A bit on Democracy in India

Democracy is an institution. It’s a human creation. It is not immaculately conceived (unlike the mother of the Christian god.[1]) Putting it up on a pedestal and worshiping it is not dignified. Worse still, it is downright dangerous. The havoc arising out of the mindless, unquestioned, unexamined insistence that things are made better simply by making choices based on a democratic process is plain to see. It’s time we took a frank look at some of those.

There are instances where an appropriately created democratic process can lead to outcomes that are popularly acceptable, and sometimes these are even good. (Just because something is popularly acceptable does not make it automatically good.) However, democracy is not a “one-size-fits-all” dress appropriate for all occasions. It has to be carefully tailored to suit local conditions. Care has to be exercised. That old cautionary rule of “measure twice, cut once” has to be followed when dressing up something in democracy since the cloth is expensive and we have only a limited quantity.

Democracy has its failures. All institutions have failures. They are imperfect creations of imperfect beings. Take markets, for example. An absolutely astonishing mechanism for facilitating trade. That’s important because trade is at the bottom of what humans do, and which makes all of us better off. But however marvelous the idea of markets is, actual markets have failures. Ideal markets grind out the best possible outcome. Real markets deviate and churn out not so perfect results. When certain conditions for the working of perfect markets are not met, markets fail.

Market failures are not rare. Indeed they are the norm. Very bright people have worked long and hard at studying them to find ways to fix market failures thus making them function just that much better. The institution of markets is too precious for it to be discarded because they have failures. We have to keep using markets because the alternatives are worse. But there is a constant struggle to fix the failures. The first things of course is the recognition that markets fail.

Democracy fails too. You don’t have to look too far to see its obvious failures. Indian political leaders are elected democratically. Can anyone seriously claim that they are in any sense good? They are generally the dregs of society. Surely they are not the best that society has to offer. There are people who are more moral, more competent, more intelligent, and more sincere than the average political leader. It is rare to the point of non-existent to find truly visionary, honest, and hard-working people in the whole lot.

If that’s the best that democracy can do, then democracy as an institution is a total failure. But putting the blame on the idea of democracy is wrong. What we have to do is to correct for the failures of democracy. It’s not that the idea is flawed but rather the way it is implemented that is wrong. We have to seriously examine why democracy fails so consistently in India and do something about it.

The claim that democracy has failed in India is easy to illustrate. Here’s an example. “Kerala man accused of chopping hand wins poll,” says a news item of Oct 28th. The man is an accused, lodged in jail, more than likely guilty of a heinous crime — and wins an election. I can confidently assert that had I contested that election, I would have lost to that man. I am not a paragon of virtue but it is hard to imagine that I am less than a man who is suspected of being a viciously violent person.

I don’t know you, dear reader, but I can bet my bottom dollar that you are not as ethically challenged as that minister of telecommunications accused of a spectrum scam that has probably cost the country billions of dollars. I bet that you have more integrity than the prime minister who shields corrupt politicians from being brought to justice. I wager that you are not so greedy as to siphon off thousands of millions from funds allocated for organizing a games event. Yet you, and thousands like you, don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of ever being elected to any political office. Indeed it is your scruples, your sense of decency, your moral values, your integrity and intelligence which will be your handicap in getting you to any political office.

If the good and the competent fail to win in a democracy while the seriously depraved do so routinely, it is time to take a good hard look at how inadequately the idea of democracy has been implemented in India.

My report card on democracy in India is a solid F. This must change. I want us to consider how we can address democracy failures. In a previous post on an initiative we call “United Voters of India,” I explored some avenues.

I considered three scenarios. One was to raise the bar on who can contest in elections; another was to raise the bar on who could vote; and the third was a combination of the two. I rejected all these on grounds that they required changes in the rules of the game. These changes will not happen since the status quo is totally acceptable to the rulers and the rule-makers. The system allows the corrupt to flourish and they have no incentive to change the system to their disadvantage.

The change has to come from a section of the population that has the capacity to appreciate the need for change and the ability to organize themselves into a voting block. Urban educated voters who understand that good policies are necessary for good outcomes could be a powerful force to change the system from within. These are productive people who have the capacity for long-term thinking, and have an incentive — leaving a better society for their children — to change the system. They understand that policies that merely redistribute resources from the productive to the unproductive, and that do nothing to increase production, are doomed to increase poverty in society.

Changing the rules of the game while playing by the current set of rules is an uncertain proposition. But that’s the only avenue open to those of us who are not inclined to mindless violence. I proposed UVI as a mechanism that could possibly change the outcomes of elections at the margin by forcing political parties to address the concerns of voters who want government to be effective, efficient and clean. The idea is that over a few election cycles, UVI will have helped a sufficient number of honest and competent people get elected, and they in turn will help clean the system from the top.

