The Indian Economy Blog

September 9, 2007

The Much-Discussed Altman Post

Filed under: Business — Arjun Swarup @ 1:12 am

This concerns a post made by International Herald Tribune columnist, Daniel Altman, on his blog, about India and Japan. IEB bloggers Pragmatic and Shefaly have already blogged about it, here and here.

My specific thoughts on the post aside, I had reached out to Mr. Altman with some questions on his post. He was quick to respond (which is something I find extremely commendable, as a lot of columnists at major publications often dont respond at all). My questions, and his answers to them, are reproduced below (with his permission)
My question: In your opinion, is India really at economic level similar to Sudan and Bolivia, while China is miles ahead? I am not sure if you are aware of the fact that there is a lot of debate about whether Chinese FDI numbers are fudged.

Altman’s response: I was pointing out a superficial similarity in the relationships; the economies need not be of similar size for the analogy to hold true.

My question: You mention that Japan and India have no historical ties. How come? Japan is a Buddhist country, and Buddhism originated in India, and the Japs(short for Japanese)* have been interested in developing Bodh Gaya for years. Let alone the fact that economic investment has never been driven by ‘historical ties’ or ‘economic links’.
Altman’s response: I did not say India and Japan had no historical ties. I did say that this relationship is based on economic convenience.
My question: What about the massive investments India is making outside? Indian FDI outflow has exceeded Indian FDI inflow – do we have more ‘client states’ now?
Altman’s response: “Client state” may by a strong term. But sure, India could have its own client states.
That is his response. For the last question, I think his point is that the term ‘client state’ is a strong one in general, and not just with respect to India. In any case, I am not very convinced by the client state argument. In any case, this is Mr. Altman’s personal opinion, and most importantly, was posted on his blog, and not even on IHT. However, I do feel this is reflective of some larger trends in international journalism (notably business and economics), but those merit a full separate post.
* The term Jap has derogatory connotations in many countries (not India), as explained here. I did not use it in a derogatory sense, I used it as an abbrieviation while typing, in my initial email to Daniel Altman. As the email was being reproduced verbatim, I did not change it.


  1. Arjun:

    Thanks for the update and thanks to Daniel for a prompt response. I can understand his point of view but I am still neither convinced by nor appreciative of his arguments. Period.

    Yes, I eagerly look forward to your ‘full separate post on larger trends in international journalism (notably business and economics)’. It would be topical in today’s environment.

    Comment by Pragmatic — September 9, 2007 @ 2:16 am

  2. I want to add one more thought. Readers of blogs, even supposedly dry economic blogs, may wish to add a grain of salt to their diet. The tone of my post was intentionally playful. A little provocation can be quite useful when starting a discussion.

    I’m sorry that some people were offended. I received quite a few silly insults from readers, who often made erroneous assumptions about my background (I live in a much smaller economy than India’s). But I’d suggest that a few skins need thickening. It is exactly the quality of a strong country, or a citizen thereof, that it has the confidence to perceive a tongue-in-cheek provocation and calmly offer a clever riposte, rather than losing its collective cool.

    Comment by Daniel Altman — September 9, 2007 @ 3:07 am

  3. Altman in fact understates the scale of the India’s state. India remains totally outclassed by China in terms of its economy, manufacture, transport, infrastructure, space programme, military weaponry and experience, films, sports, diplomatic sophistication, etc etc There is no comparison in any field.

    The scale of poverty and malnutrition in India is staggering together with shoddy workmanship, grovelling attitudes to the West, childish and plagiarised themes in Bollywood, etc. Plenbty of mediocracy, little excellence.

    On the whole, Indians cannot innovate – they just copy and plod on with the routine – they can’r shake off that old coolie tendency to conform. Even in the IT area, India – babu-like – can only do routine applications in which TCS, Infosys, WIPRO excel. And they are ready to fawn over Microsoft and other US giants.
    Can Indian programmers hack into military & defence systems like the Chinese?

    India needs to alter their mindset drastically – starting with their education system.

    Eddie, London

    Comment by Eddie — September 9, 2007 @ 3:33 pm

  4. Arjun: Thanks for this post. I shall eagerly watch the responses to your post (and therefore Altman’s explanation).

    It is clear he made an incomplete argument in his post. He was probably unprepared for the flood of responses too. But while I disagree with his flaky approach, it is hard to disagree that we as Indians need a thicker skin. I had expressed it by asking if we have a fragile self-esteem.

