Commentators in this decade, impressed by their size, frequently presented China and India as contrasting pathways to an ‘Asian future’, possibly even to the world’s future. India was ‘the world’s largest democracy’, as ‘the West’ understood democracy. Its elections, normally, functioned fairly. The Congress, however dominant as the governing party, did not exercise power as the Communist Party in China exercised power. India was attempting to operate a complex federal system — not without trial and error — whereas China was not prepared to risk it. In these respects and with central government in the hands still of an elite schooled in the political ideas and language of their former colonial masters, New Delhi had a ‘Western’ aspect not possessed by China. The balance between diversity and unity evolved under the British Raj was something which Indian central governments struggled to sustain. China, on the other hand, while it had been subjected to much outside European pressure, had not had a European presence defining its frontiers, map in hand. It was the lesson of the fragility of ‘China’ in the past which lay behind the insistence on a strong state, ruled out ‘federalism’ and produced assertiveness in border regions.
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