Distinguishing American and Indian Democracy

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.

20 thoughts on “Distinguishing American and Indian Democracy

  1. meDilbert Sunday August 22, 2010 / 5:10 am

    That strategy is to bring Narendra Modi to be PM with Majority. At least my only hope.


    • Muhammad Hassaan Ansari Tuesday February 11, 2014 / 7:23 pm

      What will happen to the muslims then ?


      • Atanu_Dey Tuesday February 11, 2014 / 7:34 pm

        Don’t you think that you should at least keep abreast of the news? I assume you do read. Or do you get all your information from some madrassa or mosque?

        When was the last episode of rioting in Gujarat? 2002. Under Modi, there were no riots since 2002. So WTF do you get the impression that Muslims will have a problem?

        The fact is Muslims are always pleading victimhood — everywhere under all circumstances. Regardless of the situation, they are always victims. They can start riots and go on rampage but they are the victims.

        Enough already. Stand up and take some responsibility, for fuck sake.


  2. raj Sunday August 22, 2010 / 6:15 am

    “During federal level elections — presidential and senators — the people choose candidates based on national interest policies.In India, all interests are regional interests.”
    They elect senators, we elect MPs. How is the the system at fault here? The system is not preventing the public from putting national priorities first. Even in US, I’ve never seen a senator elected who did something good for the country that was bad for his constituency. Farming state senators go after farm subsidies, defense industry concentrated senators go after defense spending etc.,

    I would think voting for a party based on its ideas would be a better thing than a personality cult that you keep mentioning often. I’m not sure why you say that the executive and legislative branches are not distinct in India.

    Frankly, the systems are quite the same. Almost all the problems that you attribute to the system are the differences between an enlightened public and a not so one. We have democratically chosen to keep people who want to keep a bigger corrupt government, as did the americans who chose to keep slavery and segregation for a while. I don’t see how we would not do the same mistake tomorrow even if we were to magically replace our system with the US one.


  3. larissa Sunday August 22, 2010 / 9:55 am

    At least the instabilities have caused the American public to come up with a tea party movement: this kind of thing is not possible in India, as it does not have a thinking public or people who care about anything more than square feet that consists of their house! There are some thinking, intelligent people in India, but it does not amount to anything unless they gang together and demand change, and move beyond talking which Hindus are great at! But even these people have issues. I remember the case with Kashmiri Pandits. They had dozens of groups to represent their interests: so if on a small scale they cannot agree, what happens on a national scale? But are sheep really worth fighting for is the question every intelligent Indian should ask. Don’t they deserve to be gobbled up as sheep? When you hear the press call Rahul Gandhi “as the heir apparent” without even seeing anything wrong with their language, you just hang your head in shame and wonder if there is hope for any of these sheep who will be soon eaten up by the wolves at home and the wolves outside!


  4. TiredProf Sunday August 22, 2010 / 10:54 am

    While there is no question that India is in slow-motion collapse, Atanu’s wide-eyed romanticism with the USA’s political system is surprising.

    “America has always had a ruling class, and it has always bullshitted the world that it doesn’t. But at least the ruling class of the past was interesting and varied, because diverse sorts of Americans were getting rich.”



  5. SKy Sunday August 22, 2010 / 4:23 pm

    I beg to differ, albeit slightly. US Congressmen cannot write hugely complicated laws. Many won’t even bother to read them. The bills are written, amended and discussed by lobbyists. An elected representative cannot be expected to wear multiple hats and be experts on WTO, healthcare reform or Wall Street.

