A piece in today’s Wall Street Journal, “America’s Insurgent Pollster: Understanding the tea party is essential to predicting what the country’s political scene will look like,” prompted thought on some differences between the US and India in the context of the oft repeated fact that both are democracies. The article is of interest to me since I want to know how governance in India can be improved. So here’s what I take away from the article, and one other matter.
First lesson is that understanding the voters is essential to winning elections. Second, understanding which section of the population to pay attention to matters: “likely voters.” Third, the distinction between the political and media elites on the one hand, and the mainstream public on the other. The two groups see the world differently.
Those lessons need to be cautiously interpreted in the case of India. There are significant differences between India and the US. First, the US has a 2-party system, and most people identify with one or the other. There are independents of course but at the time of voting, these have to choose one or the other. The choice is between Tweedledum and Tweedledee mostly but still there are only two of them. There is some fracturing of votes to green party or libertarian party candidates but those are mostly marginal. In India, we have a large degree of fracturing and therefore the dynamics are different.
Second, the US is a lot more homogeneous than India. Though there are regional differences in the US, people are really not linguistically divided or divided along “caste” lines. There are regional special interests but they are restricted to state legislator elections of assemblymen and state senators. During federal level elections — presidential and senators — the people choose candidates based on national interest policies.
In India, all interests are regional interests. The people vote for MPs and not for governors or chief ministers or for prime ministers. People vote for either the parties (and hence the importance of getting a ticket from a locally successful party) or for some local MP.
Third, the US has a greater degree of participation in the democratic process. Based on the fact that a larger percentage of Indians vote in the general elections than the percentage of Americans vote in their elections, one can be misled into believing that Indians are somehow more into the democratic process. The truth may be different.
Indians vote and then forget about it. But Americans get more into the process — both the width and depth of the process. The US voters participate more actively in all levels of the institutional structure of governance: the ward, the city, the county, the state, and the union. Their elections are regular and predictable — first Tuesday of November. They go to town hall meetings, they invite the local legislators to come address them in local events, they write to their senators and representatives, they petition others to support or oppose specific policies.
Fourth, in the US, the executive and the legislative branches of the government is clearly demarcated and distinct. In India, there is no distinction. This has the effect in the US of weakening the power of the executive and keeping it in check. As a consequence, the power balance between the government and the people is more in favor of the people (than is the case in India.)
As an aside I should note that this distinction between the US and India is historically conditioned. The US had a revolution that freed it from British domination. They fought the British and replaced the rules that the British had made for the US with rules that the Americans made. The revolution was first and foremost a change of the rules of the game. It was not about replacing people but about replacing the institutions. The rules prior to independence gave more powers to the government (British) and less to the people; the rules after the revolution put the people in power.
Contrast that with India’s story. There was no revolution in India. The British left but the rules remained the same. Before independence, the power was with the government (British) and after independence, the power continued to be with the government (nominally Indian). The institutions remained and only the people changed. Nehru took over as the imperial ruler of India from the British. As he himself noted so proudly, he was the “last Britisher to rule India.” Imperial rule often involves a family succession. His daughter was next in the imperial rule line. Then came her son. Then the son’s wife, who is the “first Italian to rule India.” Next will be the son of the Italian who rules India.
India continues to be under imperial rule of foreigners. It is no longer a British colony but it is still a colony nonetheless.
The government still holds all the major cards, and therefore the intense struggle to get into the government. Once you get into the government, not only do you get to make the rules in your favor, and so decide what is going to be done, but you also get to decide how it is going to be done. This is due to the previously noted fact there is no distinction between the legislative and executive functions of the government in India.
Now back to the main theme. Important distinctions arise from the difference in the power balance between the people and the government in India as compared to the US. For instance, Indians have a paternalistic relationship with the government. They take orders from the government and expect to be given stuff in return for their obedience. Government is the mai-baap. In principal-agent terms, the government is the principal and the citizens are the agents. This is the socialistic model. The government commands and the people dutifully obey.
In contradistinction to that, in the US, the government is the agent of the people and the people are the principal. The people command and the government obeys. The congress makes the rules and the executive (the governor and his staff, at the state level; the president and his staff, at the federal level) obeys. People control the congress and the congress controls the executive. So the executives have to take their case to the people, so that the people can decide and tell congress what they wish, and then the congress tells what the executive has to get done. The executives have control over how to get things done, not what things need doing.
The bottom line is that Indian democracy is about the citizens choosing who they will obey, while American democracy is about the people choosing who they will employ to carry out the wishes of the people. In the former case, it is servants choosing their masters, and in the latter case, masters choosing their servants.
Let me put it another way. The rules governing India were made by the British, for the British, and of the British. The British left and those who took over the role of masters found the rules to be very convenient since they were the new masters. The British overlords have been replaced by other overlords, and the sad fact is that not all of these overlords are even Indian.
If my analysis is correct, then it means for India to have a more democratic system, there has to be a fundamental change in the rules of the game. That is unlikely to ever happen because it requires a revolution — which in our case we have not a snowball’s chance in hell.
Since we are forced to play under rules that tilt the playing field in favor of the government, our strategy has to be quite different from those that Americans use.
Our challenge is to figure out that strategy.