‘New’ India is still tentative

  • Letters
  • Sunday, 16 May 2004


India’s victorious Congress party has achieved an upset and driven the incumbent BJP into oblivion. This shock win has caused some Western observers to overdo their own hopes, reading more into the event than there was anything written. 

THE fact is that India’s recent election has returned the Congress party to power after a seven-year hiatus, at the head of a prospective governing coalition signalling a switch from Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rule. 

Indian and other Asian media commentary has dwelt on various possibilities and implications, from the composition of the impending coalition to revised industrial policy. Some Western commentary, however, took things to absurd lengths with specious and simplistic speculation. 

It is said, for example, that India’s election shows that it does have elections, unlike China. This difference is then taken to impact on the industrial competitiveness of the two countries, and the pronouncement is made that democratic India will overtake China in development. 

India’s British-influenced parliamentary system may have more in common with Western notions of governance than China’s party-based commune elections. But this is no basis for saying that the Indian peasant’s needs are better met than the Chinese peasant’s – if anything, quite the reverse – much less India being certain of outdoing China’s growth because of that. 

Indian observers readily attribute the BJP’s surprise defeat to its politics of exclusion and Hindu nationalism, at the expense of shared development and national unity. Material growth has not translated adequately into development equity. 

Keen observers even suggest that it was less a victory for Congress than a defeat for the BJP. The incumbents’ lack of mass appeal has been so vivid as to make the people opt even for today’s Congress, led by the untested Italian-born Sonia Gandhi and still representing dynastic family rule rather than democracy per se. 

There is no doubt that both India and China are rising, despite the BJP boast of “India Shining” having lost its lustre. India and China are not in competition because of their different political systems, let alone in contention, and insinuating that is but a Western ideological misperception. 

Sonia as expected seemed reluctant to accede to the prime ministership (but not in shaping the new government), just as she showed reluctance to take the party reins until 1998. But she need not emulate Caesar in refusing the crown thrice or Napoleon in crowning herself, since her mandate to govern is a fait accompli rejected only by marginalised malcontents embodied in a fast-disappearing BJP. 

Those who still doubt her Indian credentials as a criterion for governance need reminding that the main issue is not who won the election or even the Congress party’s return to government, but the Gandhis’ return to power. Whether or not Sonia is genuinely Indian, she and her children are truly Ghandis. 

In Asia, perhaps more than anywhere else, the politics of the clan or family has a special place – regardless of the formal democratic institutions in practice. Those from another culture that values these formal institutions for their own sake may end up drawing quite mistaken conclusions. 

Thus in “A democratic India is overtaking China” (Boston Globe, May 10), Jonathan Power could see China’s “fast increasing mal-distribution of income” as among its problems, but not among India’s. He ends up believing the title of his own article. 

A similar tone is struck in an editorial commentary in the Christian Science Monitor four days later. India has elections as-we-know-them, not China, so India is poised to “surpass” China. 

Ideology aside, India is smaller than China and may therefore be more manageable to that extent, but its greater diversity may also mean less discipline and greater difficulty to govern. Indian democracy might also encourage divergences that detract from efforts to unify the nation to forge ahead more definitively. 

Already, Congress is expected to forge an alliance of sorts with leftist parties like the Communist Party, which have very different views of privatisation. As in so many democratic nations, the flip-flopping of policies could well mean slower progress towards development. 

China clearly has such problems as corruption, inefficiency of state enterprises, and weak legal institutions. But the state discipline evident in policymaking also applies to addressing these problems. 

Although Western ideologues are loath to accept it, not all aspects of centralised control are a handicap. In managing large and complex developing nations, they could prove invaluable or of some advantage. 

If India and China have to be compared at all, the Congress party’s Fabian-type socialism is making a slower transition to a modern social democracy than China’s more drastic switch from communism to capitalism (“social market economy”). And in the real world of Indian governance, where Congress has to ally with leftist parties in parliament, that change may never come. 

India, like the Philippines, is a vibrant Third World democracy where the people are as talented in the arts as they are in scientific software. But where individual gifts are not marshalled into a coherent national drive or a visionary, cohesive national strategy, competitiveness suffers. 

India could remain more democratic than China for years to come. While this may be to India’s advantage socially and politically, it need not also favour India economically. 

If one begins with the assumption that democracy is not only a virtue but also an end in itself, then a country’s prospects in every sphere will be made to rest on its prospects for democracy. This is a classic ideological position in the West during the Cold War. 

Those who insist that democracy will benefit a society in every way must first explain why India, like the Philippines, has not seen a great surge in economic development despite being democratic for so many decades after independence. 

Russia has also languished if not declined economically and socially, after it placed democracy before growth, whereas China has surged ahead. India’s recent boom comes more from economic reforms in the 1990s, some of which may now be questioned with a new government. 

Russia and Indonesia show that running large countries with huge populations is more complex and less predictable than simple assumptions would allow. And where vast disparities in wealth exist, neither democracy nor democratisation is a guarantor of economic growth or even social civility. 

Western industrialised democracies took many years to develop both their economy and their politics. Growth took precedence over democracy, with the creation of a working class at home and colonies abroad before more democratic norms were established. 

Asia’s NIEs (newly industrialising economies) took a similar route of growth preceding political reforms but without colonies abroad. Since then, much of the rest of Asia has broadly adopted this model. 

Despite occasional rhetoric over Hong Kong, China has shown signs of political opening since Deng Xiaoping’s reforms of the 1970s. For a large country, laws on citizens’ movement within and outside the country, foreign investment-ownership and private property have moved rapidly. 

India is not an outstanding example for the counter-argument that democratisation should precede growth: that would require steady and significant growth since independence in 1947. And neither in Russia nor post-Zia Pakistan next door has democratisation led to marked progress in economic or social development. 

The real issue may not be what is more important than, and so should precede, whatever else. It may simply be doing what works, with the public interest uppermost, and learning from both the successes and failures of everyone.  

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