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The India-China paradox

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How democracy in India has promoted the privileges of the powerful while China’s authoritarian state serves its poor citizens

By any measure, India is a country that inspires as it disappoints. In spite of its poverty, it has sustained a stable democratic system of government since independence, almost 70 years ago. Yet in spite of (and perhaps because of) its democratic system: with its free press, powerful political parties, vibrant civic associations, regular elections and regular changes of government, the ability of the state in India to serve the ordinary citizen is atrociously poor.

Secondly, India has some of the most sophisticated elite institutions with meritocratic recruitment and promotion within its bureaucracy. The Indian nuclear program, the Indian Institute of Technology and the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) are led by some of the world’s best brains. Indeed, so rigorous is the civil service entry exam into IAS that many observers say that compared to it, entering Harvard is a mere walk in the park.

 

Yet the Indian state’s ability to perform basic public functions such as garbage collection, providing clean water and reliable electricity, criminal policing, building roads, delivering healthcare and education services etc. is characterised by rampant corruption, apathy, indifference and incompetence. Why does this democracy with high caliber elite institutions fail its citizens?

In late March this year I was in New Delhi, India to attend a conference on global economic trends organised by the Growth Network. It was a collection of some of the world’s leading thinkers, economists and businesspersons discussing the present and forecasting the future of our planet’s economic fortunes. There was concern about how India’s democracy has failed to serve the poor who are the vast majority in that country of more than one billion citizens.

Compare India with China. India is democratic, China authoritarian. While the state in India finds it difficult to fight corruption, one reads many reports of local officials going to jail or getting executed by the communist party in China – for theft or abuse of public resources. Thus, while India’s democratic leaders fail to serve the poor, China’s authoritarian leaders feel that their legitimacy depends to a large extent on addressing the concerns of the most vulnerable sections of the society. Why?

India’s democratic system works by building electoral coalitions among powerful elites through compromises that often tend to undermine the ability of the state to foster economic and administrative reforms, thus inhibiting the rate of growth. On the other hand, China is able to sustain high rates of growth because the state enjoys a degree of independence from vested interests and is therefore able to define a project of national transformation and proceed to implement it without significant societal contestations to dilute it.

In one of the most dramatic discussions I have attended, a former Indian minister squared off with a Chinese intellectual over this subject – democracy with mediocrity versus authoritarianism with exemplary economic performance. The Indian minister argued that his country is happy to enjoy democracy and its accompanying freedoms even at the price of slow or stagnant growth. He said with passion that Indians would never surrender their personal liberties in exchange for rapid economic growth.

The Chinese scholar argued that rapid growth is necessary even if it is initially achieved at the price of restricting some democratic freedoms. Secondly, he said that historical experience shows that growth creates the social forces that promote democratic politics. He said India has put the cart before the horse and the horse could not push it. Almost without exception, all the executives of the top Indian firms at the conference could not agree with their minister. There was overwhelming support for the Chinese scholar i.e. the business community in India is willing to trade freedom for growth.

Yet the sides failed to address how India’s democracy serves to enhance the power and privileges of a small group influential elites always at the expense of the poor majority. The India-China debate can be compared to the Uganda-Rwanda debate. By many measures, the Uganda political system is much more democratic than Rwanda’s. Our country enjoys a higher degree of political freedom with regular and emotionally contested confrontational elections, vibrant civic associations, political parties and mass media. Yet the state in Uganda spends US$ 150 million per year sending the families of the powerful abroad for treatment while the poor go to hospitals with absentee medical workers and buy drugs they are meant to get for free.

However, like India and China, one gets the sense that the state in Rwanda, with limited democratic control over it, cares more about the interests of the ordinary citizens than the state in Uganda with its more developed democratic traditions. The lesson one learns from the experiences of these countries is that India and Uganda tend to emphasize the procedures of democracy even when these rituals serve little or no democratic purpose.

Elites in poor democracies (even in rich ones like the United States) have effective control over democratic institutions – mass media, political parties and civic associations. The poor do not write in newspapers or speak on radio or feature in television debates. These poor masses are not excluded from the political process. Instead they are integrated into political parties – not as rights-bearing citizens but as clients of powerful religious and ethnic powerbrokers. They are also integrated into civic associations (often called NGOs) not as members of these organisations but as recipients of charity.

This is what makes identity (be it ethnicity, religion or race) an important factor in politics. In the USA, the Republican Party wins the votes of poor White Americans by appealing to their sense of racial superiority over Blacks and Hispanics. In India, like in Uganda and other African countries, elites claim that by being appointed to powerful positions as ministers, ambassadors and as heads of other government institutions, their ethnic or religious group is therefore represented in the power structure; that this is evidence that the dignity of their group is respected and that their community is therefore participating in the politics of the country.

