India likes to tout itself as the world’s largest democracy—a place of political freedom where all citizens have the right to free speech. Neighbouring China, in contrast, is typically characterized as a society that’s partly shut, with authoritarian rulers who work to curtail press freedom and political rights.
While both countries have experienced rapid growth over the past two decades, Western observers have often argued that India’s freer society will in the long run give it the edge in sustaining its economic growth. Yet in the past 20 years, China has been able to reduce its poverty rate from more than 60 percent to less than 20 percent, while half of India’s population is still living on less than $1.20 a day (and almost three-quarters live on less than $2 per day).
So why hasn’t democratic India been able to match Communist China’s ability to bring about a more economically equitable society? Freedom is supposed to stimulate thought and creativity, but it’s clear that it doesn’t necessarily assure equity. In addition, the benefits of India’s rapid economic growth are confined to a relatively smaller segment of the population—about 30 percent, or 350 million people—while the rest are either spectators or just hoping that the trickle-down effects will eventually improve their lot in life.
There are numerous and complex reasons for this. India compares itself to an elephant that takes steady but slow steps forward, and its defenders argue that its democratic system simply doesn’t permit quick policy decisions. This fails, though, to explain why the country is experiencing a rapidly widening gap between the rich and the poor, and why so many are being left behind.
While there are myriad reasons for India lagging behind its neighbour, there’s one explanation that comes up again and again in any discussion of India’s poverty—poor governance. India’s political system favours corruption and inefficiency at all levels of government. The ability to influence economic policy and derive special benefits rests with a few industrialists, while those who hold political power or who have sufficient financial muscle are able to unfairly and often illegally accumulate wealth with scant scrutiny by the press and the legal system.
In a healthy democracy, the public could rely on a free media to step in to expose the countless examples of corruption and abuses of power. Yet most ordinary Indians are hugely pessimistic about the country’s ability to reduce corruption among their politicians, bureaucrats and industrialists—and about the chances of the press playing any meaningful role in exposing wrongdoing. Sadly, they can be forgiven for being gloomy, because the press here has abdicated its rightful role as the guardian of democracy.