    Needless to say, the conversation with some emotively-charged readers got quite interesting and went off on a tangent automatically with the ‘issue’ having been forgotten early on and the attacks focusing purely on the person (in this case, me).

    Disagreeing is fine; but arguing needs to be congent, coherent and not emotive for the other party to take us seriously.

    Alas we do not have the luxury of growing up as an economy, in a pre-Internet world. Most of us Indians living abroad benefit from a positive stereotype of Indians as smart, hard working, law abiding people. Everything we do is under scrutiny and the last thing we need is to provide fodder for a negative stereotype to be created.


    Comment by Shefaly — September 9, 2007 @ 7:04 pm

  5. Eddie says:
    //India remains totally outclassed by China in terms of its economy, manufacture, transport, infrastructure, space programme, military weaponry and experience, films, sports, diplomatic sophistication, etc etc There is no comparison in any field.

    The scale of poverty and malnutrition in India is staggering together with shoddy workmanship, grovelling attitudes to the West, childish and plagiarised themes in Bollywood, etc. Plenbty of mediocracy, little excellence.//

    If more people write similar comments I sure will develop a thick skin! :) Because what he says is simply too sweeping a statement to take seriously. No comparision in any field? That is a joke. Why just in the recent Asia Fabulous list, India had 12 companies and China just 7. No, I am not saying we are greater than China, but to say that there is no comparision is a joke. And shoddy workmanship? Surely China has enough of that too? And even if 70-80 percent of bollywood films are copies, there are many films which are world-class. In fact china is famous for copying (products). I just went there and saw that almost every western brand is available there, a spurious version! Also the poverty in China is staggering too, their rich poor ratio is far worse than India’s. Only their underbelly is hidden…our is an open sore visible to the world.
    I have written about the Asia fab list and the rich poor ratio on my blog.
    So really to say that India and China cannot be compared or that China is way way ahead and that there is no comparision…is quite funny.
    China might just get way ahead one day, thats what I do fear. Their system of government is very strong, while we are held back by democratic systems. But inspite of it all, I prefer being the tortoise and am proud to be one.

    Comment by Nita — September 9, 2007 @ 8:42 pm

  6. Nita:
    Eddie’s comments are not even worthy of a response. China – India, where is Altman, Japan and client state in all this?

    You better not ‘eagerly’ watch for such (t)eddy responses;) BTW, Altman still hasn’t answered any of the ‘cogent, coherent and not emotive’ arguments raised by you in your post. Do you agree with his ‘intentionally playful’ and ‘tongue-in-cheek provocation’ line? I think that it is more of an afterthought.
    But why did many of us react the way we did (mea culpa)? There is a whole lot of puerile stuff on the web, disparaging, condescending and even insulting to India. Most of us don’t take up cudgels on India’s behalf then; in this case, it was the IHT tag (agreed, it was only on a blog) and Altman’s name that got the goat. Nevertheless, I have learnt my lessons – no more rising to such baits.

    Comment by Pragmatic — September 9, 2007 @ 9:33 pm

  7. Mr. Swarup,
    “Japan is a Buddhist country, and Buddhism originated in India, and the Japs have been interested in developing Bodh Gaya for years.”

    The term “Japs” is considered derogatory ( It may be fashionable to use it among the firangi classes in India but please refrain from doing so.

    Japan is not a religious country in the sense and Indian and The United States are religious countries. According to Gallup poll on religiosity of societies, Japan comes out to be the least religious of all countries included in the poll.

    Comment by Vimal Goel — September 10, 2007 @ 8:31 am

  8. Vimal,

    As mentioned in my updated post, I used the term as an abbrieviation, while typing quickly. While posting, I did notice that, but since I was reproducing the email verbatim, I did not change it.

    Additionally, the term itself has derogatory connotations (to varying degrees) in the US, UK and Canada, but am not sure about other countries. At least in India (to my knowledge), it is not a taboo term. Anyhow, thanks for pointing this out, it was in my mind already, and have updated my post.

    As for the religious issue, there has been, for over three decades now, a lot of interest from Japan, through the government and its private sector, in developing Bodh Gaya, as it is the birthplace of Buddhism.

    I only mentioned that to prove that there are some sort of ‘historical ties’ between the two nations, more than India and Sweden, for example.

    Comment by Arjun Swarup — September 10, 2007 @ 5:12 pm

  9. “At least in India (to my knowledge), it is not a taboo term.”

    Arjun, neither is the term ‘Negro’! And boy, is it evident when Indians are visiting here in the UK or the US.

