Posted by: John Elliott | August 20, 2007

Democracy is not an end in itself

Hey folks – I’ve enjoyed your comments on my India 60th post, but there are some misunderstandings.

First, I don’t live in America, as some of you imagine, and I am not even American. I’m a British journalist and have lived in India for 18 of the past 24 or so years, first for the Financial Times in the 1980s and then, from 1995, back in Delhi and writing primarily for Fortune magazine and The Economist, plus the New Statesman.

And yes, I have traveled extensively – to all states in India, apart from the North East (which I’ve never written about in Riding the Elephant). In the past two or three years, my city visits have included Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, Jaipur, Cochin, Agra, Jaipur, Varanasi, Lucknow, Jalandhar and Kolkata, plus elsewhere in areas such as Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Orissa, Pondicherry and the Himalayan foothills.

So I’ve seen a lot of the country, not enough maybe, because nothing is ever enough in such a massive, varied and rapidly changing place. But I have to wonder, without wanting to be too confrontational, how my journeys compare with those of some distant comment writers.

I rarely, if ever, criticize the Indian people or the country. My targets are almost always corrupt indolent self-serving politicians, bureaucrats and others who slow the country down for their own benefit.

I first came here in 1982, when I was the London-based industrial editor of the Financial Times, to write articles on India. I’d spent 15 years or so reporting Britain’s economic decline and was fascinated by what I sensed was a country just beginning to grow and expand – extremely slowly, but nevertheless on the move.

I came back a year later to open the FT bureau in New Delhi, and reported events such as the Sikh troubles in Punjab, Indira Gandhi’s army take-over of the Golden Temple and her subsequent assassination, as well as the Union Carbide gas disaster in Bhopal. Then Rajiv Gandhi came to power and sowed seeds of modernization that have come good in the past few years – his contribution to modern India is frequently under-recognized.

In 1988, I was posted to Hong Kong, but came back in 1995, four years after the 1991 liberalization had started.

That was when I became aware of, and was horrified by, the appalling waste that I often write about today. Corruption was on the rise as the well-connected and powerful seized opportunities to amass enormous wealth, and the poor were being ignored.

These are the failings that lay behind my India 60th post. The country has done brilliantly, but could do so much better if public servants performed in the interests of the country and the desperately poor. Sure, the article was broad brush – the idea here is not to write more than about 700 words – but I covered the major points, and we will have a much broader and longer look in a special FORTUNE magazine spread of India articles at the end of October.

Most of the comments on my post praised India for the 60 years, despite China’s greater advances, while others disliked my criticisms. There frequently seemed to be a reluctance to accept that it is the job of a foreign reporter impartially to watch, learn, analyze and report what he or she sees. And some comments have been wrong – of course businessmen have changed, for example, since liberalization reformed the rules.
I knew my Uttar Pradesh-Bihar comparison with Pakistan would be attacked. The detailed situation in those two Indian states is of course quite different from Pakistan, but corrupt self-serving politicians in both those states and Pakistan have worked for themselves and their cronies, not for the benefit of the population. My main point was that both have lacked stable governance because democratic institutions have failed. The good news is that UP and Bihar now seem to be improving under their present chief ministers.

On the same day that my post appeared, Amartya Sen, the Nobel Laureate, wrote in the FT about how poverty rates had not come down as fast as they should have done and said:

“Some failures are huge, such as continuing undernourishment, particularly of children, and of course the scandal of a quarter of the population (including half of all women) remaining illiterate……A democratic country can hardly want to maintain a divisiveness that makes it part California and part sub-Saharan Africa”.

That may be a bit harsh, but few of the comments sent to this blog seemed willing to face up to India’s problems of poverty and dramatically widening gaps between the very rich and the desperately poor.

Of course democracy is great, but it is not an end in itself, which some writers seem blandly to suggest. It should only be a means to an end – governing a country well in the interests of all its people – and that sadly is not happening enough in India. OK, other countries have their problems too and are not perfect (including America according to several of you who live there) but this blog is not about those places. It’s about India.

Please keep the comments rolling – je


  1. Hi
    It would be worthwhile to write about forward states like Kerala , than to highlight backward states like UP & Bihar

  2. Sir, You are doing excellent work on India and corruption. Recently I visited India and met several of my childhood friends. Some of these friends are in businesses in concert with the highest level politicians in the State. I am not jealous of my friends doing well but I am torn that they are using advanced information from politicos to benefit in businesses. This seems the case with many of the rich people in India today. Access to insider information. It is very sad.

  3. As you have travelled a lot in India and must have a lot of information.

    Can you provide a breakdown of what states are doing? I understand that it does not matter how and what different states are contributing to India’s global economy but It would probably open up the eyes of some states’ politicians who are wasting the resources of a state.

  4. The “invisible NO wall” that exists in India is one of the biggest reason of lack of progress and more importantly lack of equitable distribution of wealth.

    Well what is “Invisible NO Wall”?
    It is nothing but all sorts of hurdles put forth by public servants politicians in the path of every up coming enterprising person. It indirectly favours all established business and people in power. People often cite corruption as enemy number one but in reality corruption is nothing but a symptom of the “NO Wall”.

    There was a time when this wall had reached some ridiculous proportions. For example you could not move a telephone instrument from one room to another. If you did you were in violation of law and a Govt babu could impose a fine or simply disconnect your phone service.

    Fortunately the barriers of the NO wall have been reduced but not to a level that is seen in western countries or managed free markets like China, Malaysia or Singapore.

    Take the example of all the large software companies who are often praised for the great work they do. When they decide to open new offices ust carefully look at the land rates they are offered. You will not be able to buy land for 10 times the rate offered to all the Infosys, cognizant, Wipro et al.

    And why do software development need so much land anyways ? A 300 acre land for Software development. Well its simple. They are on the other side of the NO WALL and so they are special.

  5. I agree completely that the Indian bureaucracy has failed in improving the fate of the millions below the poverty line. In addition the rich and the powerful have been very successful in preventing equitable distribution of wealth. If the situation does not improve, it may result in a revolution organized by the masses with the help of the educated unemployed youths.

  6. I enjoyed your “India at 60” article, and this newest post. One small quibble though: you write that “democracy is not an end in itself.” I disagree, and would point you to Prof Sen’s arguments in his book Development as Freedom, in which he very persuasively argues that freedom, which includes political freedom, is in fact an end in itself. This is not to say that democracy cannot and should not be made to function better, and that citizens do not have the responsibility to hold their leaders accountable; emphatically, they do. But to create any semblance of a trade-off between democracy and “development” is mistaken, which is why comparisons between India and China are inherently flawed. Unless one can put a price on the political freedoms most Indians possess and that their Chinese counterparts do not, the claim that China has made “greater advances” is unwarranted.

    Thank you for your time. I look forward to reading more of your articles in the future.

  7. Bravo!! I whole heartedly agree with your article and post. Despite all the advances there is still miles to go for this country. Corruption is certainly public enemy number one including corrupt politicians, corrupt bureaucrats, corrupt businessmen and corrupt people in general. In any democratic setup, you are bound to get arguments on both sides. Glad to see how you have articulated both sides of the coin so well. Above all glad that we all can have this discussion without having to worry about the secret police hovering around us!! I guess some benefits of democracy after all:=)

  8. I actually agree with your comparisions of UP-Bihar * Paki. Its all the same state. The unstable politics and curuption. However Indin people get too defensive when comparing anything with pakistan, and rarely make a rational evaluation, myself included.

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