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Shashank Setty asked: What added advantage is democracy going to offer India over China when it comes to India's rise as a future global power?

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  • S. Kalyanaraman replies: Since a democratic form of government is an expression of the will of the people, India is likely to enjoy greater legitimacy in the domestic and international spheres. Further, because democracy provides for an orderly and peaceful transfer of power between forces representing and articulating different economic, political and social ideas, India is more likely to avoid both large scale societal turmoil that often accompanies violent political change (read Revolution) and policies driven by ideological and regime-security considerations, both of which ultimately end up directly and indirectly victimising the people.

    Having said that, it is also true that democracies in general are slow-moving and slow-to-change-course tortoises because a broad majority of the people needs to be convinced about the wisdom of the more optimum policies to be followed and the changes to be effected in existing policies. In contrast, non-democracies are generally more nimble and swifter hares because only a small and narrow elite needs to convince itself about the wisdom of the optimum policies to be pursued or the policy changes to be effected.

    Since the late 1940s, when India and China emerged as modern states within a space of two years, we have witnessed both the above trends. Whereas India has avoided violent social turmoil on a massive scale as well as policies that resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands or even millions of people, China has experienced these during the Korean War, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution. In contrast, while China has nimbly utilised the new wave of globalisation starting in the 1990s to transform itself into the world's second largest economy and the factory of the world, India has made only incremental economic progress, albeit at a brisker pace, mainly due to the slow and still evolving process of consensus formation in a democracy.

    If we take a narrow perspective determined by China's recent spectacular successes in the economic domain, Indian democracy appears to stand at a disadvantage. However, we should take a longer and more rounded view. And from that perspective, it is clear that democracy has served India well both by enabling it to attain a respectable measure of social, economic and political progress and by providing it a sound prospect of attaining even greater progress, without at the same time imposing costs on the people through whimsical policy choices and violent transfers of power.

    Posted on July 18, 2016