Why India­ and the Philippines lag behind East Asia’s tiger economies

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Their extreme factionalism makes political power hard to harness in the national interest

Two improbable democracies

Insights into India by the Yale political science professor emeritus Robert A. Dahl deserve our consideration, since they apply to our own “improbable democracy.”

Dahl seeks to explain why India continues to be a democracy, though it lacks many of the conditions Dahl himself regards as necessary for such a political system to thrive.


India’s horrendous poverty alone—despite its economy’s current surge—makes it a wonder how the country maintains its basic democratic institutions.

Yet India manages—just as the Philippines does. And the reason seems to be that if the extreme factionalism of society makes political power so difficult to consolidate in the national interest, it also means that no power holder can hope to easily overpower the others and rule arbitrarily.

Least common denominator

Dahl notes that the one billion Indians are “divided among themselves along more lines than any other country.” These divisions start from region, class and caste, and extend to language, race and religion. Within each category, there are infinite subdivisions.
In the Philippines, too, geography, culture and history have combined to make the sense of nationality hard to instil.

In both countries, political power is so divided that rule by consensus can strive only for the least common denominator of agreement among the factions.

In 2008, the Indian parliament (545 seats) had 24 party coalitions. Its 2009 elections were contested by more than 300 parties.

Primitive oligarchies

In our country, the physical setting meant the original settlements were scattered, their populations sparse, and political power fragmented.

Pre-colonial chiefdoms were primitive local oligarchies—with the bulk of their populations being debt-serfs or household slaves. Both custom and colonial policy preserved these small-scale autocracies. The Spaniards and Americans alike governed through the municipal principalia.

“In the absence of strong central authority,” says the historian Marshall McLennan, “many ordinary families preferred the security inherent in being the follower of a powerful leader to the insecurity of land they could not anyway defend on their own.”

Factional cohesion is strongest at local level; but it is inherently unstable because—as the anthropologist Laura Lee Junker notes—“Political allegiance is given only to the leader immediately above an individual with whom he has personal ties of reciprocity and loyalty.”

Out of the loop

In similarly fissiparous Latin America, a would-be strongman could bring the military into the picture. But India’s officer corps is thoroughly professional, while that of the Philippines is as divided as its civilian leadership.

In both Manila and Delhi, heads of government— Marcos in 1972-86 and Indira Gandhi in 1975-77—tried vainly to impose authoritarian rule. During this last quarter century, young Filipino officers have themselves attempted seven coups.

Indian—and Philippine—democracy is propped up principally by the balance of power among caciques, politicians and bureaucrats, elite families, clans, factions and oligarchic businesses. Much of State policy results from deal making among these powerbrokers.

Infinite divisions    

Until now, neither Indians nor Filipinos can even agree on a national language. India’s Constitution recognizes 15 languages officially. But Indians speak at least 35 major languages and 22,000 distinct dialects. We have at least 80 major languages—each asserting an ethnic culture.

For Indians, the majority religion (80%) of Hinduism—the rest being mainly Muslim—should be a unifying influence. But it is prevented from being so by its caste system, which has for 1,500 years defined a Hindu’s social rank at birth.

Orthodox Hindus regard outcastes as so contemptible that mere physical contact with them is defiling.

Among Filipinos, institutional Catholicism is losing ground to charismatics and pentecostals, who regard their relationship with the Deity as an individual and direct connection, not needing the intermediation of priests.

Fully 45% of young Filipinos are “nominal Catholics who seldom or never take part in church activities.”

No economic miracle

At Independence, India’s evolutionary socialists invested in heavy industry rather than in agricultural modernization. Their long-time leader, Nehru, felt land reform would be difficult to accomplish fully in a fledgling democracy.

So they relegated it to federal India’s constituent states—thus preserving the influence of the feudal landlords and preventing inclusive growth.

