LARGE states are two-edged swords. They need strong rule to manage their large size and avoid chaos. But their size gives economies of scale that can aid rapid progress. So some say the US can be overtaken as a superpower only by larger states that generate larger economies of scale, i.e. only China or India. The EU’s failed statehood aim was for such economies too. I review the fortunes of the eight biggest states with numbers above 150 million each: China, India, US, Indonesia, Pakistan, Brazil, Nigeria and Bangladesh. They represent 50 per cent-plus of the global population and four of eight nuclear powers.
Demographically, we are one of three states in this group whose numbers may keep growing till 2100, along with the US and Nigeria. The US is rich enough to absorb them. In fact, its prosperity will mainly drive increased numbers via migration. We and Nigeria lack resources and governance to do so and our numbers largely reflect high fertility.
Ecologically, climate change will especially affect South Asia where disasters, soil loss, glacial meltdown and rising seas will cause huge damage, conflict and migration. But we will alone face it with growing numbers. The US and China are the biggest polluters (though much of China’s pollution too relates to US consumption) but won’t be its big victims.
Economically, we are worst off along with Nigeria. The US and China are superpowers. But both run high long-term risks oddly driven by diametrically opposite reasons: state excess in China and market excess in US. Bangladesh and India are growing fast. Even Brazil and Indonesia have growth and stability. Our perennial issues are slow growth, low-quality outputs, large twin deficits shocks, high reliance on big states aid for brief growth eras and frequent IMF loans. These show no signs of ending soon.
All our issues stem from long eras of autocracy.
Socially, while terrorism has shrunk, our new variants of extremism are mutating fast. State policies are becoming hostage to it. India has increased extremism too, but linked to the politics of one party, unlike ours that is linked to permanent and powerful state elements. Nigerian extremism too is unsupported by state elements.
Externally, our enmity with India is seen as posing the biggest risk of nuclear calamity globally, given the extremism in both states. The US, China and Russia are nuclear rivals too, but their nuclear buttons reside in more mature political institutions. Afghan instability and our inputs to it and the high density of extremism in the region pose additional threats to us.
Politically, we have the most dysfunctionality and low legitimacy. The US is an advanced democracy. China is an autocracy but politically stable and delivering at least until now. Its non-replicable system carries no relevance for us. Brazil, Indonesia, Nigeria and Bangladesh, more relevant models, are now stable democracies after long army eras and power is firmly with civilians though Bangladesh has an ugly one-party system. Except for Nigeria’s, their politics delivers. India is an old democracy though now backsliding under the ruling BJP. It is unclear if this change is permanent. We alone lack political legitimacy, stability and delivery and civilian supremacy. It’s near certain how the next regime will come in the other seven, but not so with us. Ethnic tensions are also higher than in most other seven states.
Thus, we are arguably the worst-managed and worst-off in all six realms. Nigeria is second. The other seven don’t face this grim mix of future demographic doom, ecological disasters, economic stagnancy, extremist violence, external risks, political illegitimacy and instability, and ethnic tensions and insurgency.
Almost all these issues come from our long eras of autocracy. Extremism came from the Zia and Musharraf eras, and also feeds demographics. Economic big power reliance and stagnancy mainly are legacies of autocratic eras. The external threats, while rooted in real issues, have been militarised by the security establishment’s sway. The political and ethnic issues reflect heavy autocratic impact too.
Political forces have inputted to all these. But then our politics is not the undiluted result of genuine political struggles. Most of our key political actors and groups were sponsored and pampered and genuine ones crushed by autocracy. So even the sins of the political forces largely reflect autocracy. In contrast, our two most positive recent trends — reduced terrorism and CPEC — emerged during the politically more legitimate era of 2008-2018. One can say, then, that the starting point to resolving our multifaceted and grim problems lies in political legitimacy and civilian supremacy.
The writer is a free-lance political economist with a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley.
Published in Dawn, November 30th, 2021