This way, the democratic process has been rigged in such a way that the interests and privileges of elites are presented to their co-ethnics as the interests of all. Africa, like India, needs to begin a conversation about the actual content of the democracy they practice. If these rituals are democracy, the poor in poor countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America are better off without it.

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Comments (33)Add Comment
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written by Raymond Katera, May 05, 2014
Mr. Mwenda, First, forgive me for diverting from the subject. For a person who dedicated his career to free expression, it must feel very shameful and cheap to be censored. Over the last 10 years or more, you carved yourself out as an expert on Rwanda. You seemed to have an opinion on everything that mattered to Rwanda. Now it appears Rwanda is at a crossroads, repression, murder, detention, torture seem to be the order of the day and it is now only unknown to a fool that Kagame is getting a third time. Yet you are either suspiciously silent or shamefully muzzled. Step up my friend, either speak out continue to be a documented accomplice and apologist to a criminal or start to tell the truth about what everyone now already knows.
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written by Omeros, May 05, 2014
Andrew, it is (to put it charitably) misleading to suggest that democracy has inhibited economic growth in view of India having registered net positive growth in the post-independence era notwithstanding the anaemic economic conditions that prevailed in that country in the first three decades following the exit of the British. It is also important to put India's uncertain economic performance in those first three post-independence decades in some context.
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written by Omeros, May 05, 2014
As Professor Tirthankar Roy has explained, India's economy had long been stagnant under the British. This of course was by colonial design. The British deliberately undermined (some might say 'sabotaged') indigenous industries. An egregious example is the levelling of the Indian spinning and weaving industry which the British oversaw by dumping finished cotton goods on the Indian market to the end of clearing out local competitors to their own textile manufacturers in the Northern mill towns.
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written by Omeros, May 05, 2014
India had to work against and undo the effects of their former masters' anti-competitive practices. That rebalancing of trade was never going to be speedily accomplished and, given that reality, the complaint that democracy itself has had an arresting effect on growth seems highly ideological.
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written by Omeros, May 05, 2014
It is likewise misleading to suggest that authoritarianism is the elixir that has enabled China's growth. Accounts based on such a supposition contrive to read Chinese history backwards. '[E]xemplary economic performance' came about only latterly when the loosening of the strictures of state planning and collectivisation were applied to the industrial sector. This was a liberalisation that had first manifested itself (to be sure, on an attenuated scale) in agriculture.
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written by Omeros, May 05, 2014
But in sanctioning small scale liberalisation at the margins of the Chinese agricultural economy, the Communist Party did so not because its authoritarianism afforded it 'a degree of independence from vested interests' which in turn enabled the state to 'define a project of national transformation and proceed to implement it without significant societal contestations to dilute it'. Quite the contrary. As Nee and Opper tell it, the Party latched on to a popular move to liberalisation that had already precariously taken root independently of its direction and oversight.
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written by Omeros, May 05, 2014
No doubt to the chagrin of the hardliners of the Gang of Four, peasants in Anhui province dispensed with the Party-imposed collectives and instated a lease system of land tenure. Nevertheless, Deng Xiaoping prevailed over the Gang to institute fledgling reform that was already in evidence prior to its inception and did so in recognition of the crisis that threatened to consume the Party in the wake of the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution.
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written by Omeros, May 05, 2014
It was not therefore authoritarianism that birthed growth-enhancing liberalisation in China (at least at the outset of the tendency to liberalisation), but rather an unspoken and unacknowledged concession to the popular will that led to an experimentation with a system of private holdings and eventually with (regulated) markets.
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written by Omeros, May 05, 2014
With that said, it is remarkable how tirelessly certain economic elites push the narrative that the fate of growth in developing countries is tied to whichever authoritarian is brave enough to suppress a people in its cause. When they breezily assert that 'rapid growth is necessary even if it is initially achieved at the price of restricting some democratic freedoms', one can be certain that they never regard the freedoms to be restricted as being their own.
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written by Omeros, May 05, 2014
The more clearly it is recognised that, in offering commentary of this type, such people speak up for a clear class interest, then can a real political debate ensue over why such people's interests should naturally prevail over those of the great unwashed.
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written by Richard Kakeeto, May 05, 2014
