The ultimate irony of the former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad’s statement in New Delhi last Friday—that India would have clocked much higher rates of growth than China had it been “slightly less democratic“—is that only in a democracy like ours could he have said so. Had he advocated “slightly less dictatorial” policies in a benign dictatorship (say, of the sort he headed or the one that exists in China) he would have been behind bars by now. Q.E.D.
Mahathir is not the first, nor alone, in seeing democracy as an impediment, not as an enabler, in the path to untrammelled growth that industrialists, businessmen, economists (and not a few politicians) are enamoured of. The former Singapore strongman Lee Kuan Yew, the presiding political deity in the “Sikkapatte Important Company of Karnataka” , has often said that “western concepts” of democracy and human rights won’t work in Asia.
“With few exceptions, democracy has not brought good government to new developing countries…What Asians value may not necessarily be what Americans or Europeans value. Westerners value the freedoms and liberties of the individual. As an Asian of Chinese cultural backround, my values are for a government which is honest, effective and efficient,” Lee is quoted as saying in a 1992 speech.
All of which is just a roundabout way of saying that “We, the People” do not know best, and that they, the leaders, are somehow the repository of all wisdom. Which is all very well if you are running countries the size of Malaysia and Singapore, but India? Indeed, positing government by the people against China’s growth in the absence of it, and pining for a “benevolent dictator” is the favourite sport of those tired of corruption, delays, bureaucracy, etc.
It can also be safely concluded that it is this very lot which thinks a) that things would have been far better if the British were still around, b) that Indira Gandhi‘s Emergency, all things considered, was a good thing for India at the time, and c) that Narendra Damodardas Modi is the next best thing.
And so it goes, that had “reformer” Manmohan Singh not been weighed down by the tugs and pulls of coalition politics, the FDI in retail decision would have sailed through. That the Lavasa lake district project in Maharashtra, the Vedanta mining project in Orissa and the Koodankulam nuclear power plant project in Tamil Nadu would not have been held up at the altar of public opinion. And so on and so forth.
The problem with this view is that it democracy is seen only as a means to an economic end; everything is a slave to numbers.
At the other end of the spectrum are the likes of Arundhati Roy, who believe that contrary to the Mahathir Mohamads and Lee Kuan Yews, India in fact is no democracy at all; that having elections every five years do not make a democracy. Which claim again, like Mahathir’s, is loaded with irony because she would have never been able to say so were India not a democracy.
Three and a half years ago, the veteran editor and author T.J.S. George wrote on churumuri:
“There is nothing that China has achieved which others cannot. The difference is that China has the national will to achieve it, and the leadership to turn that will into action. We may say that the authoritarian system facilitates quick execution of plans unlike in a democracy.
“Is that an argument we want to push when authoritarianism is so palpably constructive as it is proving in China, and democracy so chaotic as it has become in India?”
Questions: do we have too much democracy? Or too little? Is democracy becoming a hurdle to India’s growth and development? Is listening to all the “stakeholders” such a bad thing?
External reading: How to run a very b-i-g country by world’s greatest expert on everything