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The India-China paradox

By Andrew M. Mwenda

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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