How well can the democratic form of governance serve as a means by which a society is circumscribed, or restricted in some way? In other words, can self-government be used to enact self-discipline on the body politic itself? Adding another level to this question, can elected representatives be expected to go beyond fixes that are perceived societally as sufficient to redress the underlying causes of governmental, economic, or societal problems? Far from urging or implying the supremacy of non-democratic forms of government, such questions invite improvement in democracy itself. In this essay, I reflect on these questions using India’s industrial policy as a case study.
Faced with economic growth below 6 percent, a budget deficit expected to breach 6 percent of India’s GDP, a possible downgrade in the country’s credit rating to junk status, and the rupee hitting record lows, Sonia Gandhi, head of the Congress Party, spoke for the first time in late 2012 in support of allowing foreign companies such as Wal-Mart into India. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and others had been urging her to embrace the reform. Appealing to Sonia Gandhi’s passion for social welfare programs, the prime minister told her that more foreign direct investment would be necessary to expand them. Most notably, the Congress Party boss was pushing a $5.6-billion food-security bill and a rural employment-guarantee program. According to the Wall Street Journal, there was already “high spending on subsidies” at the expense of “growth-generating capital projects.” In effect, the latter get “sub-contracted” in foreign direct investment. Relatedly, the finance minister, P. Chidambaram, issued a plan to reduce the federal government’s deficit and sell stakes the government has in state-owned companies.
Singh and Gandhi at a rally. It is clear who's the boss. AP
Lest Sonia Gandhi’s support be viewed as a panacea, other reforms, such as making it easier to acquire land, remained “stuck in the bureaucracy,” according to the Wall Street Journal. The government’s “mind-set is I will not fix the cause of the issue, I will put a Band-Aid on it,” Rahul Bahsin of Baring Private Equity Partners India said. Indeed, although Walmart would doubtless hire local labor both in the construction and retail-operations of the stores, that foreign-direct-investment alone would not be large enough to make a dent in the social welfare needs of India’s poor. Additionally, the company’s aversion to workers’ rights (not to mention unions) and the related low compensation and benefits for in-store employees could mean additional troubles for Sonia Gandhi as worker groups seek protection from the federal government.
Moreover, with over a billion people at the time the policy was being considered, the prospect of employing all able-bodied people of working-age in India was undoubtedly a daunting task in the midst of a global recession following the financial crisis of 2008. It was not as though the Indian government could simply invite hundreds of millions of Indians into computer-science and engineering classes and then into high-tech ready-made jobs. Over-population could have been the long-standing underlying problem, or cause of the unemployment and related subsidies.
The bureaucracy and coalition in-fighting, as well as the “Band-Aid” approach oriented to incremental additions in employment through FDI could be a reflection of India’s over-population—a more basic problem that eludes mere policy prescriptions increasing foreign-direct-investment. Especially if a given over-populated area has a disproportionate number of unemployed people, tackling the underlying problem could be expected to relieve the pressure on policies such as foreign direct investment to make up the difference. Meanwhile, other symptoms, like global warming and food prices, would be redressed. The question may therefore be whether a democracy is a feasible venue for such “cause-oriented” legislation to be enacted.
Whereas government officials in China did not have to worry about a democratic backlash from the government’s one-child policy in the late twentieth century, the case of India raises the question of whether a self-governed people can regulate their own society by democratic means. A democracy may be hard-pressed in putting into effect painful legislation to curb excesses such as over-population—literally to restrict rather than promote a basic sort of growth. The value put on that value alone since the mercantile days could give legislators an implicit mandate to foster rather than retard population growth. Furthermore, the “Band-Aid” approach might be more in line with the workings of a democracy if apparent measures are sufficient to get one re-elected. One could point to the perennial “fixes” in the U.S. regarding entitlement programs and deficit-cutting as other examples, and to the efforts of the E.U. to bail-out heavily indebted states as yet another example. Elected representatives seem to prefer to take little bites, incrementally, rather than enact fundamental laws that are oriented to causes rather than symptoms.
In contrast to these questions, an uncritical approach to the spread of democracy around the world, such as potentially in the “Arab Spring,” could actually exacerbate global problems. If the species continues “un-self-regulated,” meaning more and more over-populated, nature will undoubtedly step in at some point and impose restraint (e.g., famine, climate, war, disease). It may be an open question whether we as a species can stave off such a verdict from Mother Nature. Ironically, our consensus form of government may lessen the odds.
Romit Guha and Rajesh Roy, “India’s Gandhi Now Backs Overhauls,” The Wall Street Journal, November 9, 2012.