For being a democracy, modern India often gets a pass on most things Western nations would jump on with other countries. As an authoritarian state, China is put under the microscope and is attacked for the slightest offence. Ultimately, though, from the standpoint of genuine understanding, rather than just scratching the surface with knee-jerk attacks, you need to get to their underlying social structures and histories. The American political theorist Francis Fukuyama provides a sustained analysis that compares and contrasts those of the two countries that I find highly suggestive and provocative. It’s found in his 2011 book, The Origins of Political Order, as well as its sequel, Political Order and Political Decay . Both books have an amazing scholarly range and erudition, and display an intellectual passion and energy you don’t usually find in academic works. I greatly admire both books in the way that I rather dislike the one that made him famous, The End of History and the Last Man , which was almost universally trashed by Hegel scholars and rendered obsolete after September 11, 2001. In the following, I make no claims whether Fukuyama was right or wrong about China and India, only that he makes a lot of sense to me. One thing I most admire about his work here is that he paid scant attention to Marxism, seeing that the Chinese “communist” state is deeply rooted in the Chinese historical experience rather than any Marxist theory or practice. Some numbers will suffice to consider the Chinese experience of their first epochs, which continue to shape us today. During the semi-mythical period of the Xia, there were possibly 3,000 polities or territorial entities; the Shang had 1,800. With Western Zhou, it was reduced to 170. By the time of the Eastern Zhou, it was just 23 (the Spring and Autumn period) and then seven (the Warring States period). Then, of course, the first unification under the Qin. What Thomas Hobbes said about people in the state of nature, the Chinese could say the same about states in an environment of unending warfare. You can simply substitute “man” with “state” in his famous quote (in 17th century English): “Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of Warre, where every man is Enemy to every man; the same is consequent to the time, wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withall … which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.” If Hobbes claims everyone wants to leave the state of nature to obtain security by joining a sovereign state, the Chinese experience has always been that only a unified state can ward off the evil of chaos and anarchy, suffering and death. Only a strong state can guarantee well-being, stability and prosperity. The so-called century of humiliation by the Western powers only solidified, but did not invent, the Chinese innate bias for a strong state. India, Fukuyama claims, has no such experience in its history. “Conquest of one Chinese state by another often resulted in the extermination or exile of an entire ruling lineage and the absorption of its territory under another ruling house,” he wrote. “The Mauryan empire [the first and only one of two or three indigenous unifying empires in Indian history] was built by much gentler means.” The great Ashoka was said to have been so troubled by the brutality of his war on the Kalinga kingdom he renounced conquest thereafter. One reason for the Chinese ferocity and its absence in ancient India, according to some scholars, might have been the differences in term of population pressure. Fukuyama continued: “It could be that population densities in the Indus and Ganges river valleys were much lower than those in China, and less circumscribed, so that people subject to coercion could simply migrate rather than submit to a hierarchical social order.” Whereas the need for survival in ancient China meant every warring state must strive to be militarily strong and develop the “modern” and efficient state bureaucracy to mobilise an entire population, “the early Indian states never faced the extreme requirements for social mobilisation”. Then and now, China has had a strong state but a weak society which the state could penetrate, subjugate and control. India, however, has had a weak state or empire but a strong society, which the state has found hard or didn’t even try, to penetrate. This society has been characterised by the classes of varna and the castes of jatis so complex and localised that any overarching authority, not even the conquering Muslims or British imperialists, had any hope of controlling. “This situation persists down to the present day, where caste and village organisations remain the backbone of Indian society,” Fukuyama wrote. “The social system that grew out of Indian religion thus severely constrained the ability of states to concentrate power. Rulers could not create a powerful military capable of mobilising a large proportion of the population; they could not penetrate the self-governing, highly self-organising jatis that existed in every village; they and their administrators lacked education and literacy; and they faced a well-organised priestly class that protected a normative order in which they were consigned to a subordinate role. In every one of these respects, their situation was very different from that of the Chinese.” So, what do we make of all that in terms of democracy and autocracy? It is not that, Fukuyama argues, India had a tradition of liberty or self-determination. Rather it did not have the historical and cultural conditions for a strong state that underlies autocracy in China. But a strong state also has many advantages. It can divert major rivers to help farming, and build the Great Wall, dams, airports, highways, whole new cities and high-speed rail covering most of the country. A highly pluralistic society with incredible social complexity makes consensus-building difficult, especially when it comes to public infrastructure. Nor are Indians, then and now, free of tyranny. “Indians experienced a kind of tyranny as well, Fukuyama wrote, “not so much political tyranny in the Chinese style as what I labelled the ‘tyranny of cousins’. Individual freedom in India has been limited much more by things like kinship ties, caste rules, religious obligations and customary practices.” Is Indian democracy better or worse than Chinese autocracy? I believe this is a meaningless question that only interests ideologues and nationalists.