The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Is democracy good for the poor'

The debate as to whether democracy or an alternative authoritarian form of government is more likely to improve speedily the economic conditions of people is not over. In India, with its masses of the very poor and many millions of others who are poor by rich-country standards, it will not be over for many years. It is easy for us to become euphoric over the virtues of our democracy, now that we seem to be maintaining an annual growth in GDP of 6 per cent or more. Other less democratic countries have done much better and have succeeded in reducing the percentage of the very poor in their countries much more dramatically than we have. So, is democracy to blame for our relative slowness and would we have been better off under an alternative form of government'

Amartya Sen answered this question in his Development as Freedom and many other writings. He argued that those who see a basic conflict between political liberty and the fulfillment of economic needs raise three issues. One is that civil and political freedoms hamper economic growth and development. Singapore, China, Malaysia (ranging in governments from wholly to moderately authoritarian) have shown faster poverty reduction and improvement in human development indicators than 'democratic' India. The second is that the poor would always choose fulfilling economic needs over political freedoms. Human rights and civil liberties are of little use to a starving people. Third, political freedoms, liberties and democracy are Western priorities and go against Asian values that are keener on order and discipline.

Sen proceeds to shoot down all three issues. Against the economic successes of China and Singapore, he contrasts the fastest growing African country, Botswana, an oasis of democracy in Africa. The 'helpful' economic policies and circumstances that led to the successes of south-east Asian countries and China are well understood. They include 'openness to competition, the use of international markets, a high level of literacy and school education, successful land reforms and public provision of incentives for investment, exporting and industrialization'. He says that none of these policies is inconsistent with democracy or requires the authoritarianism that prevails in South Korea, Singapore or China. Indian democracy, with the China-worshipping Communist Party of India (Marxist) in power, shows that there is such an inconsistency.

He says that there is no empirical support to the idea that the poor in the third world are indifferent to political and democratic rights. The only occasion on which this hypothesis was tested in free elections was when the masses of India overwhelmingly rejected Indira Gandhi, who had declared an Emergency and suppressed basic political and civil rights for two years. Many other very poor people have struggled for democratic freedom in third world countries. All that this shows is that the poor want both rights and better living. He rejects the idea that there can be a single set of 'Asian values'. Asia has 60 per cent of the world's population, with much diversity. Even if we restrict ourselves only to east Asia, the argument is not tenable because of the diversity in the region.

The Economist of May 14, 2005 refers to a recent World Bank publication edited by Deepa Narayan. The papers raise many issues that must be considered in this debate. It is still not clear whether democratic or authoritarian states can reduce poverty faster and promote speedy all round development. It quotes Larry Diamond's essay that logically democracy should enable the choice of 'leaders, parties and policies that favour poverty reduction'. But it does not do so. China's leaders are certainly better than India's elected ones in this respect. Diamond argues that the fault lies not in democracy, but in its partial implementation or hijacking by elites. Sen also says, 'Political freedoms and liberties are permissive advantages, and their effectiveness would depend on how they are exercised.' That depends on many factors, including a vigorous opposition. Pratap Bhanu Mehta of the Centre for Policy Research has written elsewhere that the chances of a party in power in a state assembly being reelected are 20 per cent. The electorate thus sees no difference between different parties, and hence no harm in trying out a new party in government every time. This is not democracy, but only its electoral fa'ade.

Ashutosh Varshney is quoted as suggesting that the poor performance of India is related to the structure of democratic politics in India. Democracy in India has led to a bias for 'direct' methods to tackle poverty. These have ranged from the penal taxes of the Sixties, the 'command and control' regime up to the Eighties, and the subsidies and handouts on power, kerosene, water, fertilizers, foodgrains, sugar, cloth and many other items. These policies have always been poorly managed, as have the subsidies. Subsidies have reached many who are not in the target population of the poor for whom alone they were meant. But eliminating or reducing them is perceived as electoral risk.

Authoritarian states have gone for 'indirect' methods. These lift the growth rate and with more to share, enable faster poverty reduction. Investments in infrastructure, primary education and basic health care are not subsidies, but improve the enabling environment for growth. In India, these investments, when made, are subject to massive leakage, waste and inefficiencies, and do not deliver what was promised. Authoritarian states that have quickly reduced poverty have been more efficient in implementing such investments. Further, in India, the poor have begun organizing themselves along lines other than economic class. Identities based on caste, religion, language, and so on, have become rallying calls. They are used to give special preferences to one group of poor while leaving other groups behind.

Democracy that works, and not merely free elections, requires empowerment of the poor in addition to their right to vote. Empowerment is the enabling of poor people to participate, negotiate, influence, control and hold accountable the institutions that affect their lives. For this, the poor must have access to information (receiving it and conveying it to governments), inclusion and participation (authority and control over decisions and resources), accountability (access to information, law and impartial justice) and local organizational capacity through formation of networks and associations. In all these, India is very from being an effective democracy that can speedily uplift the poor.

We have made feeble attempts in each of these essentials for empowerment of the poor. We have a reasonably free election process. The panchayats are, according to the Constitution, the local-level governmental agency elected by the people. But in many places, they have little authority and most do not have any financial powers or supervisory ones over local government officials. Access to information is poor for the poor. The police and judicial systems are rickety and slow for the poor, with their impartiality being many times doubtful. Some parts of India are better than others ' Kerala, Goa, Tamil Nadu; but others have an abysmal record, especially Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. In much of India, democracy stops with a free election process, which allows criminals to stand for elections and even become ministers.

Until democracy expands to empower the poor at all times, it will not succeed in quickly reducing poverty. A fa'ade of democracy is inferior to an effective authoritarian regime. But many authoritarian regimes are also ineffective in improving the lot of the poor. In contrast to the success of Singapore, Malaysia, China and South Korea, there are the ineffective authoritarian regimes in North Korea, Burma, Pakistan and many countries in west and east Africa, Egypt, Latin America and other countries. Successful authoritarian regimes seem to have a binding ideology. Democracy demands empowerment. Neither seems to occur in most authoritarian or democratic regimes.

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