I have had the privilege of calling both India and the US home, and have had the opportunity of observing both from near as well as from afar. I am not an impartial observer because I am too emotionally invested in both countries. However precisely because I care for both countries that I bother to observe them so carefully and criticize them so relentlessly. The words of an old song express my feelings well: “I love you too much to ever start liking you // So don’t expect me to be your friend.” I feel pity, sorrow, anger, fear and loathing for what they have done (and are doing) to India.
India is often compared favorably with the US by noting that India too, like the US, is a democracy. I have concluded that the resemblance is only superficial and deep down, the countries are poles apart. I am convinced of this analytically of course but casual observation itself should be enough to persuade anyone of this. Just notice how different they are: one is rich, powerful, a global power; the other is desperately poor, powerless even against poorer smaller tinpot nations in its own neighborhood, a weakling in global affairs.
To account for the stark differences, there have to be fundamental distinctions between the US and India. At their very core, they have to be different. That’s worth examining for a bit.
The foremost difference I note relates to government. The people of both countries choose their government in elections — which is a defining feature of democracies. But in the one they choose who is to rule over the people, while in the other they choose who is to be entrusted with the administration of those collective tasks that require coordination at the local, state or national levels.
This fact is revealed in the very vocabulary we unconsciously use. In the US, they say the “Bush administration” or the “Clinton administration”; in India, it is the “Congress rule” or the “BJP rule.”
Administration and rule are different functions. In the former, the government is a means employed by the people to achieve goals that are essentially set by the people. In principal-agent terms, the people are the principal and the government is merely their agent. In this scheme, the people invest the government with certain limited powers to achieve specific goals. The government is like the driver who gets to drive the car but where the car is going is decided by the owner of the car. The driver is only nominally in charge of the car but the person really in control of the car isn’t the driver.
In contrast to the “administration” type of government, in India we have the “rule” type of government. The government rules over the people. The people are restricted by the government to only specific tasks. The people obey what the government orders. While it’s true that people choose the government but the choice they have is the choice of a slave about whom to serve, not the choice of being the master. The reason for this is not hard to fathom. It is historical.
India was a colony of the British. It was the “British Raj.” The British were the rulers then, the Indians were subjects. The British departed but the entire framework they had created to rule over the subjects was left intact. No changes were made because they were not required. They were not required because the objective of the government remained the same: to rule over the subjects (now euphemistically called ‘citizens’) through command and control. The new rulers were people of darker complexion than the previous ones but from an operational point of view, skin color has never made much of a difference. The executioner’s ax does it job regardless whether it is wielded by a white or a brown person.
Post 1947, India came under what I call “British Raj 2.0.” It is also known as the “license permit quota control raj.” Nehru boasted (and rightfully so) that he was the last Englishman to rule India. I am not making this up. I am not that imaginative.
We should note in passing that the Americans fought and won a war of independence from the British. The first thing they did was to dismantle the old structure and put in an entirely new structure of government. The government was entrusted with a limited set of tasks and given a limited amount of power. The people restrained the government. Read the Bill of Rights, as the first 10 amendments to the US constitution is called. The first five words of the First Amendment sets the tone: “Congress shall make no law …” Those words reveal who the owner is and who is the driver of the car.
Compare that to the First Amendment to the Indian Constitution. It places restrictions on citizens (or should I say subjects.) It was Nehru who brought in that amendment — as noted previously the last Englishman to rule India.
The idea that a government rules over the country is deeply ingrained in Indians. It is part of the worldview of almost all Indians. Take, for example, this tweet:
To transform India, the rulers have to change. But to change the rulers, voters have to change their minds. But…. twitter.com/rubenmasc/stat…
— Utsav Mitra (@UtsavMitra) May 1, 2013
I don’t mean to pick on Utsav. I know him. He’s a decent, intelligent, nationalistic person dedicated to helping bring about positive change in India. But note how even he — a highly educated, worldly wise, global traveler — unconsciously refers to politicians as “the rulers” rather than people who serve the public’s interests.
