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The Middle Class Indian Man and His Search for a Benevolent Dictator

Jun 6, 2016


"India needs a benevolent dictator."

I have heard this being said over and over again, over the years.

Usually, the person saying it is a man.

Usually, he is a successful corporate type who is in the habit of driving his team to meet unreasonable goals set by the organisation.

Usually, he doesn't like to take no for an answer.

Usually, he is looking to encash his ESOPs at the end of the year.

Usually, you will hear him say things like, this year we did Turkey, next year we plan to do New Zealand.

Usually his heart is in the right place. It beats for his country. It wants the country to do well. And in the process, he ends up saying the nonsense that he does.

In some cases, he is a Non-Resident Indian, living in the United States, the oldest and one of the most successful democracies in the world. In some cases, he is someone who has lived through Indira Gandhi's emergency between 1975 and 1977 and is nostalgic about it.

"You know, trains ran on time," he says. I don't know if they did, but at least that is the argument that is offered.

And in some other cases, he opens the argument with the line: "Look at Singapore".

So what is this Look at Singapore argument? Allow me to explain. As Arvind Pangariya writes in India-The Emerging Giant: "Countries, such as the Republic of Korea, Taiwan, Singapore Hong Kong, and the People's Republic of China...have attained high rates of growth under authoritarian regimes."

India on the other hand almost always been a democracy since its independence in 1947. And on top, it has been one of the few countries which has managed to be a democracy almost all along. As Panagariya writes: "Along with Costa Rica, Jamaica, and Sri Lanka, India is only one of the four developing countries to have had democratically elected governments throughout the second half of the twentieth century and beyond...The remaining three countries...are all relatively tiny. The brief period of emergency rule-from June 26, 1975, to March 21,1977-in India may be viewed as representing a break in its democratic tradition."

The people who argue in favour of benevolent dictators have basically this to say-countries in Asia that have done well, are those which have had autocratic regimes. India lost out because it was a democracy.

As Ruchir Sharma writes in Breakout Nations: "Of the eight countries that quadrupled their incomes between 1950 and 1990, two (Taiwan and Singapore) were ruled by dictators during the entire period, one (South Korea) was ruled by a dictator during most of it, two (Japan and Malta) were democracies throughout the period and three (Thailand, Portugal and Greece) waffled between autocracy and democracy." China has also had an autocratic regime through its period of economic development through the late 1970s.

This is offered as evidence as to why India would have done much better if it had been run by a benevolent dictator and an autocratic regime. The trouble with this argument is that it looks at just one side of the equation-the countries which have had benevolent dictators and have done well. It doesn't look at countries, which have had dictators and gone absolutely to the dogs.

The African continent is littered with examples of such countries. Closer to home, there is Pakistan. Look at the mess the country currently is in. Or look at what has happened in a country like Myanmar.

Economist William Easterly has done some interesting research in this area, which he summarises in a research paper titled Benevolent Autocrats. As he writes: "The probability that you are an autocrat IF you are a growth success is 90 percent. This probability seems to influence the discussion in favour of autocrats."

But that is the wrong question to ask. The question that needs to be asked should be exactly the opposite-if a country is governed by an autocrat what are the chances that it will be a growth success? "The relevant probability is whether you are a growth success IF you are an autocrat, which is only 10 percent," writes Easterly.

To put it simply-most fast growing nations are ruled by autocrats. Nevertheless, most autocracies do not grow fast. The point being, if the government in a country is being ruled by a dictator, there is no way to figure out in advance, whether he will turn out to be a disaster or be benevolent.

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The question is why do so many educated middle class Indian men believe in the idea of a benevolent dictator then? (I know I am stereotyping here, but I have experienced this many times over the years).

I guess what behavioural economists call availability bias is at play here. As Leonard Mlodinow writes in The Drunkard's Walk-How Randomness Rules Our Lives: "In reconstructing the past, we give unwarranted importance to memories that are most vivid and hence most available for retrieval. The nasty thing about the availability bias is that it insidiously distorts our views of the word by distorting our perception of past events and our environment."

Air-crashes are an excellent example of this. As Jason Zweig writes in The Devil's Financial Dictionary: "Flying is among the safest ways to travel, but on the rare occasions when an airplane does crash, the fireball on the runway is broadcast worldwide and burned into the brain of everyone who sees it."

