It is understandable that all human institutions have their flaws being as they are ultimately the creations of fallible creatures such as ourselves. The ideas that institutions are based upon in their ideal conception may be flawless but their implementation in the real world — what I characterize as a “second best” world — cannot be perfect. The institution of democracy as actually implemented anywhere has imperfections, and in some cases where the necessary preconditions for its implementation are not met, it has serious implications.
In the case of India, the damage caused by a seriously flawed implementation of democracy is horrifying: vile, ignorant, mendacious, and venal political leaders; widespread poverty, illiteracy, corruption, malnourished children, filthy environment, over population, wasted human resources, etc. We have to work to fix the entire set of problems. But on this journey to where we should be, as in all journeys, we have to begin where we are now, rather than from some ideal place. Hence we have to ask ourselves what is it that we can do given the present implementation of democracy to make a positive change.
Perhaps we can make some fundamental changes in how democracy is implemented. Perhaps those changes will make it harder for vile, incompetent, criminal people to achieve political power.
Changes Not Possible
In my previous post, I had listed three such changes, which I repeat here for reference:
- Have a high barrier to entry on who can contest elections. Make the minimum requirement so stringent that only highly qualified people, who have demonstrated professional excellence, personal integrity, deep commitment to the overall development of India, etc., can be candidates for political posts.
- Have a high barrier to qualify as a voter. Make it a requirement that only those who are high-school graduates, have passed a test that tests for at least a basic understanding of the political process, the challenges the country faces, the need for public honesty and integrity, etc., can vote.
- Have high barriers both to who can be contest elections and who can vote. That is, implement points (1) and (2) above.
Then I noted that it is unrealistic that these changes can be made. I wrote, “These reforms will strengthen democracy by shifting the power away from politicians and towards the people. Which is why the political parties will not allow these changes.”
(A few readers, unfortunately, missed the part I highlighted above and commented that they disagreed with me because in their opinion, these cannot be done. Huh?)
United Voters of India
In the “United Voters of India” (UVI) proposal, the central idea is to use the current system to fix the system. We know that there are powerful vested interests and interest groups. We know that political parties use these groups as “vote banks” and pander to them because it helps them (the political parties) to remain in power and continue to amass wealth at the cost of the larger interests of the nation.
We know that the politicians cynically divide the country along religion, caste, and linguistic lines. This fractures the population into very small groups and allows the political parties to win seats with only a small minority of votes in their favor.
Winning with Minority of the Votes
Just as an example, suppose the entire population of 100 is partitioned into five groups of size 20 each. One of the groups, say group A, votes en bloc, and all members of the group diligently exercise their voting right. Voting en bloc here means that all votes go to one candidate or party. Voters of groups B, C, D & E scatter their votes across various parties and not all of the members of these groups actually vote. Say only half of them vote.
Imagine that there are two political parties (X and Y) contesting elections. From groups B, C, D and E, half the people vote. So each party gets equal number of votes from them: 20 votes for each. Group A casts the deciding block of votes: 20 votes. The winning party wins with 40 votes of the 100 possible votes.
Note that if you increase the fragmentation, and/or the number of contesting parties, then the winner can win with an even smaller minority of votes cast in its favor.
Under this scenario, it makes sense for political parties to cater to the whims and fancies of group A. As some cynic noted, “robbing Peter to pay Paul will always ensure Paul’s support.” When it forms a government, a political party always has the opportunity to not only make out like a bandit but also has the ability to tax the population and use the proceeds to give handouts to its favored voting group.
The simple model above is not too far from the truth. Look around and note that it is a strategy used very profitably (and I use the word deliberately) for the Congress party. They divide the country, and blatantly favor one group over others.
Let’s take a page out of the Congress strategy book.
I am reasonably certain that the educated, thoughtful, hardworking, broadminded and forward-looking must constitute a sizable segment of the Indian population. Perhaps a minority but surely their numbers are not insignificant. What if they were a “voting block” or a “vote bank”? What if they all voted and further, they voted en bloc?
The Good Voter Group
Let’s consider that for a bit. Suppose the hardworking, educated, urban, middle-class and liberal voters constitute 25 percent of the Indian population. Imagine that some of them are sympathetic to the “Pretty Good Principles” (PGP) which basically says that the government should stick to what only it can do, that government should not discriminate among the citizens, that people should be free from coercion, that laws should be minimal and people should be treated fairly. Let’s say that 10 percent of the voting population fits the bill.
I believe I am being conservative in my estimate that 10 percent of the population is what I would call “PGP voters” but your estimate may be different. But let’s go with this for the sake of the argument.
Now suppose somehow the 10 percent of the population were to vote consistently and cohesively. And they made it clear that they will vote for the candidate or the party that comes closest to the PGP.
What this will do is, first, they will be make a difference at the margin. A competent candidate who would otherwise have lost because he or she does not belong to the correct politically powerful group may win if he or she got the support of the PGP voters. Of course not all candidates supported by the PGP voters will necessarily win. They will be effective only in cases the win/lose margin is smaller than the number of PGP voters.
