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
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.