The Next Superpower? An Inevitable Smackdown Between India and China

Since the 2008 financial collapse, it’s been a favorite American parlor game: Who’s the next global superpower?

I’m not betting against the United States anytime soon, but it’s undeniable that momentum is shifting East. (Traveling in India last month, I witnessed their excessive handwringing about the country’s growth rate dropping a shade below 7 percent, laughably prosperous compared to America’s 2 percent. Most pundits are wowed by China’s manufacturing prowess and stunningly fast buildup of skyscrapers and roads and cities — not to mention the fact that as America’s largest creditor — in the neighborhood of $1.5 trillion — they basically own us. But despite China’s financial might and notorious ability to get its citizens in line, I’m giving the nod to India as the best economic bet for the coming decades. Here are three reasons I think the future is India’s to lose:

1. Entrepreneurship. Driving through India, it seems almost everyone is an entrepreneur and, in fact, they are. On the sidewalks of Mumbai, you’ll see cobblers sitting on the ground with a stack of soles, ready to attach them at a moment’s notice for any customers that emerge. You’ll find scores of “chaiwallahs,” brewing tea on their family hot pots, and guys with an armful of coconuts, eager to slice them up with machetes to sell as cool drinks. You’ll even, somewhat alarmingly, find sidewalk barbers performing elaborate shaves with a straight razor as crowds filter past. China spent the better part of the 20th century resettling its citizens on farms and decrying the ethos of entrepreneurship. They’ve changed their tune, of course, but Indian citizens are used to DIY capitalism — a skill set the 21st century demands.

2. Demographics. China has some real advantages over India, including higher literacy rates (especially among women). But time is not on their side. By 2025, India’s population will be larger than China’s, enhancing its power to shape the world economy. Plus, India’s median age is only 26 — more than 10 years younger than either China or the U.S. While we’re pouring our gross domestic product into Social Security and Medicare, India will be in growth mode for the next two decades.

3. Taking on corruption. India — like China — is plagued by political corruption and self-dealing. But those issues are finally starting to be addressed in a very public fashion. Earlier this year, charismatic activist Anna Hazare led a hunger strike to insist on anti-corruption legislation — and has continued his quest as the bill advances through the legislature. Perhaps even more critically, tech magnate Nandan Nilekani (the former CEO of Infosys, famed for inspiring Tom Friedman’s iconic concept that “the world is flat”) has gone into government service to tackle a key initiative. Indian citizens, until now, have lacked a centralized ID system, like our Social Security numbers. Thus, many citizens couldn’t prove their identity (or existence) and were vulnerable to having their benefits stolen by corrupt officials. For the past several years, Nilekani has been working to issue unique ID cards — backed up with high-tech iris and fingerprint scans — to every Indian citizen, and reportedly has issued more than six million. Of course, it’s a long way from there to all 1.2 billion residents, but it’s a start.

Nothing in India is easy. Unlike China’s ability to bulldoze its citizens — think Tiananmen Square and the Three Gorges Dam project — governance in India is messy, democratic and often absurd. Even seeming no-brainers like Nilekani’s ID project sometimes get held up (as with a recent parliamentary squabble). Indian politics and business can move slowly and inefficiently. But if the road to progress is letting a thousand flowers bloom, the chaiwallahs and streetside barbers are showing how it should be done.

This article originally appeared in the Lowell Sun.

Dorie Clark, CEO of Clark Strategic Communications, has consulted for clients including Google, Yale University, and the National Park Service. Clark is the author of Reinventing You. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.