I have just returned from a visit to China where I rode on their high speed “bullet” train. I made the journey from Shanghai to Beijing in less than five hours travelling at 300 km per hour. I have been visiting China off and on for more than two decades, and each time I am amazed at China’s ability to build at amazing speed highways, airports, power plants, and high speed trains.

When I see what the China’s leadership has achieved, I grow envious and often wish that India too had such a purposeful and competent state. It takes the Chinese a year to build the same road that it takes us five years in India. I was astonished to read that China manages to store five times more water per person and this has been achieved mostly through large dam and irrigation projects. In  India, Medha Patkar and other activists managed to delay the Narmada Dam in Gujarat for decades. They repeatedly took the government to court and employed every tactic in the book and delayed the water reaching farmers in a drought hit state by more than a decade. It is the same story when the municipality wants to widen a road or a state government wants to build a new power plant or airport. It invariably meets resistance from activists and environmental groups. This paralyzes decision making.

A few years ago, I visited the gigantic hydroelectric project at Three Gorges Dam in China. At first I was greatly impressed. But gradually, I sobered up when I realized that the Chinese state had moved more than a million people from the floodplain. It felt to me that was too high a cost in human dislocation and misery. When the authoritarian Chinese state decides to bulldoze a neighbourhood to make way for a new factory or a residential building, it simply forces out the residents, and they have no choice or remedy. Authoritarian China extracts an enormous price in human misery because of the lack of liberty and judicial recourse when something goes wrong.

Democratic India extorts a penalty in the loss of opportunity that quicker decision making would bring. Those who blame democracy for India’s problems are also wrong. India’s ills are the result of poor governance. There are many democracies with much higher levels of governance and do not have the problems in building infrastructure projects that India does. 

These are real benefits of living in a free democracy but we pay the heavy price in India in the poor condition of our roads, our dilapidated cities and the constant blackouts. Unlike China, whose success has been scripted by an amazing state, India seems to be rising from below. The state in India has always been weak compared to China. Political authority was either too distant or irrelevant to India’s daily social life. In China, the state was always stronger than society. Hence, Indians have always fallen back on their own resources. Today’s weak and ‘soft’ democracy is consistent with our historical and social temper.
The historical pasts of the two countries also help to explain the two countries. In the last hundred years China suffered devastating violence while India was spoiled by amazing peace. China’s 20th century opened with the ravages of warlords; the Nationalists followed with their butchery in the twenties. Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in the thirties made our British Raj look angelic. In the forties came Mao’s massacres against those with property as the Communists took power. Mao’s ambitions sacrificed 35 million in the Great Leap Forward in the late fifties and there was further misery when millions of lives were disrupted or lost in the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. It was not until 1978 that the Chinese breathed easy. But after that they went on to create the most amazing spectacle of economic growth that the world has ever seen.

Saints, on the other hand, created India after the Second World War and this happened in the shadows of Hitler, Stalin and Mao. Not only did we escape the World Wars, but we became free without shedding an ounce of blood, thanks to Mahatma Gandhi. Yes, around half a million died in the Partition riots, but it was not state sponsored violence. Because we were addicted to peace, I think this too is one of the reasons we created the world’s largest democracy. Although Nehru’s socialism slowed us down for three decades, we did not wipe out our private economy with its invaluable institutions of corporate law and the stock market. So, when we broke free from our socialist shackles we had this advantage over China.

China resembles a business corporation today. Each mayor and party secretary has objectives relating to investment, output and growth, which are aligned to national goals. Those who exceed their goals rise quickly. The main problem in running a country as a business is that many people get left out.

 India, on the other hand, can only manage itself by accommodating vocal and varied interest groups. It does slow us down—this is partly why we take five years to build a highway versus one in China. Those who are disgruntled go to court. But our politicians are forced to worry about abuses of human rights which are common in China. Democracies have a safety valve-it allows the disgruntled to let off steam before slowly co-opting them. China has gone on to become much richer than India today but the poorest Chinese yearns for the same freedom.  This is the big question. China’s future depends on how the amazing Chinese state learns to accommodate these yearnings of its people.

The lesson is that India needs a more effective state just a China needs a more nimble and stronger society. Until India can have a more competent state, its politicians should recognize the limitations of their government. India should focus on the core job of government—to give governance and law and order. It should not to try to ape the Chinese state, which has far greater managerial capacity. It should build upon the entrepreneurial strengths of its people and its private enterprise through public private partnerships to deliver drinking water, education, health and welfare to its people.