In India, progress is a matter of perspective
When distinguished foreign policy expert, and former US national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski told me a couple of years ago that he worried about the stability of India, I thought he was way off-track. I was living in Calcutta at the time; democracy seemed to be thriving and most of the country was developing fast.
But that was before last year's crises. One financial scandal has followed another. The government has been overwhelmed by its inability to dominate the legislature. Economic growth has fallen sharply.
Not only is the ruling Congress government too often reacting to major events too late, the main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, is also floundering.
The Nobel Prize-winning economist from West Bengal, Amartya Sen, has written in The New York Review of Books that India is way behind China not only in economic growth but, more importantly, in indicators such as the infant mortality rate and years of schooling. A large proportion of Indian children is undernourished.
While India rapidly increases its defence budget, government expenditure on public health care is appallingly low.
But, says Sen, democracy over the decades has achieved much in India. The people appreciate this, as they do a free press and the independent standing of the judiciary. Access to the internet is uncensored, capital punishment is rare compared with China's mass executions.
Since Sen wrote that, more statistics have become available. The National Medical Journal of India found that boys, aged 18, are 4.5cm taller and 4kg heavier than they were in 1992. The really poor have decreased by 52million and literacy rates have risen.
The government has introduced a wide range of anti-poverty programmes, subsidies, credit schemes, cancelled debts and provided non-farming jobs which have had a major impact on the fortunes of the rural poor. Soaring food prices, too, have meant village people can buy televisions, refrigerators, water pumps and send their children to better schools.
The Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Act that assures rural households of 100 days of unskilled non-farming paid work has benefited millions of households. A report by Kotak Mahindra Bank says that the rural economy increased by 17per cent annually in recent years, compared with the national average of 8per cent.
In Bihar, the nation's poorest state, teacher absenteeism is down 15per cent and girls are given bicycles if they come to school.
Is India making real progress? In many important ways, yes. But the politics is dire and Brzezinski is at least half right.
Jonathan Power is a syndicated foreign affairs columnist