The flip side of democracy

Thus guy is one of the very few Western writers whose writing I can agree with.
 
When the electorate is not homogeneous, political freedom tramples good governance. Look what happened in India …
Tuesday • May 18, 2004
 
Michael Backman
 
THE defeat of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led coalition government and the peaceful transition of power to the Congress-led opposition has been portrayed as a sign of India’s maturity as a democracy. Maybe that’s true. But then is the replacement of one government by another the only thing that democracy is meant to achieve?
 
Let’s look at what happened.
After decades of being a hopeless, stagnant economic backwater, India has at last found a few sectors in which it can be a world player, namely IT, back-office outsourcing and pharmaceuticals.
 
For once, real entrepreneurs are generating some real wealth in India. The BJP ran on a slogan of "India Shining" which is probably overstating the case. But certainly India has been shining in those few sectors just mentioned. India’s IT sector employs at most 400,000 people. That is minuscule compared to India’s overall billion-plus population, but it’s a good start.
 
Just how minuscule can be seen by looking at how most Indians live and with all the noise about India and IT many have forgotten just how poor most Indians are.
It has been estimated that only about 2 per cent, or 25 million, of India’s population can afford to fly or dine in restaurants. The vast majority — around 80 per cent — are so poor that far from being able to afford a motor vehicle they are unable to afford even a bicycle.
 
For these people the only transport that can ever reasonably aspire to owning is a bullock and cart.
 
So what does democracy allow the impoverished majority to do in this situation? Not so much select between parties and their competing sets of policies but rather punish the affluent educated minority. And that is what happened with the defeat of the BJP.
 
The Party was stunned by its loss. It thought that it would be rewarded for its economic successes. Instead, it was punished. The ballot box in India is less about deciding who should run the country than it is about revenge and getting even.
 
Political freedom is not compatible with economic freedom and good governance when the electorate is not homogeneous, that is when voters are essentially not all middle-class. It tramples it. And that is why the BJP was tossed out just when India has attained its highest economic growth rates since Independence. That is also why one of the big winners was the Communist Party of India (Marxist) plus an assortment of communist splinter parties, which saw their number of seats rise by almost 50 per cent. And that is why they are now set to rule India in coalition with the Congress Party.
 
For years, the United States has pushed democracy around the world as if it is some sort of universal panacea. It is not.
 
Germans of Jewish origin had a disproportionate share of Germany’s national wealth in the 1930s. And it was democracy that saw Adolf Hitler getting elected to do something about that disparity. And now, the Americans want to hold democratic elections in impoverished, bombed-out Iraq. If ever there was a country not ready for democracy it is this one.
 
The Iraqis are hardly going to be in the mood to elect a government that will be interested in being a good world citizen and which is friendly to the West.
India is the world’s biggest democracy. But it also has the world’s largest population of illiterates. Just 52 per cent of the population aged 15 or more is deemed to be able to read and write.
 
That means that about 340 million adult Indians are illiterate. Illiteracy among Indian women is especially appalling. Most Indian women — 62 per cent — are unable to read or write.
 
But they can vote.
 
Literally, there are hundreds of millions of voters in India who cannot so much as read a newspaper. It means that about half of all India’s eligible voters cast their votes on the basis of something other than the news of current affairs as it is written. Illiteracy makes vote-buying so much easier, for example.
Democracy is a good thing when the voters roughly are equal in wealth and education status and when that education status is of a reasonable level. That is why democracy is a roaring success in countries like Australia, the United States and Britain. They are uniformly middle class.
 
Democracy though is far less successful in countries like India, Indonesia, or the Philippines, each of which has, in recent times elected as its leader an Italian widow, a daughter of a dead President and a movie actor respectively, for no reason other than that their names carried some sort of brand recognition and not for the intrinsic qualities of the person concerned.
 
And so now Mrs Sonia Gandhi, the president of the Congress party, is set to be the Prime Minister of India. The wife of assassinated former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, she is of full Italian blood, having been born near Turin in Italy.
 
Largely, it is her surname that is her only political attribute and then it is a borrowed one. As her detractors in India like to say, had she not met Rajiv while he was studying in England, she might now be working as a secretary in Italy.
 
That is why arguably the biggest scandal to have beset Indian politics since Independence, the Bofors corruption scandal, has at its heart an Italian connection. Ottavio Quattrocchi, head of the Italian firm Snam Progetti’s Indian operations, has long been wanted by the Indian authorities in connection with the 1986 illegal payments that weapons company Bofors allegedly paid in relation to a US$1.2 billion defence contract. Quattrocchi, who fled to Malaysia, was a close friend of Sonia Gandhi.
It’s an old scandal. But the election of last week surely will have breathed new life into it.
 
Michael Backman’s new book, ‘The Asian Insider: Unconventional Wisdom for Asian Business’ has just been published and is available now in Singapore.
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About kchew

an occasional culturalist
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