Difference on the Margin
I don’t have the numbers handy, but I do believe that a significant number of Lok Sabha (the Lower House of the Indian parliament) seats are won with margins of around 25,000 votes. Therefore even small block votes of twenty or thirty thousand votes can swing LS elections on the margin. The same goes for state assembly and corporation elections.
The second effect it would have is to increase the demand for “clean candidates.” Supply responds to demand. With time, political parties will not be able to ignore the PGP voters if the group is significant in size.
Our goal is therefore to become the group A of the illustration above: the group that all political parties want to get the support of. And with time, if we are successful, then the politicians running the country will not be of the type that can only remain in power by robbing Peter to pay Paul.
So here’s the plan. Form an association of voters who agree with the PGP, and take an oath to (a) vote, and (b) vote for the candidate that the association agrees upon. We call this association “United Voters of India”.
The UVI FAQ
F1: Is UVI a political party?
Answer: It is not a political party. It is an association of voters. You can think of it as a cooperative. Coops gain bargaining power by aggregating their demand.
F2: Is it apolitical?
Answer: No, it is not apolitical. It cannot be apolitical since it is involved in a political process to change the politics of India.
F3: So it favors a particular party? Will people who belong to some political party be able to become members of UVI?
Answer: No, it is agnostic about which political party it supports. It is non-partisan but not apolitical. Any candidate that most closely matches the “Pretty Good Principles” will get UVI’s support.
Yes, even people with political affiliations can join UVI. They however will have to stick to their vow of voting for the candidate that UVI recommends.
F4: Why would anyone want to join UVI and thus lose their ability to exercise free choice? That makes UVI non-democratic.
Answer: UVI actually uses a democratic method of deciding whom to support in any election. The members of the UVI have a “primary” election in which every member votes. The winner of this primary is naturally a candidate who most closely fits the PGP bill. Only after that is the entire UVI group required to vote for the candidate.
This is no different than what happens in the actual election. We all agree to be governed by the government which wins an election — even if we did not vote or we did vote but for the opposition.
F5: Actually, there may not be all that many people who are sincere, educated, committed to doing something to fix the rot in the system. What makes you think it is going to work?
Answer: I don’t know for sure how many good people are out there who don’t vote but could make a difference if they did vote as a block. I can only hope and pray that there are enough. Because the alternative is too horrible to contemplate.
I have to do something for a simple reason. What will you say to your son or daughter who asks you 20 years from now,
“So what did you do to try to stop the rot of the system when you knew that the country was going down the tubes? Were you too busy with doing your job? Did you not find it intolerable to see the corruption and the filth? Did you not see that the country you bequeathed to me has become a hell-hole? Did you even try to do something or did you take the easy way out by saying there’s nothing you can do?
F6: Yeah but, you know that many educated urban people don’t vote because they can’t. To vote, you have to be in your home town. Jobs and schools take people away from home. How would you deal with that?
Answer: That rule has to change. But that rule is very convenient for the present politicians: they don’t have much to worry about the urban educated types. So they will not change it. The only way for us to change those types of rules is to gradually replace the present set of elected leaders with those who don’t depend on the votes of other vote blocks.
I will continue this thread in days to come. I hope you will join your local UVI chapter and shape India’s destiny.
(1) See this post, “Overtaking China” from 2003 for a bit more on democracy and second best world.
And what about democracy? The virtues of democracy are notably absent in practise while theory never seems to lack it. Envisioning democracy in an environment of full information, morally and intellectually powerful leaders, full literacy, an empowered population, etc, immediately compels one to the position that democracy is the best way to order society. Democracy in all levels of society is certainly the first best recommendation in a first best world.
But if you care to note, it is not a first best world. The system has too many distortions. For instance, half the people are illiterate; only single-digit percentages are somewhat educated; information gaps you could pass an oil-tanker through exist; leaders whose moral fibre is as weak as their feeble intellects stand out; politicians whose only compelling interest appears to be personal aggrandizement and enrichment are the only choices one faces during elections. It is definitely a second best world.
It has always been a second best world. Recognizing that, we must defend against advocating first best solutions. Democracy as it exists in reality in India is a mill-stone that has kept India poor. No where in the world has democracy worked at a stage of development that India is in. Democracy has not even been tried in any country with India’s characteristics.
 Robert Heinlein wrote:
‘Bread and Circuses’ is the cancer of democracy, the fatal disease for which there is no cure. Democracy often works beautifully at first. But once a state extends the franchise to every warm body, be he producer or parasite, that day marks the beginning of the end of the state. For when the plebs discover that they can vote themselves bread and circuses without limit and that the productive members of the body politic cannot stop them, they will do so, until the state bleeds to death, or in its weakened condition the state succumbs to an invader—the barbarians enter Rome.”