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Democracies are built to slow you down. This is useful when those in power want to do despotic things. But it hinders when politicians have the right ideas for the betterment of their people. Autocracies are built for speed. They work brilliantly when those in power are making the right choices (Singapore, the Asian tigers, China after the 1980s). They end up in disaster when the direction taken is wrong (Zimbabwe, Russia, Uganda).


Global investment manager Ruchir Sharma, who has studied both types of states, says that over the long term the two deliver similar levels of economic performance. The difference is that outcomes in the case of democracies are more stable and sustained, while in the case of autocracies they are more volatile.


Why did China take off like a jack-rabbit after Mao’s death (in 1976) while India could never sustain high growth rates even after the 1991 reforms? The difference was the one big thing despotic China got right before 1980 – much better literacy and health. In the early 1980s, China was streets ahead of India with literacy levels of over 60% while India’s was under 40%. It was also better in terms of health, mortality rates and gender equality. Even today this gap persists, with China ranked 86th in the UNDP’s Human Development Report, against India’s 131st. If one were to take a bet on where India will be 10 years from now, despite the closing literacy gap with China and fresh efforts by the Modi government to improve health indicators through Ayushman Bharat and Swachh Bharat, one has to bet on China rather than India. But after that, one should bet on India.

为什么中国在1976年之后像长腿大野兔子一样腾飞,而印度在1991年改革后仍然无法保持高增长率?究其原因,在于1980年以前专制的中国取得的一项大成就——人民的识字率和健康水平。上世纪80年代初,中国的识字率超过60%,而印度的识字率只有不到40%,中国甩了印度好几条街。中国在健康、死亡率和性别平等方面也做得更好。即使在今天,这种差距仍然存在,在联合国开发计划署的人类发展报告中,中国排在第86位,而印度排在第131位。尽管印度与中国在识字率方面的差距正在缩小,莫迪政府也在通过 “国家健康保护”和“清洁印度”计划努力改善健康指标,如果我们现在打赌,看看10年内印度和中国哪个国家经济更强,那只能赌中国,而不是印度。但是10年之后,人们应该押注印度。

A recent success for India has been poverty reduction, and steady improvements in the gross enrolment ratio (GER), which measures the number of students studying at a specific level of higher education against the total number of eligible students at the same level. The GER has moved up from 19.4 in 2010-11 to 25.2 in 2016-17, and could be rising further. In poverty, the World Data Lab of Brookings Institution suggests that the number of poor in India will fall to 40 million this year, giving us a poverty ratio of just 3%. NSSO consumption data to be released later this year will tell us if this is really true.


China used autocratic methods to ride roughshod over labour and land ownership rights, and indulged in financial repression in order to channel domestic savings and foreign investments into infrastructure and export manufacture. These excesses, and also the flawed one-child norm of the late 1970s, will come back to bite it in the form of social unrest and a shrinking working age population in the coming years.


In India, even as we struggle to reform land and labour laws, growth and poverty reduction have acted as natural decelerators of population growth. And as the country grows both its working age and senior citizen populations, savings and investment rates will rise. A world awash with low-cost capital will come to India, if we get our policies right.


So, which policies should we get right?


India may not catch up with Chinese GDP levels anytime soon, but incremental corrections in a democracy will ultimately enable us to do so – and without sharp social and political setbacks. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s clarion call for reaching a $5 trillion economy by 2024 may or may not be realised, but a $10 trillion economy in the early 2030s is a near certainty.