28 March 2014
India's governance -- worse than China's?

India's governance -- worse than China's?

India may be the world's most populous democracy. But the quality of its governance is very poor, and much worse than China's on many scores.

India may be the world's most populous democracy. But the quality of its governance is very poor, and much worse than China's on many scores. The upcoming national elections offer the opportunity for great improvement, but the prospects for progress are far from certain.

India has 700 million people, out of a population of 1.2 billion, who vote at some 800,000 polling stations. But India is still not a "full democracy" -- rather it is a "flawed democracy" -- according to the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Free and fair elections, and civil liberties are necessary conditions for democracy. But they are not sufficient for a full and consolidated democracy, unless there are also transparency, minimally efficient government, sufficient political participation, and a supportive democratic political culture.

In other words, it is not easy to build a sturdy democracy. And India is particularly weak in the areas of political culture, political participation and the functioning of government. China's authoritarian regime is ranked much lower, of course, although it does conduct (flawed) elections at the local level. But China's citizens now enjoy many more freedoms than they ever did in the past, and many parts of the Chinese government function relatively well.

Corruption is "rampant" in India, in the words of the Bertelsmann Stiftung. And this includes buying votes and bribing voters. It is not surprising that the NGO Transparency International should rank India number 94 out of 175 countries in its Corruption Perceptions Index, a good way behind the notoriously corrupt China, which is ranked 80.

The effects of India's corruption are so pervasive that they undermine the very structure of society, and even penetrate the provision of basic services like water, education and health, and welfare programs. The fact that the anti-corruption movement has not really influenced actual government policies shows how vested interests are such a major obstacle to change in India.

It is thus not surprising that "social trust is still relatively low", according to the Bertelsmann Foundation -- especially in light of the cleavages in Indian society concerning "caste and social status, ethnicity, religion (especially tensions between Hindus and Muslims) and gender".

When it comes to the rule of law, India also has major deficiencies, including compared with China, according to the World Justice Project. True, India has a robust system of checks and balances, an independent judiciary, strong protections for freedom of speech, and a relatively open government.

But administrative agencies do not perform well, and the civil court system ranks poorly, mainly because of deficiencies in the areas of court congestion, enforcement, and delays in processing cases. In early 2011, over 95,000 rape cases were awaiting trial by Indian courts, but only 16% of them were resolved at the end of the year.

All over India, custodial killings and police abuses, including torture and rape during custody, are the order of the day. Order and security — including crime, civil conflict, and political violence — is a serious concern, and India is ranked second worst in the world on this score.

Digging into the WJP's eight components of the rule of law, China is far better than India for absence of corruption, order and security, and criminal justice. The two countries have similar rankings for civil justice, regulatory enforcement and open government. It is only for limited powers of government and fundamental rights that India is clearly ahead of China.

India is also way behind China when it comes to "economic governance" or "competitiveness" -- defined and measured by the World Economic Forum as the set of institutions, policies, and factors that determine the level of productivity of a country. On this score, India is ranked only 60th out of 148 countries, and is way behind China's 29th placing.

But the gap is even much wider for the basic requirements for a well-functioning market economy -- things like institutions, infrastructure, macro-economic environment, and health and primary education. As evidenced in India's successful global enterprises, the top end of the economy is much stronger that the bottom, with advanced business sophistication, and strong innovation and technological capacities, developed financial markets, and pretty good higher education. But history shows that elite-based development is not sustainable. Development must be inclusive. And this may be one of India's greatest challenges today.

India may not be an authoritarian state like China, but its human rights record leaves a great deal to be desired, as evidenced by the horrific treatment of women. Human Rights Watch reports India did take positive steps in 2013 by strengthening laws protecting women and children, and, in several important cases, prosecuting state security force personnel for extrajudicial killings. However, the impact of these developments will depend in large part on effective follow-up by central government authorities.

But the past year also saw increased restrictions on Internet freedom; continued marginalization of Dalits, tribal groups, religious minorities, sexual and gender minorities, and people with disabilities; and persistent impunity for abuses linked to insurgencies, particularly in Maoist areas, Jammu and Kashmir, Manipur, and Assam.

The upcoming national elections offer the opportunity for great improvement. But the likely new Prime Minister is Narendra Modi, a "divisive figure", according to the Bertelsmann Foundation. He is a politician from the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, who has been the chief minister of Gujarat since 2001. "In 2002, Modi reportedly not only tolerated but even instigated the killing of up to 2000 Muslims in deadly riots."

As a result, the US State Department revoked his visa in 2005, and he has been essentially black-listed ever since. However, with Modi now tipped to be India's next prime minister, the US Ambassador to India, Nancy Powell, recently met with him, as America is now adjusting to the reality of having to deal with Modi, as the leader of a close ally country.

At the moment, there is a debate raging in India on Modi's record. His supporters argue that he will do for the rest of India what he has done for Gujarat during his 12 years as chief minister: encourage investment, improve roads, electricity and water supply, and create the jobs desperately needed by the 10-12m young Indians entering the workforce each year. Gujarat's economy grew more than 10 per cent annually in the six years to 2012. His opponents argue that Gujarat's social indicators are lagging, especially for literacy and female foeticide, and that the poor have not benefited from development. The jury is still out on Modi and India's future under his possible leadership.

In many circles, it is fashionable to argue that China's authoritarian capitalism is more effective and efficient than India's chaotic democracy. That argument may have held some water in the past. But today, China's society is very complex, and the Communist Party has several factions -- some talk of democracy inside the party.

What both countries need to sophisticated leadership that can shepherd a broad coalition in a positive direction. After the directionless years of HU Jintao, XI Jinping seems to be succeeding in this regard, and indeed improving governance through his war on corruption.

India's Congress Party will likely be severely punished in the upcoming elections for its sclerotic and corrupt leadership. And Mr Modi may indeed represent the best hope that India has had in a long time. India seems to be captured by a "yes, we can" spirit, as America was in 2008.


John West
Executive Director
Asian Century Institute
Tags: india, corruption, rule of law, human rights, governance, modi

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