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Democratic dividend: Why poorer India is still richer than China

By Rup Narayan Das
Last updated on: October 15, 2010 15:30 IST
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India stands 67th in the world poverty index, while China ranks 9th. Yet India's respectability in the world, particularly the West, lies in its steadfast adherence to ideas and ideals for democracy such as the rule of law, freedom of  press, judicial activism and the vibrant civil society -- unlike China, says Rup Narayan Das

While the confirmation of the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo has outraged Beijing, it has also raised the broader issue of human rights and democracy, or rather, its absence in entirety in China. As China rises and assimilates with the comity of nations, it is incumbent upon the nation to adhere to the principles of democracy and human rights, which China is trying to do.

Ever since China embarked on its 'soft power' approach to project its benign image, Beijing has been trying hard to put in place a semblance of democracy and liberalism. Beijing, of course, has qualms about the Western notion of democracy, particularly its emphasis on human rights and individualism, at least in political terms. The Chinese are more concerned about collective goal, social harmony, social and economic security and welfare rather than individual rights and freedom of speech.

There are many reasons why China may not feel comfortable with Western ideas of human rights and freedom of speech. The foremost is that it is basically a single party (the Communist party) dominated State, which will decry and denigrate any attempt to subvert its rule and sway over the polity and the people. Anything else would be tolerable.

China has a different idea of democracy

If freedom of expression is meant for artistic expression or literary expression then it is fine with Beijing so long it does not have a political underpinning. The problem is that at times, such creative freedom has political overtones and that is where the fault line for Beijing lies. Besides, China has the problem of Tibet and Uiguir. China thus treads the path of democracy very cautiously and with circumspection. What Gorbachev, Glasnost and Perestroika brought to the world, is nightmarish to China and in fact, there is a sense of déjà vu about this in the country.

Be that as it may, the yearning for democracy is nothing new in China. Even before China became a communist country, there was the avant-garde May Fourth Movement in China in 1919. Tagore's ideas of freedom had stirred the hearts and minds of the Chinese when he won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1913. And the Nobel laureate is held in high esteem even today by the Chinese.

In the post-communist period, the memories of the pro-democracy movement of 1989 are still fresh in the mind of the Chinese people. More recently, Liu Xiaobo had been spearheading the Charter 08 campaign along with other Chinese intellectuals to sensitise the imperatives of democracy and human rights in China.

Greater political awareness through information, communication, technology, migration and cross migration of people under the impact leads to an irreversible process of globalisation. China is inextricably embedded in this and it has impelled the country not to ignore the desire to put in place liberal values of democracy. China's rising international profile is another reason why it would like to paint a liberal garb under the euphemism of a soft power.

Born at the same time, yet so different

It is in this context that India stands out vis-à-vis China. India and China were born contemporaneously -- India in 1947 and China in 1949. While the two countries suffered colonialism, India did not undergo the turbulence of a civil war like China, which established a communist regime ousting the democratic KMT when its leader Chiang-Kai-shek fled to Taiwan.

In the subcontinent, Pakistan was born as well, but that was more of a colonial conspiracy than spontaneous. Ever since then, the two systems -- India's democratic model and China's one-party communist model -- have become alternative and competitive models of growth and development. Over the years, however, China has introduced cosmetic changes in the polity, giving the trappings of a soft power.

After Independence, when India conducted general elections through the length and breadth of the country and embarked on planned development, China had to cope with the tumultuous Rural People's Commune and later, the Cultural Revolution, which turned the shackles of Chinese economy haywire.

On the contrary, India not only had political stability, but also reasonable economic growth. Ever since, then there has been a sort of sibling rivalry between the two Asian brethren -- what Raghav Bahl would like to call -- the race between China's hare and India's tortoise.

India's respectability to the world, particularly to the West, lies in its steadfast adherence to ideas and ideals for democracy such as the rule of law, freedom of  press, judicial activism and the vibrant civil society, which in turn have gone a long way in ensuring transparency and accountability.

India 67th in poverty index

The prime time that the electronic media, and the space the national dailies devoted to highlight alleged corruption in the just concluded Commonwealth Games is an illustration of India's vibrant and pulsating democracy, inconceivable in China, although there are instances where corrupt officials in China have been persecuted. In addition to its demographic dividend, pulsating, yet messy democracy, India has provided a healing touch to a myriad problems because democracy has a self-correcting and self-healing mechanism. For all that, India stands 67th in the world poverty index, while China ranks 9th.

It is worthwhile to recall the incisive and cogent remarks of Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh last year in the US. Addressing the US Council for Foreign Relations, Dr Singh said, 'No doubt China's growth performance is superior to India's growth performance. But I always believe that there are other values, which are more important than the growth of GDP… respect for human rights, respect for rule of law, respect for multi-cultural, multi-religious rights'. 

Elucidating the point he further said, 'There are several dimensions to human freedom, which are not always caught by the numbers with regards to the GDP. So I do believe that even though Indian performance with regard to GDP may not be good as the Chinese, I would not like to choose the Chinese path'.

The prime minister's reasoning finds resonance at least with the Bhutanese concept of 'Gross Domestic Happiness', which has been recognised even  by the United Nations.

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Rup Narayan Das