It has become rather fashionable these days to speak of India and China in the same breath. These are the two big countries said to be taking over the world, the new contenders for global eminence after centuries of Western domination, the Oriental answer to generations of Occidental economic success. Some even speak of "Chindia", as if the two are joined at the hip in the international imagination.
But in case anyone wanted confirmation that such twinning is, to put it mildly, premature, one has only to look at the medals tally at the Beijing Olympics. China proudly ranked first, with 51 gold medals and a total of 100. You have to strain your eyes past such step-children of the global family as Jamaica, Belarus, war-torn Georgia, collapsing Zimbabwe and even what used to be called Outer Mongolia before stumbling across India in 50th place, with precisely three medals, one gold and two bronze.
This is not, in fact, a surprise. Whereas China has set about systematically striving for Olympic success since it re-entered global competition after years of isolation, India has remained complacent about its lack of sporting prowess. Where China lobbied for and won the right to host the Olympics within two decades of its return to the Games, India rested on its laurels after hosting the Asian Games in Delhi in 1982, so that it is now considered further behind in the competition for Olympic host-hood than it was two decades ago. Where China embarked on "Project 119," a program devised specifically to boost the country's Olympic medal standings (the number 119 refers to the golds awarded at the Sydney Games of 2000 in such medal-laden sports as track and field, swimming, rowing, sailing and canoeing), Indians wondered if they would be able to crack the magic ceiling of two, the highest number of medals the country has ever won at this quadrennial exercise in international sporting machismo. Where China, seeing the number of medals awarded in kayaking, decided to create a team to master a sport hitherto unknown in the Middle Kingdom, India has not even lobbied successfully for the inclusion in the Games of the few sports it does play well (kabbadi, for instance, a form of tag-team wrestling, or polo, or cricket, which was played in the Olympics of 1900 and has been omitted since). Where China has maintained its dominance in table-tennis and badminton, and developed new strengths in non-traditional sports like rowing and shooting, India has seen its once-legendary invincibility in field hockey fade with the introduction of Astroturf, to the point where its team even failed to qualify for Beijing this year.
Forget "Chindia" - the two countries barely belong in the same sporting sentence.
What's happened at the Olympics speaks to a basic difference in the two countries' systems. It's the creative chaos of all-singing, all-dancing Bollywood versus the perfectly-choreographed precision of the Beijing Opening Ceremony. The Chinese, as befits a Communist autocracy, approached the task of dominating the Olympics with top-down military discipline. The objective was determined, a program ("Project 119") drawn up, the considerable resources of the state attached to it, state-of-the-art technology acquired and world-class foreign coaches imported. India, by contrast, approached these Olympics as it had every other, with its usual combination of amiable amateurism, bureaucratic ineptitude, half-hearted experiment and shambolic organization.
That's simply the way we are. If China wants to build a new six-lane expressway, it can bulldoze its way past any number of villages in its path; in India, if you want to widen a two-lane road, you could be tied up in court for a dozen years over compensation entitlements. In China, national priorities are established by the Government and then funded by the state; in India, priorities emerge from seemingly endless discussions and arguments amongst myriad interests, and funds have to be found where they might. China's budget for preparing its sportspersons for these Games alone probably exceeded India's expenditure on all Olympic training in the last sixty years.
But where China's state-owned enterprises remain the most powerful motors of the country's development, India's private sector, ducking around governmental obstacles and bypassing the stifling patronage of the state, has transformed the fortunes of the Indian people. So it proved again in the Olympics: the wrestlers, boxers, runners, tennis players and weightlifters who made up the bulk of the Indian contingent, accompanied by the inevitable retinue of officials, returned with just two bronzes amongst them, while India's only gold - in shooting - was won by a young entrepreneur with a rifle range in his own backyard and no help from the state whatsoever. Young Abhinav Bindra is, at 25, the CEO of a high-tech firm, a self-motivated sharpshooter who financed his own equipment and training, and an avid blogger. He is, in short, a 21st century Indian. At one level, it is not surprising that he should have won India's first individual gold in any Olympics since a transplanted Englishman competed in Indian colors in the 1900 Games. India is the land of individual excellence despite the limitations of the system; in China, individual success is the product of the system.
Indians excel wherever individual talent is given free rein. The country has produced world-class computer scientists, mathematicians, biotech researchers, film-makers and novelists, but the only Indian sportsmen who have worn the title of world champion in recent years have been a billiards cueist and a chess grandmaster. Come up with a challenge that requires high levels of organization, strict discipline, sophisticated equipment, systematic training and elastic budgets, and Indians quail. This remains as true inside the Olympics stadium as outside it. When China built the Three Gorges dam, it created a 660-kilometer long reservoir that necessitated the displacement of a staggering 2 million people, all accomplished in 15 years without a fuss in the interests of generating electricity; when India attempted its Narmada Dam project, aiming to bring irrigation, drinking water and power to millions, it has spent 34 years (so far) fighting environmental groups, human rights activists, and advocates for the displaced all the way to the Supreme Court, while still being thwarted in the streets by the protestors from non-governmental organizations like the Narmada Bachao Andolan (the Save Narmada Movement). That is how it should be; India is a fractious democracy, China is not. China will win the Olympic medals for many games to come. India, perhaps, might win some hearts.
Originally published in the Washington Post, September 7, 2008