A Tale of Two Leaders

S Prasannarajan is the Editor of Open magazine
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So will Xi update a classic by the Chairman: Let a billion dreams come true? That will be a Xi change
Xi Jinping will have gone home by the time you read this. The images of another Asian romance featuring two powerful men, the music of another diplomatic duet, all the pledges and commitments, remain. When it is China, India reacts from extreme national, or even emotional, positions. It is not just another country; China is the name of an obsession, source of a fear, model of an aspiration, and always, a struggle of comprehension across seminar rooms. No country in modern times has rattled the so-called international order with its paranoia, with its exaggerated sense of historical grudge, as China did. And no country in our time has become an easy synonym for fast growth, extra-territorial aggression, controlled minds, free markets, national pride and global distrust. China is a permanent discovery, a ceaseless astonishment, and one of the oldest ideas of turning the memories of submission into an inspiration of empire-building.

So all that dazzle during the visit of Xi Jinping, the Chinese president and leader of the Communist Party, was perfectly understandable. Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi was dazzled, what with the dinner on the Sabarmati, in a Gujarat that is being praised as the Guangdong of India. I am sure Modi, while welcoming the new helmsman to India in its most developed state, did not mean that Ahmedabad was worthier than Delhi of the honour, though five years later, it could change. In the end, in spite of all the hosannas evoked by the new Hindi- Chini bhai bhai, it was not a repeat of the Modi-Abe tango, for the Chinese don’t dance to other people’s music. Still, the three days of Xi and Modi gave us a comparative study in leadership from Asia’s two disparate powers—controlled social capitalism and democracy wide open.

In the story of ascent, Xi is different, and more privileged than Modi. He is the princeling, which means one of the chosen few with a political ancestry. In the People’s Republic, the market may have forced Big Marx to subsist on Big Mac and Mao may have taken refuge in souvenir shops, but the power of pedigree remains unchallenged. Today, if there is a power struggle, too subterranean to be reported by the media, it has to be between those who can claim to have a bloodline going back to the founding revolutionaries of the republic. The recent eruption of the Bo Xilai scandal, in spite of its subplots of murder and corruption, is a cautionary tale about a flamboyant princeling who flew close to the sun too fast. The princelings who inhabit Zhongnanhai today are not the children of the Revolution; it is not the legend of the Chairman, an amateur poet from the farmlands of Hunan, that drives them but the hardcore realism of Deng Xiaoping, China’s most acclaimed bridge player who turned Mao and other ideological deities on their head by singing that it was glorious to be rich. Xi is the winner in a generation that enjoyed the freedom and competitiveness of the marketplace but did nothing to liberate the fettered mind, be it a painter or blogger or a ‘counterrevolutionary bad egg’ feted by the Nobel Committee. The new paramount leader, too, does not want the idyll of the Middle Kingdom to be shattered by questions.

Set against him is Modi, and he is where he is today not because of ancestral advantage but the power of ambition. A lesser man would have perished in the embers of Gujarat 2002. It was the story of a lone man, whose backstory was a hazy narrative of dispossession and indoctrination, overcoming the worst instincts of his own party and a show trial by the secular militia. It was a paradox that was not yet comprehended by a section of Indian drawing rooms when a man caricatured by the same militia as a four-letter synonym for monstrosity turned out to be the only moderniser who had the mind for a conversation with the future of India. When he won India after one of the longest campaigns in modern politics, it was also a celebration of the innate strength of the much-abused Indian democracy: the will to win. In a country where ‘power hungry’ is a term of moral derision, he made his hunger for power a struggle against hunger. If democracy is an idea that works best when it is made use by the smartest politician, Modi is the best at work today. He can be undone only by himself.

Which cannot be said about Xi, the supreme leader of a country where democracy is a Western virus that needs to be prevented from infecting ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’. China loves, secretly, everything about the West, in spite of the historical memory of gunboats and humiliations, and the skyward progress of China is inspired by—what else?—America. It loves everything except the most enduring export from the West: democracy, or what the dissidents, cyberspace being their last refuge, call the Fifth Modernization. The still swelling Oriental Gulag beyond the glitz of the Chinese mall only tells us that what the paranoid state fears most is some of its own citizens who refuse to mortgage their conscience to the state. Here Xi has a chance to catch up with Modi.

Wasn’t he trying for a while? His much-publicised ‘Chinese Dream’ was an audacious slogan coming from a leader whose ultimate strength is still drawn from a party apparatus that is purely Leninist. It may be an outright copy of the ‘American Dream’—which is not at all surprising— but dreaming is not what a Chinese leader dares to encourage. When the Chinese youth dreamed in Tiananmen Square 25 years ago, Deng sent tanks to crush the blasphemy. In China revolutionary soundbites matter, and no one has surpassed Mao on this yet. So, will Xi update a classic by the Chairman: Let a billion dreams come true? That will be a Xi change, the moderniser taking Dengism to its logical conclusion.

Modi harvested the dreams of India’s youth; Xi still holds the key to the dreams of the Chinese who want more than the happiness rationed by the state. Xi should be wiser after the epiphany by the Sabarmati.