Posted by: John Elliott | December 6, 2011

Is India’s problem too much democracy or a Soviet-style prime minister?

Does India have too much democracy and would it be better off with less? The question is inevitably raised whenever comparisons are made with China, where totalitarian rule has enabled dramatically faster and more efficient economic growth and development than has been possible in India since the two countries began to liberalise controls 20 years or so ago.

Alongside that, does India have a strong enough political leadership, and does the current Sonia Gandhi – Manmohan Singh (below) split between party affairs and government work? The answer of course is “no” to the last two points, whereas the democracy point is debatable.

The past few days have been a good time to revisit such topics because of the petty politics, democratic chaos and official mismanagement surrounding the Indian government’s attempts (postponed indefinitely on Dec 7 ) to open up supermarkets to foreign direct investment (FDI). Opposition to the FDI has led to parliament being inoperative for two weeks (I wrote about this on December 1).

That has coincided with a visit to Delhi by one of Asia’s most effective critics of too much democracy, Mahathir Bin Mohamad, Malaysia’s former prime minister.


Mahathir (left), now 86, ran Malaysia for 22 years from 1981 till 2003, accumulating power at the expense of both individual freedoms and an independent judiciary and media. But he nevertheless maintained the semblance of democracy, winning five general elections, and he won acclaim for building his country into a strong and successful economy, and for bucking some of the demands and advice thrown at developing countries by the West.

“Sometimes democracy can paralyse decision-making because people oppose for the sake of opposition,” Mahathir told a Hindustan Times conference in Delhi last Friday, hitting the spot at a time when the government’s fractious coalition partners, especially Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of West Bengal, have been playing political games over the FDI plan.

“Democracy is the best form of government mankind has ever invented but it is important for the world to understand its limitations. India could be China if it were not for too much domestic politics and abuse of freedoms to protest and argue at will,” said Mahathir.

That is undoubtedly correct. India’s combination of noisy fractious democracy, plus its coalition governments and mostly pliable media, spells disaster for reforms that challenge vested interests, whether those interests are the rural poor rightly trying to protect their livelihoods or rich businessmen trying to protect their often illicit sources of wealth. Add widespread corruption to that mix and the result is often negative.


This contrasts sharply with Mahathir’s Malaysia where corruption got things done – a friend who did business in Malaysia in those years quickly found that success came by hiring a close Mahathir relation as an agent. A construction industry friend who was used to paying just once in Malaysia, laughed at problems his counterparts had in India. In such a democracy, he said, one should make staged payments as a project progressed, always keeping something in the kitty for new demands from the ever-changing ranks of politicians and officials.

So Mahathir’s truncated democracy was much more effective, as is China’s undemocratic authoritarian system. But India lacks something else that Malaysia also had, namely strong political leadership to manage the problems arising from the pushes and pulls of democracy

Communist-style governance

This was raised at the Hindustan Times conference by L.K.Advani (below), 84-year old leader of India’s main opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Scoring a neat political point, he suggested that Manmohan Singh was a weak prime minister. He was, said Advani, “not able to exercise all the authority of a prime minister” because of his “acceptance of a communist model of governance, namely where it is the party chief who is more important than the prime minister”.


He mischievously likened that to the way he had been told to give precedence to the Soviet Union’s Communist Party chief Nikita Khrushchev rather than premier Nikolai Bulganin when the two leaders visited India in 1955. “I was surprised to hear this,” he said.

Advani then criticised Sonia Gandhi’s style, saying: “In a democracy you cannot have as number one a person who people do not know”.

Anand Sharma, the minister for commerce and industry, who is responsible for the retail FDI policy, has explained Sonia Gandhi’s behind-the-scenes role. Speaking in television interviews over the past few days. he has said that she does not interfere in the detailed running of the government but does let her views be known, and those views are then followed.

