Are Indian democracy’s weaknesses inherent?
28 May 2019|

The failure of the Indian state to provide basic public services and implement job-creating infrastructure projects was a prominent theme in the country’s recent general election. In this regard, critics often compare India unfavorably to China’s seemingly purposeful and effective authoritarian government, despite the recent excesses of President Xi Jinping in consolidating his personal power. At a time when confidence in liberal democracy is weakening worldwide, this question has taken on global importance.

The standard contrast between Chinese authoritarian efficiency and Indian democratic dysfunction is, however, too simplistic. Authoritarianism is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for some of the special features of Chinese governance. Similarly, not all of the Indian state’s shortcomings are inherent in the country’s democratic system. Failure to appreciate such nuances risks overlooking three especially important governance issues.

For starters, unlike in many other authoritarian countries, China’s bureaucracy has had a system of meritocratic recruitment and promotion at the local level since imperial times. Although the Indian state also recruits public officials on the basis of examinations, its system of promotion—which is largely based on seniority and loyalty to one’s political masters—is not intrinsic to democracy. India’s bureaucrats are less politically insulated than their counterparts in the United Kingdom, Denmark and New Zealand, but much more so than officials in the United States (even before the current president’s rampant practice of firing-by-Twitter).

Yet in meritocratic China, plenty of evidence suggests that promotion at the provincial level and above is largely dependent on political loyalty to particular leaders. Furthermore, there is quantitative evidence of quid pro quo transactions in Chinese official promotions. For example, a provincial party secretary’s chance of promotion to the upper echelons rises with the size of the discount offered when selling land to a firm connected to members of the national leadership. Although Xi’s recent anti-corruption campaigns have curbed some of these deals, the crackdown is often more vigorous when the officials involved are suspected of having links with the current leadership’s rivals.

Second, the Chinese state is usually seen as having much greater organisational capacity than India’s. But here, too, the reality may be more nuanced. The Indian state, despite all the stories about over-bureaucratisation, is surprisingly small in terms of the number of public employees per capita; for example, the number of employees in the tax administration per thousand members of the population is more than 260 times higher in the UK than in India, and five times higher in Turkey. Moreover, the country’s police, judiciary and bureaucracy have numerous unfilled vacancies. To a considerable extent, this is a consequence of India’s sizeable informal sector, with more than 80% of the country’s workers, which is unusually large for a major economy, and it limits the state’s ability to generate tax revenue to fund the government.

Moreover, the Indian state has an extraordinary ability to organise large, complex events, such as the world’s largest election, its second-largest census and some of the world’s biggest religious festivals. Public officials also prepared the unique biometric identification of more than one billion citizens in a relatively short period.

India’s bureaucracy is less effective, however, in carrying out routine essential activities such as cost‐effective pricing and distribution of electricity. This isn’t because the state lacks capable people, but rather because local political sensitivities make it hard to recover the costs of supplying power. The state’s political constraints thus limit its organisational effectiveness. Besides, the police and bureaucracy are often deliberately incapacitated and made to serve leaders’ short-term political goals.

Finally, China’s governance is, and has historically been, surprisingly devolved for an authoritarian country. Its system combines political centralisation, through the Chinese Communist Party, with economic and administrative decentralisation. India’s system is arguably the opposite, combining political decentralisation, reflected in strong regional power groupings, with a centralised economic system in which local governments depend heavily on transfers from the central government. For example, sub-provincial levels of government tend to account for about 60% of total government budget spending in China, compared with less than 10% in India. This difference helps to explain the far worse performance of Indian local government in the last-mile provision of public services and facilities.

In addition, China’s regions compete more strongly with one another in business development and in experiments with new ventures than their Indian counterparts do. This is mainly because Chinese local officials’ promotion is tied to performance, although the pace of regional experimentation has slowed under Xi, as loyalty-based promotion has increased.

Yet, although one must avoid oversimplification when comparing Chinese and Indian governance, democracy—or its absence—does still make a difference. The lack of downward accountability and electoral sanctions in China allows the country’s leaders to avoid the pandering to short-term interests that characterises Indian politics, particularly at election time. This, in turn, makes it easier for Chinese leaders to take bold long-term decisions relatively quickly, and also somewhat independently of the corporate and financial interests that commonly wield influence in democratic systems.

On the other hand, high-level mistakes or outright abuses of power in China take longer to detect and correct in the absence of political opposition and media scrutiny. Chinese leaders’ anxiety about losing control results in too much rigidity and lockstep conformity. Ultimately, therefore, the Chinese system is more brittle: when faced with a crisis, the state tends to overreact, suppress information and behave heavy-handedly, thereby sometimes aggravating the crisis.

The Indian system of governance, for all its messiness, is more resilient. Yet this resilience has been severely strained under the regime of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which has sought to polarise voters along religious and social lines, encourage a strong leader, and weaken democratic institutions and processes. Let us hope that the BJP will now spend the political capital from its landslide victory on changing course, improving democratic governance, and respecting the immense diversity of India’s population.