Atanu Dey On India's Development

The Sacred Ritual of Elections — Part 1

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It’s been a while since I caught up with my contrarian friend CJ. I asked him what he’s been up to. I nearly dropped the phone when he said that he read in the newspapers that Indian elections were announced. It wasn’t the news of the impending elections that jolted me – I knew that already. The admission that CJ read a newspaper that was shocking.

“You read newspapers?” I asked incredulously. He believed that reading newspapers was a deplorable evil.

“Not all the time, but I do read the occasional newspaper. Besides, it’s a good reminder that the masses are complete idiots,” said CJ.

Sounds bad but I would take arrogance over stupidity any day. “Newspapers do chronicle to the minutest details what happens in a world which is of the stupid, by the stupid, and for the stupid,” CJ continued.

“So what do you think about the Indian elections? I hope that this election returns a government that is able to implement some good policies,” I said.

“What do I think of the Indian elections? I think it is the same dog and pony show it has always been. It’s what you would expect in a world which is of the stupid, by the stupid . . .”

“Yeah, I heard you the first time around. But what does by the stupid mean?”

“You perhaps know that the elected bunch are not the smartest people in the country. Nor are they pillars of moral rectitude. They are not known for their intelligence or their wisdom. Now lay those facts next to the fact that India is a representative democracy. The elected are representative of the people who do the electing. Surely you see the connection between the two,” said CJ.

“That’s a facile dismissal of a very valuable institution. Democracy is a great idea, and an idea that is as often associated with India as is its largeness. Democracy is a great idea, India is the greatest democracy, and therefore India is great. Indians vote and therefore Indians are great and India is going to be a superpower.”

“Nicely put. Quite off the mark but nice. But like I said, it is a dog and pony show. There is a man behind the curtain. The people feel that they are in control because they get to pull the voting machine lever. A nice illusion. The fact that it goes on year after year for decades on end must reveal something. What it means is that the illusion works,” CJ said.

“CJ, you cannot simultaneously claim that representative government is representative of the general characteristics of the population, and then also say that the act of choosing the representatives is a farce and an illusion. If the former is true, voting must establish a real connection between the ruled and the rulers. What is it then?”

“Let me see if I can draw the distinction between the politicians and the government. The politicians get elected and they are representative of the population that does the electing. So the attributes of the electorate is aggregated in some sense and reflected in the attributes of the elected. Broadly speaking, an electorate of wise and honest people can hardly elect myopic and immoral leaders. That is what representative democracy is. Don’t like it, get some other system.

“But politicians alone are not the government. The government is also a very large bureaucracy. That bureaucracy is the man behind the curtain. You don’t see them but they are there. They know. They have institutional memory. Politicians come and go. Bureaucrats remain. It’s interesting to watch the antics of the dogs and ponies but they are dancing for their meals. You think that if you don’t like their show, you would replace them. Sure you will. But all the lever pulling you do at the election booth is only your feeble control over the dogs and ponies — not the man behind the curtain.

“The bureaucrats are the real rulers of the country. And remember that you don’t elect them. They are appointed. By whom? By the bureaucracy. Isn’t that a cozy deal?” CJ said.

“But politicians are the masters and the bureaucracy is meant only as an institution to carry out the orders from the political superiors. So the control that the people have over the politicians is in effect a control over the bureaucracy,” I said.

“All this indirect control thing is true in principle but a lot of horse doodoo in fact. The politicians don’t really know anything about the ministries they are supposed to direct. The bureaucrats do. Do you really believe a guy who has absolutely no knowledge of aviation at all can run the aviation ministry? Or some country bumpkin run the massive Indian railways?” CJ said.

“So you claim that the bureaucrats are not accountable to the people. They are unelected. But why do we have this system at all? Isn’t this a bit of a sham if the elected are not really in control?” I said.

“History. The British colonial government put the bureaucracy in place so that it would execute the objectives of a colonial government. What objectives? To extract resources from the economy. How? By controlling every aspect of the economy. When they left in 1947, they handed over the bureaucracy — lock, stock, and barrel — to the new political masters. The white guys left and the brown guys took over.

“The brown guys saw the bureaucracy and realized it was one of the most effective ways of controlling the economy and the people. They loved it as much as the British. Every institution that the British had created was not just maintained, they were strengthened.”

“Be that as it may, change is on the way. The people are fairly fed up with the current crop of politicians and they will get better governance,” I said.

“Not really. Change is not something that arises out of random chance. If the underlying factors that motivate the electorate don’t change, the outcome will be the same. If party A promoted a certain set of policies as a result of a set of constraints, another party B will have to also adopt the same or a very similar set of policies as well. Why? Because the underlying reality is the same.

“When the BJP came to power, they did exactly what the previous government had done. The details differ in some but inconsequential ways. Then when the BJP went out and the Congress came back, they did what the BJP had done.

“The unfortunate fact is that India is trapped in what we should call a low-level equilibrium. India has the governance it has because that was what was handed down to India. Of the three freedoms — economic, personal, and political — that matter to people, some in India got some degree of political freedom with the departure of the British. It is not even very clear whether political freedom in the absence of personal and economic freedom has any meaning. If I cannot live my personal life without being dictated to by others, and if I am at the verge of chronic starvation, I don’t know what political freedom really means in this context, or what good it can do.

“By keeping the people economically imprisoned, but allowing them the right to vote, there is an illusion of change. That the jailers are different does not alter the fact that one is still in prison. Sure now you can shout a little louder and complain a bit more vociferously about the abysmal conditions of the jail — but you are still jailed and now you are a little hoarse and tired from all the shouting and the banging of your tin plates against the bars of your cell,” said CJ.