UVI is about using the currently flawed democratic setup to fix its failures. It is a bootstrap process, much like the one that gets the operating system up and running on your computers.

Not surprisingly, the outlines of my proposal did not meet with universal acceptance. Anshuman Goenka, for example, wrote a comment (which I reproduce below, for convenience.)

Not sure whether I understand the intent (not feasibility) clearly of what you have said. You are suggesting that we roll back democracy, and limit it to “highly qualified people.” What does that mean – matriculates, graduates, PhDs? Who decides?

Besides the ethical dilemma this poses, there is also the slight problem of historical precedent. Going by the case history of the scatter in the Indian legislative bodies, qualifications do not correlate highly to quality of contribution. Remember Natwar Singh? And contrast that with the homespun modesty of Bhairon Singh Shekhawat from the same state. I can think of similar pairs from almost every state of India (Digvijay Singh v Shivraj Chouhan in MP, Veerbhadra Singh v Shanta Prasad in HP — are two that first come to mind; in each case the former was better and formally educated but the latter had, in my view a greater and more positive impact).

Unless of course, you are proposing that decisions about who should vote and who should be a candidate are also decided by the “group” at “suitable levels” – a suggestion that you make later when talking about limiting voting rights of your suggested political platform.

A small bit of history: this is not the first time such a suggestion is made. Almost eighty years back, MA Jinnah suggested that the membership of the Congress be limited to matriculates – a view that was quickly and, in my view, wisely rejected by his highly qualified peer group at the helm of the Congress.

The motley mess of Indian politics, with its warts (corrurption, chaos, nepotism and dynasty) is far superior in my view to what teh limitations on franchise that you propose; which I fervently hope will have only a limited, quasi-academic appeal beyond the readership of this blog!

My responses. No, I am not proposing rolling back democracy. I would like to see the rules of the game changed so that there is quality control in who gets to vote and who gets to contest in elections. But then there are lots of changes I would like to see — which will not ever happen. The rules about who can participate in the democratic process in India are not going to change because of, among other things, what is called the “endowment effect“[2] — once you give people something, you cannot say, “oops, that was a mistake, so give it back to me” and expect them to give it up.

I can argue why it would have been better if India had not had universal adult franchise but I will not do so here.[3] Perhaps at some later time. For now, I focus on the UVI proposal.

Who decides whom should one vote for? I guess the voter decides. In the UVI context, the group collectively decides. Membership to UVI is voluntary but the condition is that the member adhere to the sworn duty of voting, and voting only for the candidate chosen by the association. The members choose whom to vote for through “primary” elections in which all members are eligible to vote — but it is neither compulsory nor mandatory. The only compulsory bit is that the member eventually vote at the real elections for the candidate chosen by the group.

To answer Anshuman, there is no ethical dilemma. UVI does not restrict democracy. Not at all. One chooses to become a member. It’s a club, not a prison. Exit is voluntary and costless. But as long as one is a member, the honor code applies.

Whom would the association choose as the candidate to vote for? The candidate and/or political party that most closely approaches the principles of the association.

UVI is a club with a strictly political objective. Like the Rotary or Lion’s Club, it has rules and bylaws, and rights and duties, and membership conditions and dues. You are free to apply for membership, and any member can exit any time without penalty. The ‘club good‘ [4] that UVI provides is the ability to make one’s vote count for the benefit of society.


[1]. I wish I had a dollar for every Christian I have met who believed that the “immaculate conception” refers to the birth of Jesus. It does not. The immaculate conception refers to the belief that Mary was born without sin, not Jesus.

[2]. Endowment Effect:

‘Thaler (1980) coined the term “endowment effect” to refer to the finding that randomly assigned owners of an object appear to value the object more than randomly assigned non-owners of the object. For instance, in one well-known series of endowment effect experiments, Kahneman, Knetsch and Thaler (1990) found that randomly assigned owners of a mug required significantly more money to part with their possession (around $7) than randomly assigned buyers were willing to pay to acquire it (around $3). Kahneman et al. (1990, 1991) and Tversky and Kahneman (1991) attributed this result to loss aversion: owners’ loss of the mug loomed larger than buyers’ gain of the mug.’
Gal (2006)

‘The endowment effect (Thaler 1980), also known as “status quo bias” (Samuelson and Zeckhauser 1988), is the phenomenon in which most people would demand a considerably higher price for a product that they own than they would be prepared to pay for it (Weber 1993).’
Goldberg and von Nitzsch (1999), page 99

[3]. If I were making the rules, I would have put in a lot of restraints on who can contest in elections. For example, I would make a rule which I call “Family Limits”: if you hold a political office, then your family members cannot hold that office. Which members of your family are debarred depends on the level of the political office. The width and the depth of the debarring increases with the importance of the office.

