China 100, India 3. Says it all about the distance between the two countries. Any illusions of a closing gap between India and China were decimated by the breathtaking extravaganza that China put up at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. I have heard senior politicians, government officials and business leaders say resignedly, “They are in a different league”.
This is followed by the question, “How are they doing it?” After all, an increasing number of Indians are beginning to realize that we are as good as any in the world, if and when — and these are big ifs and whens — given the opportunity. But there are too many who don’t get the chance, too many great entrepreneurs and doctors, teachers and bankers, artists and sportspeople who are not able to reach their true potential.
The challenge is to make the incredibly complex wheels of a nation actually start moving, and unleash the potential of all Indians. Comparing ourselves with China is important because it acts as a motivator. But our national structures are different, our models of change are different. And one key difference lies in how ideas for public change are transmitted through these two contrasting systems.
One way to describe how differently ideas move in these two countries is as cannonballs and snowballs. In China, there is a clearly defined power structure that is located within the government and the party. Ideas for change are sifted through this well-structured process, and then — for those few ideas that percolate through to the top — the full force and weight of the entire machinery is thrown behind them: the administrative arms of the state and even the economic power vested in state-run or state-controlled firms. The trajectory of ideas is like that of cannonballs: They are released with great velocity, with a clear direction, and with enormous firepower. When they land, they have a massive impact (to carry the metaphor further, they can also often cause collateral damage).
In India, power is not vested in any single body. Rather, it is distributed in every sense. Political power is distributed across national, state and local governments, which can have very different political agendas. Economic power is spread across a vast range and variety of economic actors, whose numbers are growing. Social power is distributed across the media, communities and non-governmental organizations. Essentially, ours is an ecosystem with a diffused distribution of power — and this will only grow as we become an increasingly mature democracy. I’m not going to talk about the relative merits of these powers here — but rather on what such an ecosystem means for the propagation of ideas for public change.
Ideas in India have trajectories like snowballs. Of the millions that get rolled out of the minds and mouths of our citizens, a small few survive. This is because a critical mass of people and players need to embrace an idea for it to become big. There are pros and cons to our way of doing change: On the downside, it takes time for ideas to snowball. But the good news is that ideas can come from anyone. And they survive, since they have ownership from a large collection of stakeholders.
There are two lessons to be learnt in the difference in ideas between China and India, between cannonballs and snowballs. First, it isn’t useful to hope that somehow we will become a country where cannonballs are needed. Not going to happen, and I will argue, not even something we want to see happen. Snowballs are better than cannonballs. Second, we can’t be tossing cannonballs in India and expecting to see change.
Making snowballs requires very different mindsets and skills. As Indians, there are many who have the passion and compassion to bring large changes to our society. But our ability to accelerate the trajectory of change will depend largely on recognizing the nature of how ideas grow in our society. How do snowballs happen? By listening to each other, by getting off moral high horses, by supporting those with ideas and passion, by working with pragmatism, and by engaging with all stakeholders.
We need to learn about taking good ideas to critical mass, and about leveraging the network benefits that a noisy and complex society offers. We do have examples — the Amul story, the Akshaya Patra mid-day meal programme, Ramalinga Raju’s 108 EMRI emergency response system are all examples of snowballs. But they are too few, given the enormous challenges that we face. We need an avalanche of snowballs.
As we shake our heads at the Olympian gap between China and India, it’s important to be motivated by China, but not necessarily by its model. Let us make our own Indian model work. Let us make snowballs.
Ramesh Ramanathan is co-founder, Janaagraha. Möbius Strip, much like its mathematical origins, blurs boundaries. It is about the continuum between the state, market and our society. We welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org