The idea that India is a poor country is a relatively recent one.
Historically, South Asia was always famous as the richest region of the
globe. Ever since Alexander the Great first penetrated the Hindu Kush,
Europeans fantasized about the wealth of these lands where the Greek
geographers said that gold was dug by up by gigantic ants and guarded by
griffins, and where precious jewels were said to lie scattered on the
ground like dust.
At their heights during the 17th century, the subcontinent's fabled Mughal
emperors were rivaled only by their Ming counterparts in China. For their
contemporaries in distant Europe, they were potent symbols of power and
wealth. In Milton's Paradise Lost, for example, the great Mughal cities of
Agra and Lahore are revealed to Adam after the Fall as future wonders of
God's creation. This was hardly an overstatement. By the 17th century,
Lahore had grown even larger and richer than Constantinople and, with its
two million inhabitants, dwarfed both London and Paris.
What changed was the advent of European colonialism. Following Vasco da
Gama's discovery of the sea route to the East in 1498, European colonial
traders -- first the Portuguese, then the Dutch and finally the British --
slowly wrecked the old trading network and imposed with their cannons and
caravels a Western imperial system of command economics. It was only at
the very end of the 18th century, after the East India Company began to
cash in on the Mughal Empire's riches, that Europe had for the first time
in history a favorable balance of trade with Asia. The era of Indian
economic decline had begun, and it was precipitous.
In 1600, when the East India Company was founded, Britain was generating
1.8% of the world's GDP, while India was producing 22.5%. By 1870, at the
peak of the Raj, Britain was generating 9.1%, while India had been reduced
for the first time to the epitome of a Third World nation, a symbol across
the globe of famine, poverty and deprivation.
In hindsight, what is happening today with the rise of India and China is
not some miraculous novelty -- as it is usually depicted in the Western
press -- so much as a return to the traditional pattern of global trade in
the medieval and ancient world, where gold drained from West to East in
payment for silks and spices and all manner of luxuries undreamed of in
the relatively primitive capitals of Europe.
It is worth remembering this as India aspires to superpower status.
Economic futurologists all agree that China and India during the 21st
century will come to dominate the global economy. Various intelligence
agencies estimate that China will overtake the U.S. between 2030 and 2040
and India will overtake the U.S. by roughly 2050, as measured in dollar
terms. Measured by purchasing-power parity, India is already on the verge
of overtaking Japan to become the third largest economy in the world.
Looking back at the role Europeans have played in South Asia until their
departure in August 1947, there is certainly much that the West can be
said to have contributed to Indian life: the Portuguese brought the chili
pepper, while the British brought that other essential staple, tea -- as
well as the arguably more important innovations including democracy and
the rule of law, railways, cricket and the English language. All
contributed to India's economic resurrection.
But the British should keep their nostalgia and self-satisfaction
surrounding the colonial period within strict limits. For all the
irrigation projects, the great engineering achievements and the famous
imperviousness to bribes of the officers of the Indian Civil Service, the
Raj nevertheless presided over the destruction of India's political,
cultural and artistic self-confidence as well as the impoverishment of the
Today, things are slowly returning to historical norms. Last year the
richest man in the U.K. was for the first time an ethnic Indian, Lakshmi
Mittal, and Britain's largest steel manufacturer, Corus, has been bought
by an Indian company, Tata. Extraordinary as it is, the rise of India and
China is nothing more than a return to the ancient equilibrium of world
trade, with Europeans no longer appearing as gun- toting, gunboat-riding
colonial masters but instead reverting to their traditional role: that of
eager consumers of the much celebrated manufactures, luxuries and services
of the East.
William Dalrymple's latest book, The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty,
Delhi 1857, has just been awarded the Duff Cooper Prize for History and
(article de "TIME MAGAZINE")}} }