India at Crossroads on Path to Superpower Status

And yet, Amartya Sen, an Indian winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences who teaches at Harvard, wrote in a recent study that China makes far better use of its opportunities to advance social development throughout high economic growth rates, and that India is falling behind its rival in terms of life expectancy, education and infant mortality.

The minister doesn't like to hear this. "I don't compare India with China," he says, but then he does. "We have two different development models. Democracy is a process through which one arrives at consensus on the issue of how to proceed. This may be a slower here in India and, of course, Beijing can acquire property for building projects in other ways. But if something is legitimized by the rule of law, it will ultimately be more sustainable."

Sibal wants to talk about successes, not shortcomings. "Of course I'm never satisfied," he says. "But look, for example, at what we are doing with the installation of broadband cable in the countryside. Some 250,000 villages are already connected, and then we have our project that will provide revolutionary tablet computers for the masses. It will change the lives of millions of people."

Many a technology aficionado is thrilled about the "Aakash" ("Sky"). The tablet computer, with its 7-inch touchscreen and two USB ports, will likely be priced at less than $50. The government in New Delhi wants to begin the project by buying 100,000 computers and distributing them to schools throughout the country. Later, when the price of the tablet -- developed by the British company DataWind in cooperation with Indian software engineers -- can be brought down even further, the government expects to see 10 million users gaining access to the Aakash's Internet connection.

Social activist Hazare sees high-tech firms and leading universities as small islands of prosperity in Indian cities that have little to do with the persistent state of misery in rural areas. Sibal, for his part, envisions top-class performance that will contribute to the expansion of a middle class. In the last decade alone, the ranks of the Indian middle class have grown from 50 million to more than 200 million.

But even the minister can hardly deny that there has been a serious drop in economic growth in recent months. Prime Minister Singh, once so eager to bring about reform, seems exhausted and tired of his position. Populist regional parties are becoming stronger, and his coalition is in bad shape. There are rumors that Rahul Gandhi -- the general secretary of the Indian National Congress party, the grandson of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and the son of the powerful party leader, Sonia Gandhi -- could enter the cabinet and become Singh's successor if early elections were held. But the 42-year-old has yet to demonstrate how he intends to stop the demise of the dynasty and what qualifies him to be a strong leader -- and one who could make a break with crippling old traditions.

Finding Unity in Diversity

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