The Philippines, unlike its East Asian neighbors, also proved impotent at reforming agrarian tenure. Consequently, the two countries harbor the world’s last Maoist guerrillas.

Classic dual economies

Their failure to institute inclusive growth has also made them classic examples of the colonial dual economy—which is characterized by a modern enclave alongside a stagnant traditional sector.

India and the Philippines lead in aspects of the new information technology. But they also have abnormally large proportions of Asia’s poorest peoples.

India may be a first-rank space power; but landless rural workers still make up a fourth of its people.

Metro Manila—which produces the bulk of our output and income—may generate “spread effects” in its satellite regions. But regions farther away it disadvantages, by sucking away their stores of capital and entrepreneurial people.

Nation building still on

Japan, Korea and China—being ethnically and culturally homogenous—can take their nationhood for granted.

But for India and the Philippines, the diffusion of national awareness and the incorporation into the national community of all sectors of the population still is work in progress.

The global dispersal of 10 million migrants and contract workers is sharpening the Filipino sense of nationality. But the pressure of competing social forces on the central government hampers its efforts to build a strong state and modernize its economy.

Separatist rebellions have forced the unitary Philippine state to grant substantial autonomy to its Muslim minority.

‘Failed states’?

Because of our EDSA ’86 experience, we Filipinos tend to take for granted the irreversible nature of our country’s democratic progress.

But Foreign Policy Magazine and the ‘Fund for Peace’ regard our country as a potential ‘failed state.’ In their ‘Index of Failed States in 2014,’ they ranked the Philippines 59th—between Equatorial Guinea and Comoros—in a list of 178 states arranged by diminishing degrees of instability.    India they ranked 81st— just above Indonesia.

They judged the instability of our security apparatus; the factionalization of our elite; unaddressed group grievances; and our lack of state legitimacy as potential reasons for our state’s democratic collapse.

Breaking the stalemate

In both countries, portions of government are still extremely vulnerable to regulatory capture. But no faction can accumulate power enough to change radically the country’s social course. The chief executive, lacking clear authority, can attend only to the urgent and the immediate.

In New Delhi, the Hindu BJP party’s landslide victory in the 2013 elections marks the first time Parliament has had an absolute majority in 25 years of “fragmented and often incoherent coalition governments.”

Much is expected of tough-minded, nationalistic Prime Minister Narendra Modi; but I for one feel that even he will find the going hard in any effort to break his country’s democracy of stalemate.

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14 Comments

  1. It’s simple really.

    Both india and philippines have protectionist economic policies that keep competition out.

    Thus only the protected business owners grow while consumers are trapped into paying for expensive goods and services from these protected firms.

  2. I believe its the culture, Christianized and americanized to the point of uselessness when it comes even recognizing what is in our national interest. Doesn’t it bother you that the most important mortal in this country is deemed to be the foreign investor, not Juan dela Cruz? Many leaders don’t have a clue as to how essential culture is to nation building. Marcos was the only one who knew of its importance. Remember ” Isang Bansa, Isang Diwa?” Language is the carrier of culture, and since we are forced to speak English then we look for western oriented solutions for the country’s problems. We keep doing the same thing over and over again- applying western solutions- and hoping to get a different result each time, to no avail. I think this is one definition of insanity. We must learn to dig deep into our roots, way back to pre-Hispanic times as Im sure that is where we will find what will save us, not in some american authored textbook. Marcos summed it up succintly, yan ba ay maka-Diyos, maka-Tao at maka-Bayan? If only our national planning were forced to pass this test, we will be alright.

  3. Roldan Guerrero on

    Japan has A parliamentary system of government wherein the Prime Minister is chosen by the members of the diet after general elections is performed. The elected lawmakers choose among themselves who the next Prime Minister will be.In most cases of of choosing the PM, the best among the lawmakers prevail and eventually become the next PM. This is a usual task for every Japanese that even in all kinds of products and goods manufactured in that country emerge in the market as one of the best if not the best. In the Philippines, leaders are choosen differently. After Marcos, very few or none at all had been elected as considered intellectual, well prepared for the presidency but mostly were due to their popularity and financial capability to to launch a costly nationwide campaign which even result to vote buying and cheating in order to win. This must be the reason why the Philippines lagged so far behind our neighbors in Asia. We always land to the least qualified president.

