Indian Decade

Mahathir Wrong on India

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohammed implies India needs less democracy. He’s wrong.

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohammed, while at an annual newspaper summit in New Delhi this week, argued that India could do with a little less democracy to promote quicker economic development.

There's little question that under his authoritarian tutelage, Malaysia was transformed from a largely plantation economy to an Asian "tiger" economy. His rule also saw a substantial reduction in overall poverty and through an affirmative action program on behalf of the majority Malay population, a significant improvement in their economic lot.

There's no gainsaying his achievements in Malaysia. However, India's policymakers can safely ignore his advice about the need for placing constraints on democracy to boost economic growth. First, while authoritarianism may have worked well in Malaysia, it has produced rather unhappy results in many other parts of the world including in various resource-rich states. For example, Nigeria is awash in petroleum and other natural resources. However, authoritarian regimes have neither promoted growth or equity. Second, Malaysia has a total population under 30 million. Only a small handful of Indian states have a population less than that of Malaysia. Consequently, someone needs to remind him that scale does matter. Third, India did briefly experiment with authoritarianism under Indira Gandhi. The results were far from exemplary and resulted in her ouster the moment she chose to hold elections.

Contrary to Mr. Mahathir, democracy isn't India's problem. The problem that plagues India is the inefficacy of its institutions. India's policymakers would be wise to safely ignore his counsel and instead focus their attention on making India's existing institutions more responsive to the vast and crying needs of its citizenry.