I think at the intellectual level, you have done a good job. As you usually say, you are now older and wiser. It seems your wisdom now suggests that it should be OK to suppress civil and political rights in favour of good indicators at the social economic level…this will be failure to look at the human person as an integral whole and will sooner or later backfire..ask the chinese what their one child policy has done to them...
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written by Ocheto, May 05, 2014
The rise of Chinese and Indian economies, the so-called emerging economies, is due to the fact that centrally planned economies, socialism (India) and communism (China and Soviet Union), were defeated or observed to be so by and at the hands of the capitalist west. India though politically democratic too had a centrally planned (socialist) economy. The problem is when some people fail to delineate economics from politics. There are not the same thing. The centrally planned economies threw in the towel as did your Marxist Museveni (barter trading beans with Cuba for medicines) This has nothing to do with the countries politics (being democratic or not). The truth: capitalist economies too have crushed: they have become indebted and overleveraged.
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written by Ocheto, May 05, 2014
Unlike India which had its political institutions intact (the British colonial practice tended to leave the native political systems in tact) China had to reinvent itself through the Maoist cultural revolution, which India did not need. China is a revolutionary government. India like Uganda on the other hand was "granted" political independence by the British, their colonial masters. The political paths (to where they are today) of India and China are entirely different.
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written by Rajab Kakyama, May 06, 2014
The fundamental question that Mwenda fails to address should be: Is Africa safer under "strong men" or under liberal effective systems?
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written by Marvin ya Kuku, May 06, 2014
Mwenda was India back in the day. An unruly democracy journalist. Poor, dirty like a slum in new delhi but free to fight for what he believed in. You just knew he had principles and if he connected, just once, perhaps we could all enjoy the gonja of his sweat. Then he got selfish and came to China to enjoy his gonja alone. Now its all about development with a chinese ak47 at your head. He has become posh due to the freedom that allowed him to dodge the slums. He is now advocating others support him in curtailing the same freedoms he used to succeed. Each system has its winners and losers but I certainly preferred the free journo of old. Not the towing the line cadre incarnate he has become
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written by Ochoca, May 06, 2014
To prove your point Andrew, take a look at this latest WHO report on the percentage change in maternal mortality rate MMR between 1990 to 2013 : maverick african democratic country Senegal has -2.2%; Ghana has 2,9% and compare to Africa autocratic Eritrea has -6.1% same has Rwanda. What is the point of the democracy if the people don't get the benefit of it? Why is a country like Eritrea without international aid plus sanctions is able to achieve this remarkable reduction in MMR but no Senegal?
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written by Omeros, May 06, 2014
@Ochoca - Let's assume that it is in fact appropriate to judge the valency of democracy by the measure of the level of the average year-on-year reduction achieved by a nation state in maternal mortality rates between the years 1990 and 2013 - an idiosyncratic approach, but let's roll with it for a minute. Should we then take it that the citizens of Canada, which has registered a 2.6% increase in MMR during the same period under survey ought to give up on this whole democracy thing and instead go the way of Eritrea or Rwanda?
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written by Omeros, May 06, 2014
If your answer to that question is 'yes', then you have stronger capacity for motivated reasoning than I gave you credit for - however, don't imagine that pregnant women in Canada will be beating a path to Asmara or Kigali to have their infants delivered. If your answer is 'no', then come up with a better argument for stripping people of their rights. Out of interest, which of your rights are you willing to yield to your fabled benevolentstrongmanwarriorleader?
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written by OPIO, May 08, 2014
If u want an answer to your article then find this new book which will also be a good addition to your home library ''THE TYRANNY OF EXPERTS: ECONOMISTS,DICTATORS AND THE FORGOTTEN RIGHTS OF THE POOR. by WILLIAM EASTERLY
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written by ndabizi, May 08, 2014
Mwenda does not tell the readers where the leaders in Kigali send their families and themselves for medical check up/treatment. If he cared to check the facts, he would definately find out that the amout the Government of Rwanda spends dwarfs $150m per capita wise. I will just give u examples; Christine Nyatanyi spent a long spell in Brussels, so was Inyumba who eventually returned and breathed her last at her home many other politicians go abroad for simple checkups.
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written by ndabizi, May 08, 2014
Due to wanting medical services, many more ordinary people are having to sell their property to send their loves one to India for treatment of simple cases as goitre, hepatitis in addtion to more complex non communicable diseases such as cancer. Ofcourse Mwenda would like us to believe that every one can be evacuated. this is a lie parroted many times and one which has has to be debunked.
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written by ndabizi, May 08, 2014
Article 4 of the Law N° 24/2001 on the establishment, organization and functioning of a health insurance scheme for government employees stipulates unequivocally that "RAMA insurance beneficiaries are only treated in Rwanda" here is the proof http://lip.alfa-xp.com/lip/Ama...d=30693114