    Any US Treaty or bill will be written by lawyers and lobbyists, with those lawyers being on the payroll of corporations. The support for a bill is mostly determined by which special interest groups support it and which politicians they are making campaign contributions to. The general public does not have lobbyists, although pressure groups do exist. But their power is very limited. Look at the money spent by the banking and health insurance lobbyists and you’d get an idea of how the democracy has evolved in serving the interests of a few, privileged groups versus the general public.
    Newt Gingrich often said that election success is now hugely dependent on money power. Money gives you the power to get a battalion of volunteers, the power to run ad campaigns and thereby influence public opinion. That’s why fundraising is so important in US elections, inevitably causing representatives to bend before corporate interests. That’s why we had quite weak reforms.
    John Stewart has an interesting take on midterm elections – http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/mon-november-6-2006/daily-show-rock—-mid-term-elections

    However, it’s even worse in India.
    The BIG difference between US and India is that while the former has a transparent system, the Indian corporate – legislator nexus is super opaque. There’s never a discussion of what or how much did each corporate house pays to politicians. Our legislative process is extremely opaque. No one does a threadbare analysis of every item in the bills and which interest group might be behind it. The media is hopelessly stupid. And politicians rarely care about all of this because eventually votes will be bought and the chattering class’s impact on any election is negligible.

    But the aspect of our “democracy” that hurts me the most is this … It’s OK that our leaders could not provide us with good education, healthcare, running water, electricity or security.

    How can this improve?
    Why doesn’t MMS’s grandson study in a government school? Can’t he get even find a single government primary school to be good enough for this purpose? What about the rest of our legislators? Why isn’t Laloo’s son studying in a government school in Patna?
    Why doesn’t a top UP politician ever get a check up done at a government primary health care facility, in say Muzaffarnagar or Gorakhpur?
    Why don’t our politicians get enrolled in the long waiting queue at AIIMS? Why the VIP shortcut to everything?

    These are fundamental questions which I haven’t ever seen being raised by our media.

    Well, building schools, providing electricity, etc costs money. We can always debate on the public versus private approach to doing things.
    But one that doesn’t cost a dime and that could have been given to all our citizens is a life of dignity. There’s nothing an ordinary person can do if member of the ruling elite abuses him. The police (i.e. if it exists) won’t register an FIR. The courts won’t deliver justice in time. That’s what differentiates India from US.

    As an ordinary citizen, it’s useless to even imagine clearing the rot. Maybe after 30 years, when the middle class might be a too powerful a force to ignore.


  6. TiredProf Monday August 23, 2010 / 3:39 am

    @SKy — if you think US politics-capital nexus is transparent, watch Syriana or Michael Clayton. “Maybe after 30 years, when the middle class might be a too powerful a force to ignore.” — no, long before 30 years, the middle class will be destroyed. They do not have the claim to resources to survive in the face of galloping inflation, and they do not have the social cohesion of the destitute.


  7. Amit S Monday August 23, 2010 / 8:29 pm

    US system may be better in certain respects but not in all. The US president has way too much power, almost imperialistic. He/She is a “ruler” who can also nominate Supreme Court judges, for instance. Another example is that conducting elections in the US falls under the states. So much for impartiality.

    Contrast that with India, where Supreme Court is independent and acts as a check on the legislature/executive. Also, the Election Commission is an independent body, which seems largely impartial.

    The attitude of people to treat sarkaar as mai-baap is duly noted. However, that may be fast changing, at least in Maoist/Insurgency hit areas (just kidding).

    Indian system is not all that bad on paper. We need people who will respect and strengthen institutions that make sense, and modify those that don’t. Not everything is bad in India.


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  9. Anil Zuitshi Sunday September 5, 2010 / 6:53 am

    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.


  10. rajan Thursday March 10, 2011 / 11:45 pm

    Indian democracy is the most alive and vibrant democracy and it has the tendency to correct itself. It is not the copy of the british or the american democracy, its democracy of its own style and power. It is the most hetrogeneous democratic setup present in the world. The outcome of the election in India shows the real mind of the people. so if the electorate gets splitted then there is a option to form alliance of parties to form the government, in this there will be lot of push and pull between the parties, but the alliance should work to form the govenment, this is the true democracy.

    In India anyone can stand in election without joining any party at any point of time or create their own party and contest elections Its only up to the people to decide and not like amercia where people has to choose between either one of the party and come up in the party. In India the executive is also powerful except there are vast corruption, which if properly rectified will make india the most live and true democracy in the world.

    lastly, any democracy is the way the people want its government to be and in India that’s happening very well.


