Has India Downloaded the 'Killer Apps'?

Harvard historian Niall Ferguson's 'six killer applications' theory is the latest attempt to unravel the mystery of the decline of Western civilization. Ferguson in his recent work Civilization: The West and the Rest, chronicles the rise of the Western Civilization during the past 500 years and explains how China and the east may soon overtake the Western countries. According to Ferguson, "what distinguished the West from the Rest -- the mainsprings of global power -- were six identifiably novel complexes of institutions and associated ideas and behaviours..." The distinguishing features of the Western Civilization, which Ferguson refers to as 'killer apps' include competition, science, property rights, medicine, consumer society and work ethic. In Ferguson's analysis "we are already living through the twilight of Western predominance. But that is not just because most of the Rest have now downloaded all or nearly all of our killer apps. It is also because we ourselves have lost faith in our own civilisation."

As many would expect, India falls in Freguson's category of the Rest. This article explores the extent to which India has downloaded and is actively using the 'killer apps'. The discussion leads to another vital question: are these 'killer apps' critical for India's rise to global prominence?

Decentralization of political and economic life fostered competitive conditions in the West facilitating the emergence of nation states and capitalism. This killer app of competition was lacking during the early decades of independent India. Economic power was concentrated in the hands of the state and the state was dominated by an elitist leadership of one political party. Despite growing decentralization since the 1990s the idea of nation-state and capitalism as understood in the West has not evolved in India. Economic competition has flourished but the Indian state (which is constitutionally declared as 'socialist') struggles to usher in social democracy. Increasing political competition feeds into rival notions of 'nation' and regional identities struggle for recognition. Decentralization of political and economic life in India has encouraged multiple conceptions of political authority and economic models.

Scientific innovations and its use in enhancing military technologies allowed the West to ensure its supremacy over the Rest. In India the moral impediment to dedicating scientific innovation for enhancing military prowess continues. Prime Minister Nehru ensured that India's talent in science was directed at solving the country's social and economic challenges rather than buttressing its military capabilities. India's indigenous research and development in military technologies continues to remain weak; 65-70 per cent of the defense equipment is imported. According to strategic analyst, Subhahs Kapila, the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) has not contributed to enhancing India's indigenous defense production capabilities.

Innovation in the non-military sector is only modest. Three of the top five patent filing nations in Asia for 2010 were Japan, China and Korea; India even did not make it to the top-15 global list. According to the Worldwide Intellectual Property Rights Organization India filed 1,109 patents applications in 2010. Compare this to figures for China -- 12,337 and the United States -- 44,855. It seems unlikely that India is using the tool of scientific innovation to chart a global leadership role.

To the dismay of many Indians, democracy does not qualify as a 'killer app' in Ferguson's theory. Universal franchise was not, according to Ferguson, a feature of the Western Civilization during its ascendancy phase between 1500 and 1913. For Ferguson, rule of law and property rights are the apps that make democracy effective by taking it beyond the narrow confines of periodic elections.

India introduced universal adult franchise for an illiterate and poverty stricken population in 1951. Unlike the West, democracy in India was not the culmination but a preparation for the political education of the citizens. India is unique case where all citizens share equal democratic rights without a uniform civil code. Sociologist Andre Beteille, among others, has observed that Indians have difficulty in subjecting themselves to a rule of law and individual rights lack the depth and firmness evident in the United States. India's functional democracy has bolstered the country international standing without a priori dependence on the apps of rule of law and property rights.

The innovations in medicine science allowed the Western Civilization to ensure better health and longer life expectancy for its population. Thus medicine finds a place of honor on Ferguson's 'killer app' list. The socio-cultural characteristics of the Indian population limit the impact of medical innovation on public good. Sendhil Mullainthan, Professor of Economics at Harvard, explains how children in rural India die due to diarrhea even though cheap antidotes to the ailment are widely available. According to Mullainthan, in India innovations simply can't address the complex challenges. Innovation requires social engineering to convince the target segment of its benefits. Despite innovations in medical science, India continues to face huge health related challenges due to lack of social engineering.

Demands of the consumer society propelled the economies of the Western countries and served as an impetus for the Industrial Revolution. Indians have not only downloaded but are actively using the consumer society app. India's growing middle class with a huge appetite for consumer goods ranging from textiles and high-end electronics to aspirational items like health, wellness and lifestyle products augurs well for the country's economic growth. McKinsey Global Institute in a report titled, "The Bird of Gold" highlights that "if India continues on its current high-growth path, over the next two decades the Indian market will undergo a major transformation. Income levels will almost triple, and India will climb from its position as the twelfth-largest consumer market today to become the world's fifth-largest consumer market by 2025." Demands of the consumer society remain a potent force for accelerating India's economic growth in the coming decades.

Ferguson's work ethic app implies a moral framework and mode of activity derivable from (among other sources) Protestant Christianity, which binds the society created by the other apps. Ferguson observes that the Asian population tends to work for longer hours and the Westerns have become generally lazy. People in India, undoubtedly spend longer hours at work but it would be erroneous to equate duration with quality. Absence of well-defined procedures and complex hierarchies usually contribute to longer working hours for professionals in India. Moreover, nurturing a common work ethic for a culturally diverse country like India is unlikely. For instance, while the Punjabi salesmen in the Greater Kailash shopping area of South Delhi dole out incentives to attract customers throughout the day, the Bengali locality of Chitranjan Park, just a few miles away, shuts down business for afternoon siesta.

According to Ferguson, though, there is a single past there are many probable futures. Likewise there are many paths to the future; India has opted for a path which may be comparable in some measure but is not identical to the growth trajectory of the Western Civilization. Apart form the trend of consumer society, India appears to have followed a distinct pathway to claim global prominence. This raises doubts about Ferguson's approach of treating the 'killer apps' as a simple download-and-use manual for aspiring countries. The Indian example demonstrates that customized alternatives, inspired by local realities and international experience, are more viable routes for national success.