This leads people to believe that airplane travel is unsafe. But what they don't realise is that the media does not report about the thousands of planes that land safely every day all over the world. It also does not report the many car crashes that happen all over the world every day, unless a celebrity is involved.

Availability bias comes into the picture with an event being over-reported. As Easterly writes: "One way this can happen are with an event that is over-reported relative to its actual frequency. A common example is that probability of death from murder is overestimated because of intensive coverage of murders by the media relative to other causes of death that are not as newsworthy (e.g. heart disease)."

When it comes to the idea of a benevolent dictator, this phenomenon is at play. Indians who go to countries like Singapore and China, see how much progress the country has made, and come to the conclusion that autocracy leads to economic growth. But these individuals never go to Pakistan, so that they can see that the opposite is also true. Or Myanmar for that matter.

The media with its stories of China's progress also has a role to play. But then the stories of how much mess dictators have made in Africa, over the decades, never really make it to the Indian press.

Vivek Kaul is the Editor of the Diary and The Vivek Kaul Letter. Vivek is a writer who has worked at senior positions with the Daily News and Analysis (DNA) and The Economic Times, in the past. He is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. The latest book in the trilogy Easy Money: The Greatest Ponzi Scheme Ever and How It Is Set to Destroy the Global Financial System was published in March 2015. The books were bestsellers on Amazon. His writing has also appeared in The Times of India, The Hindu, The Hindu Business Line, Business World, Business Today, India Today, Business Standard, Forbes India, Deccan Chronicle, The Asian Age, Mutual Fund Insight, Wealth Insight, Swarajya, Bangalore Mirror among others.

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13 Responses to "The Middle Class Indian Man and His Search for a Benevolent Dictator"

Krishnan Sivaswamy

Jun 8, 2016

Vivek is missing the point on "Benevolent Dictator". What is desired is Benevolent Dictator not any Dictator.
There is nothing wrong in comparing Singapore and Korea both Asian countries, one our neighbour and another fairly big sized country. After all what is the purpose of any form of Government ?

It should ensure Law and Order, look after all sections of society, ensure no exploitation of under privileged and above all Growth and wealth of its countrymen. S.Korea and Singapore has ensured all these during the same period that they got independence as our country.

what we now have is a skewed democracy as Politicians only criteria is to come to power and run down the opposition that they loose sight of good governance and what is good for the country.

For any country to prosper it must be productive, it must be educated and above all must be disciplined and must obey rule of Law. At present our democratic set up does not ensure these.



Jun 7, 2016

In India, you see multitude of dictators in every state. One man on the top decides what is good for the people of his/her state. It may be the case of prohibition or distribution of freebies. We are tolerating all these dictators in States. I go even further and find dictatorship in corporates, religious organisations, universities and at every level. Any one who tries to rise against one man show is silenced or assigned a job that makes him sick enough to leave the group.We as a country are used to ruling by monarchs. Who are these but dictators. Yes we have not tried dictatorship after independence but otherwise we are governed by dictators through our history. We have seen monarchs in India have been more or less benevolent.
The only problem is do you get a monarch in Rahul or Namo.



Jun 6, 2016

So true, but a little more perspective is in order. Would you also be able to give the list or number of failed states with authoritarian rule and successful large states with authoritarian rule. this will shut up the craps who are still craving for dictatorship.
the simple fact in from of our eyes is that for every successful south Korea there is a north korea, for every successful Singapore there is a Myanmar, for every successful China there is a Mongolia (which very recently became a democracy) and many more.. the list is big for those who want to open their eyes and see.

Also from amongst the top 10 largest economies of the world - only China is an autocracy, rest all are Democracies.

Like (1)

Ashok Tiwari

Jun 6, 2016

Your content is confusing.I thought you will conclude in the end but that is missing. There is nothing called benevolent dictator. A dictator is a dictator. Your article is similar to bad terrorism & good terrorism. Terrorism is terrorism.
Also autocratic & dictator are not same. China has autocratic govt & not dictator. Hence similar to china we need to do micro analysis to know, which country has which type of govt.
In India, while we might call it as democratic govt, but most of the elections are won by announcing freebies. Free electricity, free water etc. Indian democracy is very different from other countries.People elect only Lok Sabha MPs but Rajya Sabha members are not elected by people. Hence Indian democracy is not by the people. Indian democracy is very complex due to Rajya Sabha & Lok Sabha. In India Form of democracy practiced at state level is totally different from what is practiced at National level. I have never heard that in any state, policy approved by ruling elected MLAs has been rejected by MLCs of opposition. Hence Indian democracy is very complex. Common man cannot understand, why a majority party cannot implement policies due to hindrance created by minority opposition.

