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India’s autocratic streak of democracy

Source: PM Modi/Facebook

Last week in a conversation triggered by Yogi Adityanath’s style of governance by fiat, a colleague argued that India cannot function with the liberal democratic system. It needs a dose of authoritarian rule to transform itself.

There is little doubt that if the country were to hold a referendum today, the result would favour those who will accept curbs on freedom of our precious freedoms of speech and action as a necessary sacrifice for economic growth.

There is one problem with this model. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and now, the Yogi, may be paragons among leaders — honest, deeply committed to the nation and enormously hardworking.

But they are neither gods nor supermen. They cannot themselves administer every department they oversee, nor ensure that there are excesses committed in the name of the policies they advocate.


Implementing Modi or Yogi’s stern pronouncements depend on a capable bureaucracy or a dedicated party organisation.

There are two ways to achieve that goal — one is to have a governmental system populated with people with their own qualities down the line from the secretariats to city municipalities and village panchayats.

But, the Indian bureaucratic culture until now has been associated with inefficiency, corruption and lassitude. It can change, but only slowly and over a period of time.

The other option is to rely on party cadre. In that sense the BJP government is well endowed. The party and its mentor organisation, the RSS are a cadre-based outfits with committed and dedicated personnel.

Whether they intend to, or can provide, expertise in building a modern state is another matter. What seems to drive them is cultural nationalism — gau raksha, vegetarianism, rewriting history text books, promoting traditional medicine and so on.

The big problem with authoritarian systems of the type that my colleague envisages is that they choke off feedback loops. It is possible to use all kinds of mechanisms like town hall meetings and the social media to know what the public is thinking.

But over time, it’s clear, this simply doesn’t work resulting in explosive revolts leading to a great deal of death, disruption and destruction.

Perhaps the best example of a contemporary authoritarian system is China. The Communist Party of China, currently some 121 million strong, runs everything there, the state, every school, university, municipality, all the big industry, indeed, even the Chinese military is actually an arm of the Party, rather than Chinese state.

So, the best and the brightest, if they want to flourish, must become part of the party system.

This system has achieved a great deal — it has transformed China from a poor Third World Country into one which is seeking to emerge as the pre-eminent world power. But in the process, it has also committed great crimes, leading to the deaths of tens of millions of people.


Under Xi Jinping, the CPC is seeking to reinvent itself as the party that will lead to China’s rejuvenation as the world’s foremost power. But it is acutely aware of the fact that it sits atop a vast corrupt system where there is little justice for the average person.

He/she cannot move across China and settle down where they will, they cannot get justice because the party is the prosecutor and judge and its functioning opaque.

It walls off China’s internet and strictly controls the flow of ideas in the educational system and media.

History shows that as countries like Japan, Portugal, Spain, Israel, Greece, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore transited from the middle-income to high-income levels in the 1960s and 1970s, they also shed authoritarian rule and became democracies.

Middle income China confronts this dilemma today. The CPC may not acknowledge it openly, but it faces a crisis of legitimacy. Having achieved middle class status, people also want a say in their own governance and liberty of thought and action.

Besides, there are the intangibles that democracy delivers in terms of its cultural ecosystem where entrepreneurship and innovation flourish.


India, of course, is an exception being poor and a democracy, though it is, as historian Ramchandra Guha says, an ‘election-only’ democracy. So does it require a dose of authoritarian rule to transit to a middle income economy?

Many in India would argue that it does. The Modis and Yogis are looked up to because they have an authoritarian streak, but their problem is that they do not have the large numbers of administrators and managers who can get this system to work at higher levels of efficiency.

On the other hand, they have a large team of raucous cadre who are undermining the already fragile social stability and rule of law in the country.

This commentary originally appeared in Daily Mail.

Manoj Joshi
28 April 2017


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