For years now, India watched China’s surge with a mix of fascination, dread and jealousy. As Beijing got things done and spread its wings around the globe, India lost altitude under the weight of domestic dysfunction and chronic inefficiencies. But is China’s success now clearing the way for India to take flight, too?

This is but one of the tantalizing possibilities Ravi Velloor puts forward in his new book. A work titled “India Rising” leaves few doubts about its ultimate conclusion. And for anyone wondering what, oh what, has become of the vibrant India that Narendra Modi pledged to build, Velloor’s observations are economic comfort food.

Velloor, a long-time Straits Times editor, is no New Delhi shill. He takes his nation to task for myriad missteps and squandered opportunities, particularly over the last 12 years. His unsparing insights about where India fits in to the Chinese century are also timed to perfection, hitting bookstores right at the 25-year mark of one of history’s most ambitious and impactful reform gambits.

India’s “Big Bang,” of course, can often seem like more of a big head-fake. The opening began in 1991, as then-Finance Minister Manmohan Singh responded to a balance-of-payments crisis that left New Delhi with two weeks’ worth of foreign-exchange reserves. As he opened markets to foreign investment, curbed government control over industry, cut trade tariffs and devalued the rupee, Singh quoted Victor Hugo. “No power on Earth can stop an idea whose time has come,” he said, adding that “the emergence of India as a major economic power in the world happens to be one such idea.”

Channeling the author of “Les Miserables,” though, proved oddly prophetic two decades later as Prime Minister Singh lost the plot. If his first term, from 2004 to 2009, saw India moving forward, his second ending in 2014 was one of drift and, at times, misery. The 2013 crisis in emerging markets hit India particularly hard, fueling speculation it might be the first BRIC economy (Brazil, Russia, India and China) downgraded to junk.

That dubious honor went to Brazil. India was spared partly because of optimism about Modi’s rise to power and pledges of another Big Bang. Two years into his premiership, the shock therapy Modi promised has been in short supply. His moves to increase foreign access to the defense and insurance industries were nice but too timid for reform bulls.

The good news, as Velloor argues, is that “behind the warts and obvious confusion” about what’s afoot in New Delhi, “a pattern is discernible of an India that warrants optimism.”

Getting ones head around India isn’t easy. The very same reasons we journalists love exploring the place are the ones that madden foreign investors again and again. “Big, noisy, bulging at the seams, India’s economy and society move much like the traffic on a New Delhi road — states and sections of its people advancing at varying speeds and levels of discipline,” Velloor explains. “For every high-horsepower engine on the road, there is the cycle rickshaw and the humanly powered pushcart slowing movement and frustrating those who seek to travel more quickly.”

While off-putting for many, there’s a method in this chaos. “This,” Velloor writes, “is the India of reliance, of improvisation, a nation of multiple ethnicities in 29 states jetting as one, even as they steadily and confidently embrace the outside world.” What’s fascinating is how China could be unwittingly accelerating that outside embrace under a leader keen to increase India’s global footprint.

Modi gets that economics is power and that it’s time to remove jokes about the “Hindu growth rate” for the global vernacular. Here, China is proving to be the wake-up call New Delhi needed. Modi, Velloor writes, “has set India on a more confident and outward-bound foreign policy path.” To be taken seriously, Velloor argues, New Delhi “needs to work on not only its external sinews, including its diplomacy and intelligence series, but also settle into a more cooperative brand of domestic politics.” Bottom line, Velloor concludes, “India’s security is best guaranteed by a rapid buildup of its economic power.”

That clearly is Modi’s modus operandi as he gets under the economy’s hood and it’s a reason to give him the benefit of the doubt. Granted, Modi’s first two years in office haven’t dazzled the economics world. But he appears to understand that 7.5 percent growth means little if the benefits aren’t being more widely shared. China’s competitive threat is proving to be the catalyst Indian reformers have been waiting for. And it’s high time that Indian employment growth and job training were seen as a national security challenge no less vital than military preparedness.

“India cannot assume that all is has to do is hold out the lure of its big market and investors will bang on its doors,” Velloor argues. “It needs an ecosystem — from skill building to infrastructure and a stable political environment — that makes it attractive for long-term investments. Should India not succeed in winning sufficient investment from overseas, and convince its own entrepreneurs to invest at home, it could see its demographic dividend — it has one of the youngest populations — turn into a democratic disaster.”

Hubris is always a clear and present danger in Indian politics. In 2004, it drove then-Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s party from power. Its splashy “India Shining” re-election campaign ran afoul of a billion-plus people who weren’t feeling the economic magic. Recently, central bank Gov. Raghuram Rajan annoyed Modi’s people when he downplayed talk that India had already become a bright spot in world economy. Rajan is right. India has great promise, provided Modi implements the bold policies to achieve it.

China’s rise is increasing the urgency in New Delhi. It was also in 2004 when politician Jairam Ramesh floated the idea of “Chindia.” The theory that China, with its burgeoning factories, and India, with its prowess in information technology, would cooperate and complement each other as much as they compete has proven to be more myth than reality. But the end may justify the means as China’s success has India rising, too.

William Pesek is executive editor of Barron’s Asia. www.barronsasia.com

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