Misplaced optimism

To the planning commission’s credit, it did not reproduce Kalam’s formulation of India becoming a superpower. However, it did continue the trend of Pollyannaishly overestimating how much a poor country can achieve in twenty years.

And like India 2020, the report predicts the vapid patriotism of WhatsApp, reproducing a widely circulated fake quote from Lord Macaulay about travelling across India but never seeing “one person who is a beggar, who is a thief”— a (made-up) testament to the country’s “spiritual and cultural heritage.”

The report’s actual predictions continue in much the same credulous vein. The report confidently states, “India will move from a low-income country to an upper-middle-income country.” That of course did not happen. As of today, India is very far away from being an upper-middle-income country (it would need to double its per capital gross national income to enter that bloc). Like its Raj siblings, Pakistan and Bangladesh, India is a lower-middle-income country. However, India’s small southern neighbour, Sri Lanka did quietly, unheralded by superpower prophecies, become an upper-middle-income country in 2019.

More: “Combined with the enormous opportunities for creation of new employment opportunities, the incidence of unemployment could be almost eliminated by 2020.” As we read this in 2020, we know there were no such “enormous opportunities.” Unlike a Vietnam or Bangladesh, India was unable to develop mass manufacturing industries. In fact, the unemployment rate in 2017-18 stood at a 45-year high following the Modi government’s disastrous move to demonetise high value currency notes.

At one point, it lists out India’s 2020 targets, “not only to reach these reference levels but to surpass them in many cases.” The confidence was misplaced. India in 2020 did not reach any of the planning commission’s targets.

For example, the report assumed India’s female adult literacy rate will be 94% by 2020. But according to latest figures from the previous census, that stands at only 65%. Infant mortality will be 22.5 per 1000 births, predicted Vision 2020. But latest figures from 2017 have it at 33, well above the global average. Child malnutrition based on weight for age will be only 8%, said the report. In reality, it is more than four times that prediction at 32.7% (India in 2020 is one of the most malnourished societies on earth).

Enter the memes

While the Superpower 2020 predictions did not materialise, that did not mean they did not result in anything useful. The forecast was so wildly off the mark that the internet smelled blood, seeing in it a rich source of irony: perfect raw material for memes.

Two version of the “Superpower by 2020” meme popped up. One circulated on international messaging boards such as Reddit and 4chan, mocking Indian claims to superpower status. Memes often contrasted this prediction with the country’s severe open defecation crisis—an unusually elementary problem for an emerging superpower to have.

The other version circulated within the country: Indians derided the claim that their country would go from underdeveloped to superpower in such a short time span. The meme mostly circulated in the form of a diptych, with one panel consisting of a regular photo of India labelled “December 31, 2019.” The next panel labelled “January 1, 2020” saw India miraculously transformed, usually using images from highly-developed countries or even digital graphics.

Image for article titled 2020 is here, not India’s predicted superpowers

The costs

In spite of the fact that the original superpower 2020 prediction was widely off the mark, versions of it continue to survive (even if they pop up far less frequently now). During the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, BJP President Amit Shah promised voters that India would become a superpower by 2024 if Narendra Modi was voted back as prime minister. Earlier in 2018, Union minister Jitendra Singh claimed that Modi would fulfil Kalam’s “Vision 2020”—although, wisely he did not mention by which year.

Some of this might seem funny or absurd. Indeed, some of it is. Yet, this does not mean there aren’t real costs associated with this “superpower 2020” business. It seems for the past two decades, many Indian policy planners were designing programmes based on absurdly unachievable targets. This would have had real implications in terms of misplaced allocations.

In the first few decades after Independence, East and South East Asia raced past India. Now, experts such as economist Amartya Sen have flagged the fact that India is even losing out to its South Asian neighbours such as Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, who are being able to offer their people better standards of living.

All this while India—home to a sixth of humanity—tragicomically, keeps dreaming of becoming a superpower.

This piece was originally published on Scroll.in. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.

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