Transforming India will have to begin by changing how we think about what the role of the government is, what the essential attribute of a free country is. At the risk of being labelled a lunatic, let me repeat once again that I don’t believe that India is free. Indians lack many things but the most important thing they lack is freedom.
If India truly ever becomes free, I am positive that the transformation of India will be as automatic as all development is. Development, whether it be of a person or a collective, cannot be wished. It is always a consequence of being free.
In the title of this post, I claimed that democracy is not all that India is. So I will get to that point now.
I have always had a particular fondness for vocabulary. That’s so because I like ideas and the only way to express ideas (and indeed to construct ideas in one’s head) is to know vocabulary. My one piece of advice I unfailingly give to kids is learn vocabulary. English is so powerful because it has a huge vocabulary. It just keeps acquiring words.
I suppose I learned the word “democracy” sometime during my middle-school days. Its meaning I must have learned during college days. It took many more years for me to understand the concept in its various instantiation across the world. All democracies are not created equal is the realization that I arrived at when I began to compare my two homelands.
A few years ago I learned the word “kakistocracy.” I immediately understood that India was a kakistocracy — rule by the least principled and the most corrupt. Unless you have been living under a rock for the last 50 years, I don’t have to go into the details of why that is true.
Here are some new words that I am slowly adding to my vocabulary. All the quoted definitions below are from the Wikipedia.
Aristocracy: “government by the best people.” India is definitely not an aristocracy.
Geniocracy: “Rule by the intelligent; a system of governance where creativity, innovation, intelligence and wisdom are required for those who wish to govern.” Not India.
Kratocracy: “Rule by the strong; a system of governance where those strong enough to seize power through physical force, social maneuvering or political cunning.” Could be true about India to some extent. Goonda raj, we call it.
Meritocracy: “Rule by the meritorious; a system of governance where groups are selected on the basis of people’s ability, knowledge in a given area, and contributions to society.” Nope, not India. Merit gets selected out.
Timocracy: “Rule by honor; a system of governance ruled by honorable citizens and property owners. Socrates defines a timocracy as a government ruled by people who love honor and are selected according to the degree of honor they hold in society … European-feudalism and post-Revolutionary America are historical examples of this type; …” No, India is not a timocracy.
Autocracy: “Rule by one individual, whose decisions are subject to neither external legal restraints nor regularized mechanisms of popular control (except perhaps for implicit threat). Autocrat needs servants while despot needs slaves.” India can be classified as an autocracy if you consider one lady and her blue-turbaned chaprasi (peon, servant).
Despotism: “Rule by a single entity with absolute power. That entity may be an individual, as in an autocracy, or it may be a group, as in an oligarchy. The word despotism means to “rule in the fashion of a despot” and does not necessarily require a single, or individual, “despot”. Despot needs slaves while Autocrat needs servants.” Could be. Same reason as before.
Nepotocracy: “Rule by nephews; favoritism granted to relatives regardless of merit; a system of governance in which importance is given to the relatives of those already in power, like a nephew (where the word comes from). In such governments even if the relatives aren’t qualified they are given positions of authority just because they know someone who already has authority. ” I think we can call India a nepotocracy.
Kakistocracy: “Rule by the stupid; a system of governance where the worst or least-qualified citizens govern or dictate policies.” If Pappu gets to rule, the first bit of this definition will apply to India with renewed force.
Kleptocracy: “Rule by thieves; a system of governance where its officials and the ruling class in general pursue personal wealth and political power at the expense of the wider population. In strict terms kleptocracy is not a form of government but a characteristic of a government engaged in such behavior.” India has to the biggest kleptocracy the world has ever seen. The blue-turban has outdone himself.
Phobiocracy: “Rule by fear and hate; a system of governance where the basic organizing principles is the use of fear mongering to keep those being ruled in line…” Now this one for sure applied to India. The British started the divide the population and make each constituent element fear and hate the other. The UPA has perfected it.
So, there you have it. India is a democracy, but that’s not all that it is.
Be well, do good work and keep in touch.
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PS: Utsav, I will buy you a beer the next time you are in my neck of the woods for having partially motivated this post. Thanks.