Consider the experiences of the following two Asian countries. In 1990, Country A had a per capita GDP of $317; Country B's stood at $461. By 2006, Country A, though 31 percent poorer than Country B only 16 years earlier, had caught up: It enjoyed a per capita GDP of $634, compared with Country B's $635. So, if you had to guess, which of these two Asian countries would you assume is a democracy?
You might be tempted to conclude that the better-performing country is authoritarian China and the laggard is democratic India. In reality, the faster-growing country is India, and the laggard is the occasionally autocratic Pakistan. This fact certainly belies the commonly held notion that -- especially among Asian countries -- authoritarian states have an advantage in growing an economy compared with their democratic counterparts, who are forced to reckon with such pesky trappings as labor standards and political compromises.
But surely, the familiar China-India comparison would support an authoritarian edge, right? The conclusion seems so obvious: China is authoritarian, and it has grown faster; India is democratic, and it has grown more slowly. For years, Indians have defended their democracy with a sheepish apology -- "Yes, our growth rate is terrible, but low growth rates are an acceptable price to pay to govern a democracy as large and as diverse as India."
There is no need to apologize now. India has ended the infamous 2 to 3 percent annual "Hindu rate" of growth and begun its own economic takeoff. Recent Indian success is not only impressive in terms of its speed -- growing at the "East Asian rate" of 8 to 9 percent a year -- but also in terms of its depth and breadth. The Indian miracle is no longer confined to the much vaunted information-technology sector; its manufacturing is taking off. Even the historically lackluster agricultural sector is beginning to grow.
So where does this leave the "authoritarian edge" that China’s economy has supposedly enjoyed for years? The emerging Indian miracle should debunk -- hopefully permanently -- the entirely specious notion that democracy is bad for growth. And the emerging Indian miracle holds substantial implications for China's political future. As Chinese political elites mark the 30th anniversary of economic reforms this year, they should reflect on the Indian experience deeply and absorb the real reason behind their own miracle.
The idea that there is a trade-off between economics and politics is ingrained in the minds of many policymakers and business executives in Asia, as well as the West. But that idea has never been systematically proven. If India, with its noisy, chaotic, and lumbering political arrangements, can grow, then no other poor country must face a Faustian choice between growth and democracy. A deeper look at the two countries shows that they have succeeded and failed at different times for remarkably similar reasons. Their economies performed when their politics turned liberal; their performances faltered when their politics slid backward. Now, as many poor countries grapple with similar political and economic choices, we must understand this dynamic. It is high time to get the China-India story right.
INDIA'S UNTOLD HISTORY
That story doesn't begin in 2008. It's a horse race that goes back decades, and one that tells us much about the relationship between democracy and growth, governance and prosperity. From an economic perspective, it is not the static state of a political system that matters, but how it has evolved. The growth India enjoys today sped up in the 1990s as the country privatized TV stations, introduced political decentralization, and improved governance. And contrary to the conventional wisdom, India stagnated historically not because it was a democracy, but because, in the 1970s and 1980s, it was less democratic than it appeared. To understand just what is happening in India's economy today -- and how it relates to the country’s political system -- we must travel as far back as the 1950s.
Many scholars blame India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, for adopting a development strategy that caused India to stagnate from 1950 to 1990. But this view is unfair to Nehru, and it shifts the blame from the real culprit -- Indira Gandhi, Nehru's daughter and prime minister during much of the period from 1966 to 1984. Nehru's commanding-heights approach was the reigning ideology in many developing countries, some of which, like South Korea, were quite successful. The issue is not how harmful Nehru's economic policies were, but why India intensified and persisted in this model when it was clearly not working. To answer this question we have to understand the lasting damage that Indira Gandhi inflicted on Indian democracy.
Patronage became her electoral strategy as she undermined a vital institution in a functioning democracy -- the party system. Gandhi weakened the Congress Party, once a proud catalyst of the independence movement, by sidestepping many of its well-established procedures, reducing its grass-roots reach in the states, and appointing party officials rather than allowing rank-and-file members to elect them. The shriveling of the Congress Party meant that Gandhi had to use other means to get reelected: crushing political opposition, pandering to special interests, or offering political handouts.