  4. Why? Japan is not really democratic country.
    Singapore is a Authoritarian Rule, Thailand is parliamentary system, Korea is parliamentary system. Only crazy Philippines is full Presidential form of government like at the United States.
    President Marcos is on the right path during his term. And this yellow tard democrazy, fooled the filipino people.. We dont need the strong leader that can bend the filipine peoples attitude . Discipline and honesty is missing from the Filipino Government officials. and Education is the primary institution that will change the attitude of the people..

    • Marcos is on the right path? by the early 1980s the phil economy was in tatters. When Martial Law was declared there were lots of things that actually benefited the nation: electrification, roads, stability etc. But there were a couple things that had to be fixed. In 1972, Marcos promised total land reform. In the end i think it was like 2% that were rice and corn land given to farmers. The more lucrative coconut and sugar lands weren’t distributed away.
      Marcos was friends with the US thereby industrialization is out of the question. before the cronies there was a growing steel industry and it just got neglected when the old owners (oligarchs) left.
      Of course there was money and it’s so unfathomable that Marcos could corrupt so much of it. IIRC the wealth of Marcos that was retrieved by PCGG was worth something like 160 billlion Pesos. Every Filipino today from kid to old would be a millionaire if all that money would be distributed. And then they were the human rights abuses.

      Today you have to give credit with our democratic, presidential system. Remember when SC declared Aquino’s DAP unconstitutional? it’s proof that the democratic system worked. CJ Sereno was appointed by the Aquino. Usually if a CJ is appointed by the Pres., the CJ have to follow the whims of the Pres irregardless of constitutionality or something, just like with Corona with PGMA. But Sereno, appointed by Aquino, disregarded Aquino, for the unconstitutionality of DAP. A system of checks and balances at work in a presidential system.

      We are the second fastest growing economy in Asia behind China, and we did it even though we are a rather flawed democratic and presidential system. That’s a feat.

  5. Simple lang yan!!pinoy tayo at indiano sila!
    Ibig sabihin maraming pinaniniwalaan mga pamahiin!!marami silang dios-diosan magkatulad na magkatulad pati pag-iisip parehong maporma!!kaya napipigil ang pag-ulad!hahaha, biro lang!!!

  6. Filipinos has an inbred colonial minds. They are corrupts and plunderers, dishonest and greedy. National pride is superficial and shallow. Most are psychotic. Hopeless and untrustworthy, starting with PNoy, then Abad, The Binays, Enrile, Jinggoy, Revilla, Drilon, etc.

    With quality of the the people, no wonder Philippines is struggling to survive. And many survive by immigrating abroad.

  7. In addition the judicial system is corrupt. Judges does not see honesty and truthful evidence. They see only lagay. They abandon the and transfer to another case or dismissed a case when they received under the table. Cases can go on for many years without any clear cut decision.
    the news media should expose those culpable Judges.

  8. Gloria M. Kuizon on

    We oedinary Filipinos and our leaders must agan have the Christian culture that Jose Rizal, Andress Boniacio, Apolinario Mabini etc. had. All the Tiger economies in East Asia have the solid ground of Confucian culture and Japan even more strict than Confucian culture is its rigorous culture of Shinto discipline, love of country and their emperor symbolizing leadership.
    Ours is a Christian culture. What we have now is “a damaged culture” as that guy Fallws wrote more than ten years ago. Bring that back and we will get well and be a real economic and development tiger.

  9. Rosauro Feliciano on

    Why? Because we Filipinos are not united. We are like crabs destroying among ourselves. Envious of what other have attained.