two in many of them. The US won the Cold War because of superior technology. The Soviet Union had areas of excellence but overall lagged far behind the West. So, it could never attain hegemony.

The USSR followed the Atmanirbhar philosophy of trying to make everything at home. That proved a colossal failure, an expanded version of Nehru’s failure in India. Success means becoming the best in the world, and that entails collaboration with top allies in supply chains. The right goal is not “Atmanirbhar” but “Sare jahan se achha (best in the world)”. India cannot compete with China by producing highcost goods behind high tariff walls. It can win only by producing the best goods in the world by developing the best technology in collaboration with the best collaborators. This means not self-sufficiency but joining hands with other democracies to create high-tech value chains in which India becomes indispensable because of its high skills.

Today India produces millions of useless, unemployable graduates. A new education policy has just been unveiled with details enough to occupy hundreds of pages of analysis. But it fails altogether to tackle the dismal fact that government schools are so bad that poor people pull children out of free government schools and put them in expensive private schools that are scarcely better but give desperate parents some hope whereas government schools give none. Government teachers lack passion, accountability or commitment, are absent half the time, and so educational outcomes remain dismal year after year in Pratham surveys. When India participated in the global PISA school competition, it came second last. Can such a country compete with China?

Narendra Modiji, I am no RSS fan. But you could use the passion and commitment that the RSS undoubtedly has to create world class schools that the formal state education system cannot. The RSS’ Vidya Bharati school network now has 5,241 elementary schools and 2,635 high schools with over 3 million students. Its original aim was to inculcate Hindutva philosophy and help create future RSS cadres. But without sacrificing this aim, why not expand this massive educational network to produce centres of excellence that can beat the Chinese?

For starters, why not seek to create a dozen schools in every state that can match Chinese schools in PISA tests? Beyond that why not aim for at least two private universities in every state of Ivy League quality? State governments last only five years and lack the 25-year vision needed to create world class institutions. But the RSS can do so. Hopefully, once the RSS starts creating centres of excellence, other political parties will start their own schools of excellence to compete.

There is no space in a short column to flesh out these ideas. Briefly, shift from “Atmanirbhar” to “Sare jahan se achha” as India’s future philosophy. President Xi is already doing so. Do not lag behind.

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