That however is not leadership, and it is not an effective way of running a government. Neither Gandhi nor Singh are natural leaders. The former likes to lead from behind while the latter believes it is neither his job nor wise to lead from the front. Singh has broken out just once – on India’s nuclear deal with the US three years ago, where he led from the front with Gandhi’s support. On retail FDI, he has tried the same tactic but Gandhi has not yet fallen in with him, mainly I guess because she has some sympathy with the view that it might not be good for poor farmers, and partly because she thinks the policy might have to be abandoned or at least shelved.

So given that there is no chance of India abandoning democracy, nor of accepting a Mahathir version, it is to Advani’s remarks that one has to turn for a solution to the current muddle.

The Gandhi-Singh duo is not working. India’s coalition government desperately needs a strong and able political leader. Until it has one, the worst effects of democracy will continue to prevent the country being run effectively.


  1. […] copied the Communists, for whom the party is supreme and the government secondary” (a jibe that BJP leader L.K.Advani has also made). The prime minister was also hampered by  “presidential style chief ministers in the states” […]

  2. Is the sole objective of governance economic growth? That sounds damn silly to me. We are lot better with a corrupt and inefficient democracy that a productive and authoritarian one party rule. At least we can breath freely. (Post this comment in China, and you will be behind bars)

  3. i find this particular kind of discussion extremely onesided. when discussing east asian model , one doesn’t usually mention those countries that are/were undemocratic and failed. one also doesn’t mention of the cost (if any ) that some of these east asian countries paid for having less democracy.

    comparing china and india, despite china’s much better hrd index and economy, there is no denying that fundamentally the same political system saw the cultural revolution and the famine. the extremes which india had so far avoided.

    there is also the question of uncertainty in future, which is more in a undemocratic system.

    the problem in india is not too much of democracy. but in this context the failing politics. both the ruling party and the main opposition seem to me dysfunctional and as a symptom we get what we get – including anna hazare.

  4. Fairly rich comment coming from Advani, when the BJP never figured out whether it was obedient to the RSS or not — and because he was humiliated when he tried to be.

    The problems have less to do with too much or too little democracy, more to do with ownership. In a weak democratic system, with an imperial legacy (and infrastructure of governance) the Centre could make its plans, and (largely) get the states to go along. As Indians, by and large, have become richer, more educated and therefore more assertive, this is less and less possible.

    The tricky step of devolving power always involves challenges to established authority and some policy gridlock. And seriously John, how can you call the rural poor defending their livelihoods a vested interest? If it is, then it is a supremely powerful and overriding one. A country is made of its citizens, what would you have us do, sacrifice the livelihood of the poor for a few GDP points? Ideally any reform has to do both, if it cannot, then it does not deserve to happen.

    The idea that India should be China, and throw a few million lives into the fire to feed its growth, is a little suspect.

  5. Alas, the developed and democratic economies of the US, Europe and Japan are starting to follow the Indian model of a chaotic and disfunctional democracy. Witness the economic policy stalemate in the US, the Euro policy stalemate in the Eurozone, and the endless claims and counterclaims within the Japanese parliament on “who said what, when” minutiae.

  6. Indian democracy is vibrant and leaderless which has fully developed democratic institutional framework. It is transition phase from leadership driven to system driven framework of governance in India and will take time to settle down. The inherent contradictions of leader driven democracy (like corruption, etc) are coming to fore and being tackled by masses ( in Anna way).
    Its the difference between thought process of environment of Advani (linkage Fascist type organisation like RSS) and of Sonia ( family governed organisation waiting to nominate Rahul ); which is reflected in their working. Apart from these , there are many players in Game like Anna, communists, regional parties etc. All are being watched and a decisive mandate will be delivered in next election.

    All systems do have defects. But churning will result in nector in coming times. Let us wait and watch..

  7. John

    We do not deserve democracy. what has democracy given us poverty and crony capitalism accompanied by unbridled coruption. the last 7 years beat it all. Where citizens only see rights and not obligations is a recipe for disaster. That is why we are in this mess or quick sand sinking down or getting sucked in continuously. Must be pleasing for churchill in his grave. regards, BKS

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