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Are Indian Democracy’s Weaknesses Inherent?

Indian governance system, for all its messiness, is more resilient than China's. In the absence of political opposition and media scrutiny, the state tends to overreact in the face of crises, which renders the Chinese system more brittle.

BERKELEY – The failure of the Indian state to provide basic public services and implement job-creating infrastructure projects was a prominent theme in the country’s recent general election. In this regard, critics often compare India unfavorably to China’s seemingly purposeful and effective authoritarian government, despite the recent excesses of President Xi Jinping in consolidating his personal power. At a time when confidence in liberal democracy is weakening worldwide, this question has taken on global importance.

The standard contrast between Chinese authoritarian efficiency and Indian democratic dysfunction is, however, too simplistic. Authoritarianism is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for some of the special features of Chinese governance. Similarly, not all of the Indian state’s shortcomings are inherent in the country’s democratic system. Failure to appreciate such nuances risks overlooking three especially important governance issues.

For starters, unlike in many other authoritarian countries, China’s bureaucracy has had a system of meritocratic recruitment and promotion at the local level since imperial times. Although the Indian state also recruits public officials on the basis of examinations, its system of promotion – which is largely based on seniority and loyalty to one’s political masters – is not intrinsic to democracy. India’s bureaucrats are less politically insulated than their counterparts in the United Kingdom, Denmark, and New Zealand, but much more so than officials in the United States (even before the current president’s rampant practice of firing-by-Twitter).

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