Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) guides Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to a meeting room in Xian, Shaanxi province, China, May 14, 2015. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Many years ago, when CNN’s Fareed Zakaria called India an illiberal democracy, it did not go down well, despite evidence that he was correct. Indian democracy continues its fight against that illiberal strain.

However, a far worse trend has been seen recently, and that is the attraction of the “China model,” particularly among the proponents of the present Indian ruling dispensation. This article points out three specific trends in that direction. This is particularly evident as India is losing its moral compass, in the context of recent developments, notably the government’s hardline stance against its own students and eminent universities. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s India is looking like Deng Xiaoping’s China, but in the form of repressing student movements instead of bringing in economic reforms and progress, as Modi promised in 2014.

This must sound like music to China’s ruling elites because, in the long run, an India that is developed, inclusive and democratic is a far bigger threat to China than India’s armed forces would ever be. India must continue its path in that direction, removing one hindrance at a time. That is what is known as the India model. It is the one that is likely to succeed in the longer run. And that India model one must protect, nurture and fight to strengthen. This India model is what China will also continue to denigrate by pointing to data on hunger or poverty, because China’s monolithic model and its success continue to dominate the narrative as India is progressing slower than one would want.

When the global economic crisis struck in 2008-09, China had just begun to realize its muscle as the world’s second-largest economy, and it also survived the crisis better than many others. Chinese hardliners began to tell Indians that their model of governance was of no use, especially if almost half of the population did not get enough to eat. This was part of the process to put India down systemically.

That India did not grow in the last decade as much as one hoped for is another story. Issues of multiple and overlapping authorities, corruption in the Commonwealth Games, in coal and in spectrum allocations and other governance failures, in slow executions of policies in health and infrastructure and in tardy processes of defense procurement and indigenization, showed up in the 2014 mandate – one that was supposed to be about Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas (an inclusive development agenda).

What India has today is a situation where a China Daily article used Internet shutdowns in India to argue that it is a “normal practice for sovereign countries.” How did this change so fast, that a democracy shuts down the Internet and a single-party state uses it as a justification for its own clampdown? The answer to that question is easy, and it has to do with the ever-expanding definition of what is “normal.”

Without a doubt, both of India’s leading parties are responsible for pushing the country closer to where it is today. There were detentions of cartoonists and journalists even during Congress rule, but the present regime took it forward by broadening the definition of “anti-nationals.”

The present government helped expand the definition of what can be put in the category of being anti-national and narrowed down the idea of patriotism to nationalism and Indian-ness. The divide between nationalists and the “other” was narrowed down, with very severe punishments for being seen as the “other.”

This is where the Indian model, which was supposed to be more inclusive and welcoming, begins to fail and lose its appeal to the wider world. The idea of India is one that never saw others as threatening but enriching, as poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore reminds us. The Indian model of inclusive development was supposed to be a shining example in Asia of the robustness of democracy coupled with the heritage that was sure of its place in the world.

Fatal attraction

What India has instead is a new attraction for a rapidly rising China. And it is most certainly present among the supporters of the recent divide in Indian society. So, what are these attractions and how to identify them? It has been argued over the past couple of years that these operate at three different levels. All of these arguments are followed by saying that India should be doing something similar.

The dangerous over-zealousness of applying the wrong aspects of the China model to India without acknowledging its single-party rule and all the consequences it brings cannot be pushed under the carpet any more and must be called out.

The first argument is that China controls dissent in the Muslim province of Xinjiang well. However, those making this argument do not understand that it is not as if China would allow other regions to flourish without making such progress one with Chinese characteristics, and one knows well how that goes. Even recently, some of the supporters of the ruling dispensation were happy that China was keen to rewrite the Bible and Koran to reflect socialist values.

The second argument is made by the business traveler to cities like Shanghai and Shenzhen who says “the Chinese people are so disciplined,” without understanding the surveillance state under which citizens operate and must continue to work under a state that neither forgets nor forgives. The price for order is indeed very high. Within this category one can also include the attraction of China’s population-control policy, which is also popular among a section of ruling elites here in India. That discipline and duties have great currency above the rights in the Indian constitution in the minds of a right-winger is no small coincidence as well.

The third argument, of course, long heard, is that China manages to do things like airport construction so fast. The answer to this of course can be a long one, ranging from economic legitimacy to corruption and the environment and inequality. Equally important is the idea of rights and right to compensation. Displacement and relocations are common in China and it is a huge bone of contention.

The right to compensation is something China is in fact trying to implement by learning from other large developing countries, including India. This is not what one imagines when expressing the idea of learning from China. It may be noted that China’s recent nationalism-driven approach is an outcome of its economic might and not a starting point of the process, which in fact was based on taking a break from the past.

The first time it looked as if India was following the China model was when Modi spoke after the revocation of Article 370 of the constitution on Kashmir. His pitch sounded exceedingly similar to China’s countless white papers on Tibet and Xinjiang where the government promised to bring progress against stability and conformity to the party-state’s supremacy over everything else.

China’s story of success is a narrative that is tightly built so as to ensure the centrality of the Communist Party.

In India, regimes will come and go and some may fail and others will succeed and should be accepted as such. It’s undoubtedly a better idea than re-imagining enemies and others in ways that prevent us from taking a break from our past: That approach not only prevents us from moving on but also threatens to divide and rule.

Avinash Godbole

Dr Avinash Godbole is is an assistant professor with O P Jindal Global University, specializing on China studies and international relations. The views expressed here are personal.

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