“You are dismissing the power of elections that people have in a democratic setup,” I said.

“No, no. In a truly democratic system, the people do have power to influence change and in the direction they want. But in India’s case, I think it is like the fake steering wheel for the 4-year old in the car. It is merely mounted on the dashboard and not really connected to the steering mechanism of the car. It gives the kid a feeling of control, while the real control is in the hands of the guy in the driving seat. Without the fake wheel bought from Toys-R-Us, the kid will be a nuisance. He will be demanding and cranky wondering if he was having fun yet and if we are there yet and where are we really going. Fake steering wheel in hand, the kid is pacified and the driver can concentrate on where he wants to go.

“It’s the illusion that keeps the game in play. If India were not so fascinated by the dog and pony show, if India were not distracted by fake symbolism, it would have seen through the sham.

“The power of illusions is under appreciated. It is not without a reason that people cling so tenaciously to religion — it gives them an illusion of control over things in a universe beyond their comprehension. The religion of democracy that the people so fervently believe in is as real as the other religions.

“India is once again preparing for the ritual of elections sacred to that religion of democracy. The results will be the same as before. As the American folk wisdom says, if you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got. You cannot expect the outcome to be different this time around merely because you fervently hope so. Is there anything different this time around compared to the other times before?” said CJ.

[To be continued in part 2.]

NOTES:

[1] He held the view best expressed by Delos Wilcox who in 1900 wrote: But we must deplore and, so far as possible, overcome the evils of habitual newspaper reading. These evils are, chiefly, three: first, the waste of much time and mental energy in reading unimportant news and opinions, and premature, untrue, or imperfect accounts of important matters; second, the awakening of prejudices and the enkindling of passions through the partisan bias or commercial greed of newspaper managers; third, the loading of the mind with cheap literature and the development of an aversion for books and sustained thought. [Return]

  • c

    Hi Atanu
    Perhaps all the voters need to understand who actually control.
    Though as said by you most of the ministers assigned to a post do not know anything asto what they sould do ,for eg the railway minister.
    i get highly disturbed when i see the elected people.i think you should write about the film industry guys,another lot standing for elections.My GOD(?,only a sigh)how can we the thinking people and so called educated (agian it is a question mark?) people allow this to happen.
    Been reading your views .This is my first comment.I most of the time sence the helplessness we are all going through and also find that we are all controlled by bunch of jokers and mean minded bureaucrats.
    Agian talking about being bureaucratic,it tickles down to the mindset.
    Perhaps, you get that mindset and tend to enforce when you have ample amount of power and money at your hand.
    Liked your post on how singapore has evolved to be what it is now.

  • abhijatm

    One of the biggest debates around democracy revolves around two persusive arguments.

    On one side we have the view that “we deserve the kind of politicians we get”. i.e. the political class essentially represents the larger nature of the electorate, given free and fair elections. Now this would mean that in a country like India whose political class is hugely corrupt, bigoted and regressive the larger electorate by extension is corrupt, bigoted and regressive. Also that the electorate largely votes for local leaders rather than the larger national agenda. These smart leaders will then subvert the national agenda and put roadblocks on long-term economic development. This also encourages the always-difficult choice between the long-term and the short term. Economic development and structural reforms are tough in the short-term but will yield benefits in the long-term. However do voters tend to value the populist-but-bad policies in the short-run having little patience to wait it out. So if the average voter is selfish and wants ‘free power’ / ‘free food’, and agrees to vote for any unscruplous element the voter is equally culpable for bad governance.

    The other argument is that that the electorate is so poor that whoever promises the moon and even delivers a fraction, will come to power. That large sections of the population have been so repressed and poor that whoever is willing to stand up and give them a sliver of hope and respect, however fantastical will win. On one hand we can blame the electorate for it’s gullibility that a few individuals can manipulate it so brazenly and get away with it – effectively putting brakes on long-term development. Those who are struggling to suvive do not really care about the national agenda. They are only looking for short-term goodies every election as that is the best they can hope for. It does not help to wait for “long-term economic development” when you are starving. Hence we ‘psuedo-intellectuals’ with out bellies full and ability/access to write a blog should be more kind in judging our fellow-citizens.

    The lesson to take away is that democracy is related to “informed” choices. The issue is who decides whiat is “informed”? So does this mean that in a country with universal adult sufferage, those folks who are not ‘informed’ should not have a right to vote ? It also begets the uncomfortable question that if numbers are what are important in a democracy then that population that procreates more heavily will, in the long term have a disproportinate say in the government ? (In the US context where the red states have higher birthrates, these states will in the long-term assert their numerical superiority ?)

    What is the first requisite of being “informed” ? I guess it is primary eductation. For democarcy to succeed in India, the first thing to do is educate everybody. Primary education is however hampered by extreme poverty (today’s survival is more important than preparing for tomorrow) and regressive soical values (gender roles, male-dominance). These however, cannot be eliminated without primary education and this, sadly, remains a vicious cycle.

    Atanu : any views ?

  • harjeet.undefined

    @atanu

    very nice article indeed !!…but I think the author stops in taking the main point to its logical end

    the bureaucracy that controls india is actually representative of a very very minute segment of our society (appx 2%)…. powerful bureaucratic posts are held by urban, male, upper caste educated people who belong that elite upper crust of our poor society (as per NCAER survey in india less than 1% people earn more that 500 thousand INR per year)

    being from this privileged section, when all my privileges are based upon the poverty of others, I for one have no incentive to make sure that all good intentioned schemes of govt get implemented.

    this CASTE and CLASS divide which is so deeply intrenched in our society is real cause of our economic ills