  11. Avik Friday July 29, 2011 / 12:23 pm

    Thanks Atanu,
    It is overall a real nice article. I appreciate your hard efforts on it.
    I really liked the part “.. after independence, the power continued to be with the government (nominally Indian). The… “. “(nominally Indian)” part 🙂

    To Amit S:
    Also in India, The President of India appoints the Chief Justice of Supreme court as per the following procedure.

    1. The Government of India proposes the name of the most senior Judge of the Supreme Court of India, for the Post of Chief Justice of India, to the President of India.

    2. The President of India gives approval to this name , after consultation with the other Judges of the Supreme court and the Judges of State High Courts, as the President may think necessary.


  12. Kynsai Wednesday January 25, 2012 / 10:09 pm

    As for me from the North Eastern part of India (Shillong)I do really appreciated and agreed your views on the American Federal System rather our Indian semi-federal system.
    But for this to materialize,we should first erase the doubt and fear on Communal and regional lines.


  13. randheer Tuesday May 1, 2012 / 1:05 am

    The article by atanu seems to be very much salubrious towards american system.
    Infact india is the world’s largest democratic nation with nearly 160 active political parties.
    I would like to bring to your notice that american constitution is formed 200 years ago based on the circumstances and conditions prevailing in those times. and it is the most rigid constitution in the world. even still it withstood the test of time with a meagre 12 amendments in it’s 200 years of inception. so here you need to know that american congress do not have power to amend the constitution.

    The most important aspect is that how this constitution could able to incorporate the most modern laws being made by the american congress??

    The most emphatic answer is the federal court of united states of america which has the power of judicial interpretation enlraged the meanning of every word in the constitution by its judicial decisions and it is the only country in the world where the number of case laws in constitutionl law is more than any other country.

    There is an ombudsmen called F.B.I. which is independant from executive and legislature and it has power even to take president under it’s control i they have prima facie but it is under the control of judiciary.

    When it comes to india’n constitution we had 111 amendments in it’s 62 years of inception but supreme court of india with it’s power of judicial interpretations it had given wider meanning to various provisions within the constitution beyond changing the original textual meanning of it. I can say that constitution was being changed daily by the supreme court in various constitutional cases. and article 141 of indian constitution says that what ever declared by the supreme court is a law.


  14. Prashanth Bharadwaj Friday July 13, 2012 / 1:17 am

    The Bottom line for this problem as the writter rightly presses is that the lack of a successfull revolution in India throught our History. In contrast in USA the ppl and their freedom fighters showed the British that the land (USA) belongs to its own ppl and its their birth right to choose a desired leader who must be a born American. It was the demand of the ppl and was not a request.
    But in India we never fought, We never demanded any thing, We where very helpfull in digging our own graves and most importantly in the NAME OF AHIMSHA We never demanded wat we want we wer only requesting or even begging for our needs and our rights that till date it is continued. One portion of ppl now are still begging and other portion of ppl have used to it and helpless. Even now the only way for this to change permanently is we must succesfully do a revolution that we failed to do in the past. Thats da only serious way to bring the change and to make the Govt really work for the ppl, for the nation otherwise they will only be just talking endlessly and do wat they wanted to do….


  15. rajat singh Tuesday August 19, 2014 / 11:48 pm

    nice article bro…….hope indians can understand and stop boasting about their false history over other country people


  16. Nishant Saturday October 3, 2015 / 5:51 am

    At some point you are mixing two things. It it correct to say that Indian executive got more control to choose what to do and how to do it but it does not mean they can do anything. The legislators has to still pass the bill, which is the same as America. Legislators chosen by the people has the sole right to ask for what needs to be done. This does not make them master. This is true for both America and India.
    The only thing which you are arguing is that since our executive got more power it is bad. How about a situation where legislative has asked for something and executive has not delivered it because “its method” is not in sync with what has been asked. It works both ways. Both system has pros and cons.
    The real issue in India is that citizens are not empowered. They lack education. Their prime concern is still survival. Now its a different question as why even after 70 yrs of independence we are fighting for basic necessity? Here I agree with you that its because of the dynastic rule and their intentional policies of keeping mass un-education and in poverty. The direct correlation can be found in population density to poverty/illiteracy. e.g. Bihar and Eastern UP.


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