For instance, if you are a local municipal elected official, your immediate family cannot hold that post after you vacate it; someone else other than your immediate family has to hold it before your immediate family becomes eligible for the post. This is level 1. Width and depth of debarring is 1.

Level 2 corresponds to state assembly. Level 3 to member of parliament, and to state ministers. Level 4 to union ministers. Level 5 to the prime minister. This is not exhaustive, only suggestive.

So level 5 means, the width of debarring is 5. Your immediate family is debarred; so are your first cousins, and cousin’s cousins. Level 5 depth means that your children cannot hold that office; nor any of your grandchildren, all the way 5 levels down.

This is similar to term limits that exist in the US for presidents — two max.

This makes intuitive sense to me but I am aware that others will disagree. So I will spell out the advantages of “Family Limits” in a later post. For now I will mention only two examples. In the US, we would not have had George W Bush. Which means the world would have been a better place now. We have the current disastrous administration thanks to the inept GW. In India, we would not have the specter of the Nehru dynasty haunting India and leading it to an early demise.

But I will go into all this later.

[4]. For an introduction to club goods, see my post on “Kakistocracies, principals and agents“. February 2008.

Author: Atanu Dey


17 thoughts on “A bit on Democracy in India”

  1. As an aside, why is procreation sin?
    christianity is so misogynistic!

    on the other hand veda dharma celebrates this life giving union in the shiv ling!


  2. With all its problems, this system did throw out Lalu from Bihar and has often rewarded incumbents, at least at the state-level with a second chance only when they representatives deliver on the contract. Give me the said telecom minister if this is the price for adult franchise. I will never vote for him or his type, but if the only option is to choose between that and an authoritarian, opaque and self-absorbed elite (which quite frankly is my interpretation of UVI), the choice is not very hard to make.

    You talk about a “quality filter” which remains nebulous, without addressing the issue of both Type I & Type II errors that any such filter may have (remember Natwar Singh was way more educated than Bhairon Singh Shekhawat!).

    I am also not sure whether family limits in public life has a well thought out basis. In Singapore, one family (NOT democaratic) has delivered quality governance over decades. In India’s context, I share your dislike for their privilege and influence, but indeed this democracy was able to put them out of power whenever (in sufficient numbers) it thought it had enough, and the alternative was tolerably credible.

    The bigger vaccuum in my view, is vacuousness of what we have going for an Opposition in India. That is the risk in the UVI idea. Even if the UVI takes an independent stand at every election that is independent of its previous decisions, it may end up with multiple risks. First, it makes choice between two parties at a national-level, does it require of its memmbers to vote for a distinctly less deeserving candidate in a specific constituency from the party it has chosen (assume we agree on criteria, for a moment)? Second, does it propose to replace the secret ballot altogether to adhere to the honour code of this club? Finally, and most importantly, the individual is trading his lone vote for a stronger bargaining power that the UVI will hopefully command. But, the UVI has the risk of turning into just another collective and like any other, it may start with idea of costless exit (the ultimate inidvidual right) – but how will it assure that that final individual right is unassailable? After all, collectives do not have the best record in this regard.

    Indeed it is an even greater tribute to the resilience of Indian democracy that we have accomodation both thought-lite, word-salad in for Arundhati Roys of this world and her counterparts on the ideological right. Not only are the two similar in their distance and steady push away from the centre, but also, in my view, in their hope to make up in florid prose what they lack in pragmatism.


  3. Atanu, to test the feasibility, why don’t you implement your idea/theory at a smaller level, say the municipal election of Pune, or something along those lines? Surely, once you succeed at that level (much easier/practical to convince a smaller set of population than a much larger set to vote for a certain candidate using a specific yardstick), it would be possible to scale up the solution or replicate it in other places as well as at higher levels (state/national).


  4. I like Kaffir’s suggestion. Where I teach, I see even workable consensus as impossible. The intellectual elite of India’s middle class is way too busy building career capital and financial capital to invest time and effort in building social capital. Attribute this to high-stress jobs, the difficulty of bringing up kids in an environment that’s toxic in many ways, migration from cultural roots, rapid decrease in cultural ties with work organizations (which are rapidly westernizing), nuclear families, and much more. You can’t get collective decision making without social capital.


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  6. Sir, Only candidates who are seriously interested in the welfare of people and who have a track record of having accomplished good schemes/projects should be allowed to stand for election. Then once they get into assembly or lok sabha, then there has to internal election within themselves where ministers, chief ministers, prime ministers, speaker will be decided. The party system should be abandoned. There can be a LokPal kind of thing which can monitor the lok sabha and assembly and can also review the performance of each candidate once a year. The policies should be arrived at based on debates within the elected candidates.


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