Like (1)

Gaurang Dalal

Jun 6, 2016

You are mixing the term "benevolent dictator " with all types of dictator. The examples that you have given where countries have gone to dogs is under malevolent and autocratic dictators. Most of the countries with really benevolent dictators have done well.
The problem with you is that you twist the terminology to prove your point.

Like (3)


Jun 6, 2016

I wish to ask Equitymaster - is it possible to subscribe to Bill Bonner's diary without being forced to receive Vivek Kaul's diary. Several years ago, I had subscribed to Bill Bonner's daily newsletters and have come to value them immensely. Perhaps a couple of years ago, Vivek Kaul was thrust upon us, and now Bill Bonner is only a postscript to Vivek Kaul. I find Vivek's views either pedantic or utterly biased. Please unbundle the 2 authors and ask subscribers which one they wish to receive.

Like (3)


Jun 6, 2016

I am in agreement with the contents of the article.However, I feel, that parents of a new born or babes in arms are a good example of "benevolent dictators" i.e. in the initial stages dictatorship may be benevolent. But the dictator should know the limits.
So it is a question of "knowing the limits" by all concerned.

Like (1)


Jun 6, 2016

At times I wonder if you give an opinion for the sake of offering a counter opinion.

If one starts with a negative perception of things, he will find 100 facts to prove his point. If he starts on an optimistic note, he will find data to support the same. I hope and wish, that whatever you present as published in a recent 5 min wrap up post,

"You deserve to know what's really going on. And Vivek wants to tell you all. In fact, he has something big on his mind. You see, he is very keen to expose these government lies. Trust me, you don't want to miss this."

hope it presents things in an unbiased way and not with an objective of bringing things in a negative or positive light. EM anyways seems anti incumbent in its views. Hope you are not among them.

Like (1)


Jun 6, 2016

While it is true that Singapore, Communist China, Taiwan, South Korea flourished under authoritarian rule, the converse is not true.

Countries like Libya, Iran, Iraq, Uganda under the authoritarian rule of Mummar Gadaffi, Ayotullah Khoemeni, Saddam Hussain and Idi Amin respectively never progressed. Also the whole lot of East European Countries, Vietnam, Mangolia etc too could not progress under authoritarian rule ( this could be because of NATO repression against the Communist Block ).

I too have had a feel of Emergency days. In early seventies, I used to hear that the general public wanted Military Rule so that some order will prevail in the Society an the Nation.

Regarding the current context, one person Arvind Pangariya, who is chief of Niti Ayog had made that statement. This person, a week ago tom tommed about electrifying 7,718 villages. I humbly, would like to provide some data. At the time of independence, India had 7,00,000 villages. Over a period of time, about 1,00,000 villages got integrated with Metro and Urban areas, still leaving 6,00,000 of them as villages. Somebody had electrified over 98 % of those villages, without taking credit for it. Let Arvind Pangariya, who is chief of Niti Ayog take credit for electrifying about 1.28 % of these villages in the last two years. Logically, had this person continued as chief of Planning Commission or Niti Ayog, it would have taken over 80 years or more to electrify India.

His statement only reflects the political agenda and not the economic agenda.

I thank God.

Like (1)

Ravi Kapoor

Jun 6, 2016

A well written piece. In a polity as fractious and individualistic as India's, dictatorship would have been a disastrous experiment. I base this on two counts -
1. The latter period of the 'Emergency' was a nightmare for many citizens who care to remember. Forced en-mass sterilizations, arrest without warrants or legal redress are a few of the atrocities that were committed in the name of and by individuals close to the power centre. In fact, corruption increased several notches in the later months of emergency.
2. Over millennia, the guiding philosophy of the India sub-continent has been in favour of individual freedom of thought, belief and action. The vast majority, regardless of their religious pursuits, still practice and value this freedom and will not submit to indoctrination.

To summarize, democracy is our only long term hope despite its warts and shortcomings.

Like (1)
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