    Comment by Shefaly — September 10, 2007 @ 8:34 pm

  10. I totally disagree with Eddie that India cannot keep up with Chinese programmers. You might know that TCS handles all the software requirements for Ferrari’s F1 and road car divisions – be it in car traction control or telemetry or softwares for production processes. Developing software for Formula 1 traction control is one of the greatest challenges the human mind has ever faced regarding software engineering. traction control involves complex mechatronics and making CISC processors to send signals to a mechanical unit be it a clutch or a viscous coupling is quite tough and that being done at the rate of 2000 actions per second…Another really high tech where an Indian is involved is Ageia Physx processors. These processors simulate accurate physics in an 3D environment and are a total new innovation. yes this company came out with such a product even before Intel, nVidia, ATi could… and the chairman and CEO of this company is an Indian Manju Hegde.

    I could cite several other examples showing that Indians are really involved in te bleeding edge of software and computer tech development but as of now I see that two would suffice…Peace

    Comment by Shaswata Panja — September 10, 2007 @ 11:18 pm

  11. Shall all move on from Altman’s and Eddie’s comments? They are just opinions, not worthy to find how wrong they are or how great they are. They are just too obvious for merely expressing some opposing views (to what Indians like to hear). However, as Indians always love its democratic pricinples, would it be nice to just treat it as one of the views and show some tolerance?

    Altman is wrong to say sorry. The ones should say sorry are those who sent insults to him because a demarcracy, as its basic pricinples should demonstrate, is to tolerate different views and to respect such views with confidence. If we all only select to hear what we want to hear and try to get praises all the time, do we really want that?

    India is a big country, citizens must be confident and keep collective cool as it should be.

    Comment by thecupgr — September 11, 2007 @ 7:47 am

  12. Daniel,

    The tone of my post was intentionally playful. A little provocation can be quite useful when starting a discussion.

    Indeed. I believe that myself. So I think it should be perfectly fine if people do get provoked. Imagine a world where no one—not least bloggers—got provoked. It would be a boring world indeed. Moreover, I think it’s important to challenge contentions, especially provocative ones, if smart people make them.

    As for the “thick-skin” argument—I’d say that thick-skin is the rule, rather than an exception in India. But it’s the thin skinned minority that is vocal, so I won’t blame you for your perception.


    I’ll take the charitable explanation that you too are trying to be provocative. But in your case, they fall on thick Indian skins.

    Comment by Nitin — September 11, 2007 @ 7:01 pm

  13. Shaswata the Ageia Physx example is a really poor one. The company is very likely not to survive long and the actual Physx card is quite crappy and really nothing more than a waste of money. Which goes to explain why virtually no one has purchased one.

    Comment by Jing — September 11, 2007 @ 7:51 pm

  14. The problem with Altman’s blog post is that it is extremely superficial, particularly so when there had been a lot of publicity around Abe’s visit, not just in the Japanese and Indian press, but elsewhere in the western news outlets. Several of these went to great lengths to describe the changing dynamics of the economic and strategic engagement in detail, underlining factors such as Japan’s growing wariness of China, its economic necessitis, India’s rapid recent industrialization and several other factors, including Abe’s grandfather’s ties to India via the Indian judge at the WW2 war crimes tribunal.

    Altman, on the other hand, came across as a supercilious ignoramus, who portrays gross exaggerations and extremely poor analogies (e.g. India-Japan to Sudan-China) as ‘playful’ . Those who’ve followed the wide coverage of the Abe visit would have little trouble identifying his blog as easily amongst the worst, yet he attempts to pretend that his woeful ‘client state’ logic holds water.

    As much as we’ll need thick skin to deal with the criticism we’ll doubtless face (and already have), there also needs to be a willingness to call out rubbish for what it is, especially when the author then attempts to patronize readers by claiming they lack a thick skin.

    Comment by Suraj — September 13, 2007 @ 11:39 am

  15. If “client state” was a much harsher word, how did it get into the original article! :(

    Comment by Rookie — September 13, 2007 @ 11:26 pm

  16. China-India comparisons just come across any basic discussion on countries or economies. The BRIC clubbing has done more harm to India than good. There’s a very interesting article at

    Comment by Mouli — September 14, 2007 @ 4:07 pm

  17. B. Roman of India Outlook recently visited Sichuan province of China from August 26 to 31, 2007 and he filed this interesting piece regarding relations betweem India, China, Japan, US, and Australia:

    Comment by thecupgr — September 20, 2007 @ 4:22 am

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