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written by ndabizi, May 08, 2014
At the micro-level, I must admit that Rwanda has one of the best home grown approaches to delivering health care. immunisation, assisted deliveries antenatals referals and follow ups are some of the areas the community health workers (volunteers) have made huge strides. however the threat rwanda faces is poverty-a monster that limits poor households from paying mutual health insurance premiums.
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written by Rajab Kakyama, May 08, 2014
I had thought someone would spot this out, "By many measures, the Uganda political system is much more democratic than Rwanda’s. Our country enjoys a higher degree of political freedom with regular and emotionally contested confrontational elections, vibrant civic associations, political parties and mass media." This is a big statement by any imaginations and least, coming from a "Presidential Adviser" Finally, Mwenda accepts that Kagame is a tyrant. An hungry and angry ruler who is intolerant of any meaningful political contestation. I do hope that soon, the world will discover who Kagame is- a mover of the 1994 genocide, a sponsor of terrorist activities both within Rwanda and outside:- he continues to do this in eastern Congo.
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written by ndabizi, May 08, 2014
which was recently raised to a minumum of between $4-$10 per head. the overzelous local leaders at times sell by force (hence a human rights issue) the property of peasants in order to appear to have done well in executing their peformance duties. holders of mutual health insurance cards cannot buy most of the drugs frm government pharmacies and cannot go to straight to the national referal hospital in case of a serious complication.
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written by ndabizi, May 08, 2014
why dwell on this issue when at stake is whether to have developmental authoriatarian systems or an indifferent predatory capitalist state, Gaddafi was/is said to have built a strong health sector inter alia, Ben Ali transformed Tuniisia into one of the most developed country by all measures of development. So what went wrong then? how can gains made by authoritarian, ploarising rulers be sustained? Mwenda should tell us how countries like Rwanda that has an overbearing party/individual with no strong instutional checks and balances sustain gains made. Rwanda is country where if Kagame didn't like you would either die, starve, be deprived of citizenship among others.
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written by ndabizi, May 08, 2014
he would do so using the instutions in place such as the judiciary. there is nothing that can restrain him from abusing the powers. the judiciary is very compliant to RPF party as a result of being staffed by RPF cadres. I heard Mwenda state that GoR loses 80% of the cases. The truth of the matter is government loses cases that are not political. the conviction rate for political related 'crimes' so far stands at 100%
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written by Denis Musinguzi, May 08, 2014
I have been to both China and India, and I can say that the situation in China is not as rosy nor as bleak in India as Andrew depicts it. India has invested heavily in agriculture and infrastructure (roads and electricity etc) technology and in health care with remarkable social changes on the ground. China may have moved only faster, with focus on egalitarian education and technology. Besides, transformation in China is not premised on authoritarianism as its morality, nor India's shortfalls on democracy. China's authoritarianism is motivated by social ethic/ethos, Rwanda's by political calculations. While the former is solid and sustainable, the latter is still speculative. I even wonder what interpretation would an ordinary Rwandan ascribe to Andrew's comparison of Rwanda and China!
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written by ndabizi, May 08, 2014
I'm Rwandan and I can tell u that Mwenda is increasingly becoming the most despised person in Rwanda (outside the political circles). He is puting his talent to bad use by defending the indefensible (such as justfiying assasinations in the name of fighting 'terrorism'). no right thinking member would deny the trememndous progress made by kagame and Co in the last 20 years. However, Kagame is a polarising and highly intolerant person who i'm afraid cannot consolidate long term peace unity and reconciliation which is why the future does not look great.
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written by Winnie, May 08, 2014
1. Ndabizi its coz of Andrew that Rwanda is at least known otherwise you were doing badly.
2. When i think of India it reminds of their great Medical Skill and it also reminds me of the wedding of Sudhir's daughter especially when Natasha M7 was given a cake that day i cried (Real tears where you even blow your nose)
3.Why is it that Its only Politics and democracy that has not changed for over 4000 years Medicine,Technology have changed/developed.its either about the Napoleon,Abraham Lincoln,Karl-max World War I,French revolution.
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written by Omeros, May 10, 2014
Folks, those who provide political advocacy for authoritarianism more often than not belong to a group of people who have thrived materially under M7. They are members of a social and political ascendancy. A not insignificant number amassed their wealth dishonestly. They dread the day when the leader who enabled their advancement should lose power leaving them and their fortunes exposed. They want continuity in the present arrangement. That means having another leader who will shield them and their dubious wealth from the public gaze and the uncomfortable scrutiny that comes with transparency.
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written by Omeros, May 10, 2014
Their position is classically conservative, even reactionary. No surprise then that their prescriptions are fantastically unpopular and their sales pitch unenviable - like the task of trying to sell apartheid to the majority black population of South Africa. Which is why they attempt to clothe a fundamentally elitist position in the garb of populism and claim with a straight face that dictatorship is for the people's own good in order to conceal the fact that in reality such claims are solely for their own good. The next time that such a person has the stones to tell you that he is a libertarian, laugh in his face.
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written by Ocheto, May 10, 2014
The power paradox: since it is only government that has power (the capacity and ability to act and make national decisions for all) how could the people at the same time have the same power? Of course not, no they don't because they have surrendered it. But they must have their civil rights and human rights protected even as the leadership exercises power on everybody's behalf. The only way people can reclaim their power (birth right) is by periodically exercising their right to vote and select who should run their public affairs: hence the strong case for democracy. Because you can never trust anybody to leader responsibly or even if they did the next idiot may not they must all be vetted.

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