Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, known for his outspoken candor when he was the U.S. ambassador in New Delhi in the mid-1970s, used to enjoy comparing the port cities of Singapore, Rangoon and Calcutta. In the late 1940s they were much alike: bustling, thriving ports, with the usual Third World combination of prosperity, poverty, and political agitation. By the 1970s, Singapore was a gleaming, modern city, the second largest port in the world, a haven of social peace and economic development; Calcutta was rundown, the port corrupt and failing, the city paralyzed by political violence, the homeless begging in the streets; and Rangoon was a forgotten, isolated backwater. I assume Moynihan's point was to compare economic systems and choices, not political ones. But though his image is evocative, comparisons of India with countries like Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea are, on the face of it, invidious. There are obvious differences in the scale of the problems confronted, the size of the population, and the political systems adopted (autocracy drove economic growth in all three cases, but at a price that pluralist India could not pay). Nonetheless, Indians should not deflect the comparison. Our problems may have been larger in scale, but large problems could have been tackled as aggregates of small problems (by greater decentralization of economic decision-making to the states, for instance); and in any case, countries like Malaysia and Indonesia also grappled with comparable problems of overpopulation, ethnic diversity, and political conflict, while managing to spur economic growth. And Malaysia, in particular, did so with a democratic political system not significantly different from that which India enjoyed during the decades of Congress Party dominance. There is no getting away from the conclusion that the main difference with all these countries is not size, scale, or system, but substance- the substance of the economic policy that we chose, or that our elected rulers chose for us, self-righteously convinced that they were right.
(Excerpt from "From Midnight to the Millenium")