By Kenneth J. Cooper, Washington Post
Sunday, May 30, 1999; Page B02
Eight years ago, when India abandoned socialism and stepped into the
world economy, hope sprang alive in New Delhi's corridors of power and
in the boardrooms of multinational corporations that this Asian giant was
about to become a global economic player, despite the desperate poverty
that has shaped its international image.
Here was a huge country--nearly 1 billion people--capable of throwing its
weight around, if it finally exercised the economic muscle that had wasted
away behind protectionist barriers for decades. India had one of the
world's largest contingents of skilled technicians, a consumer class about as
big as the population of the United States, an industrial base that made
everything from carpets to satellites, and an agricultural sector that ranked
as a leading producer of basic foodstuffs such as wheat and milk.
That was all true then, and remains so, but few India hands have retained
their optimism that the nation's potential for rapid growth is going to be
realized any time soon, even if the next century does turn out to be "the
Asian century" as was widely predicted here--at least before last summer's
Asian economic downturn. (As growth in India's economy and exports has
slipped since 1997, politicians have taken comfort that the declines have
not been as steep as in Southeast Asia.) Many Western executives whose
companies rushed in the early 1990s to establish offices in India have
scaled back their operations--and their hopes--in the past few years.
I understand why they are doing so. My experience covering a succession
of five governments in New Delhi has convinced me that instead of
claiming a significant place in the global economic order, India is holding
"They ain't ready," concluded an American diplomat who arrived in New
Delhi during the giddy days of economic optimism and left as it was
waning. That diplomat predicted a generation, maybe two, would pass
before India's leaders get the nation's economic act together.
Even that strained measure of optimism springs from faith in what should
be the pride of India, an entrenched democracy that is not only the world's
largest but also the oldest in a developing country. My gut tells me that if
Indian politicians debate it long enough, as they most surely will, they'll get
it right. But as they say in India, "That will take some time."