Democracy In India – Part 1

The world is chock full of tiresome, litigious people. I fervently hope they won’t accuse me of pilfering this title from de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America”. For the past few weeks, some over-sized issues are stewing in my under-sized brain. There’s no room for plagiarism, as it were. I’m not competent enough to steal, that’s my defense.

de Tocqueville was a French Historian who had a nagging question – How did democracy succeed in America? Many countries struggle to implement democracy in Circa 2008. Which begs the question – What is different about America that democracy succeeded? So, in the 1830s, de Tocqueville toured America to find germane answers. And out of it came the book “Democracy in America” – an insightful, seminal work on Sociology. Its brilliant – and a bit too long. You can’t expect a guy named Alexis-Charles-Henri Clérel de Tocqueville to be the beacon of brevity.

But, my post is not about America. Ever since I started reading this book – for which I paid a princely sum of $5 in a flea market – I’ve been thinking about India. Has democracy succeeded in India?

Back to the French bloke. What are the pre-conditions for democracy to work? A balanced mix of equality & liberty. You can’t create an egalitarian society by passing a law. As Aristotle said, Balance of Power = Balance of Property. America was a virgin territory & any one could stake their claim on vast tracts of land. Poverty was booted out to a great extent. This also rendered the Class differences between the Aristocrats & the Peasants meaningless. When everyone could make money, who gives a rat’s ass about pedigree? Thus, America became anti-elitist, as money served as a great equalizer.

Equality is a pipe dream in a country where 50-60% of the people are poor – as in India. But, Indian economy has improved & we are inching upwards on many human development indices. There is a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. Money has made pre-existing caste & class differences redundant, at least in the cities. So has that brought about a sense of equality at least in the burgeoning middle class?

Equality manifests itself as liberty. Liberty to express oneself. Liberty to pull up the elected representatives. Liberty to assert one’s rights without fear of a backlash. So, are we free? We have a megalithic, crumbling bureaucracy. Corruption is endemic. Discontent is simmering. Yet, we keep mum. Most people are too apathetic to be outraged, even when a Central Minister literally got away with murder. Even when Party Leaders make a mockery of elections by rigging polling booths. Even when rulers anoint their scions as the heir-apparents & Regents.

Then how the bloody hell will democracy work? A nation’s constitution isn’t worth the piece of paper it is written on, if its people don’t play an active role in implementing it. So, what is it about India that stymies democracy? To answer that, I turned to Geert Hofstede’s book, “Cultures and Organizations”. Hofstede is a scientist in IBM & he spent 25 years studying what gives every country a certain cultural ethos. In plain language, he attempted to understand why IBM employees in 53 countries behaved differently. He realized that every culture has 5 indices that govern behavior, especially group behavior. One of them is the Power Distance Index.

The Power Distance Index (PDI) is a measure of inequality in a society. In countries where PDI is high, people with more money or status expect subservient behavior from others. In an organization, this translates to bosses being malignantly autocratic at worst or benignly paternal at best. Subordinates are told what to do. Brown-nosing, flattery and deference to one’s superiors is the norm. The PDI for Scandinavian countries is low. Denmark for e.g., has a PDI of 18. US & Canada have a PDI of 40 & 39 respectively. India has a PDI of 77. In countries with a high PDI, people are discouraged from voicing their opinions to their betters. Confrontation is frowned upon & people grin & bear unspeakable treatment from those that are more powerful.

A child is expected to obey what the elders say. A woman is expected to sublimate her desires and accept those of her in-laws. I accept that women have started fighting back these days, but you get the general idea. We are wired for a high PDI culture. Which is why in India, miscreants can go scot-free. People are terrified of opposing others who just may be more powerful than them. They wait for someone else to take charge of the battering ram. They wait for a critical mass of brave souls to rally around a cause. Then, and only then, is it safe for them to voice their opinions. Till that point, the enlightened few let their wounds fester. The rest don’t even realize that they got a raw deal, that things could be better.

Doesn’t anyone object? Actually, the poorer strata of India have started slamming their opinions down the throats of others. They are vociferous & they intend to be heard. Which would be good, were it not for the solution they seek. They expect the government to solve their problems – more pay, better healthcare, more subsidies, better schools, free housing, loan waivers – in short, they want Socialism. Which is precisely the antiquarian ideology that led us where we are.

de Tocqueville says that democracy will succeed only when an over-whelming majority of citizens have similar needs. Poor people want socialism & everyone else wants capitalism. Governments get confused signals from people, make half-assed attempts at capitalism & end up doling out freebies in a desperate bid for votes. After all, the motley crew of “everyone else” hardly votes, so why should anyone cater to their whimsies?

In such countries, journalists should steamroller errant administrators. They should goad people to action, by spreading awareness. I’m utterly disappointed by the lack-luster performance of mainstream media. Most news channels & magazines are condemned acolytes of Indian Cinema & all things flaky. They content themselves with ersatz reporting on sensational murders, amorous adventures of cricketers and wannabe starlets necking Mafia Dons.

How do we snap out of this? I think the Free Market shares close family ties with Democracy. One can learn to be a responsible citizen by being an assertive consumer. More on that in my next serving – “Democracy in India – Part 2”.


  1. Quote

    Excellent post Priya. PDI is a very interesting idea. Thanks for sharing this. In my opinion, India has a ray of hope. Our NGOs (both classical and new age NGOs started by motivated second gen techies like our Prem) are a ray of hope.

    We should have a better way to manage our endemically corrupt political class. 1) Alternative parties – All educated youth should solidify their constituency. Just like mullahs/ pastors decide which party they support in the coming election, we should also have a support model at least in urban areas. 2) Power is the carrot for politicians. Citizen journalists/ bloggers should spread the message more vocally than ever. The 2009 elections are first elections that are fought in Web 2.0 world. Even if there is 1% swing made by the new techie class I would say it is a great success.

    From top down, I see Senators in US more mature than an average Congressman. Similarly in India, Panchayat and Corporation level meeting run in chaos with usage of abusive language, state assemblies a bit more classy (though they desire a lot of improvement) and finally Indian parliament more mature. (In fact I am proud to see our parliamentarians behavior. They behave better than many eastern bloc democracies. Even Laloo made some decent reforms).

    If top down cleansing is driven by bottom up influence and power incentives, bureaucracy will have to improve.

  2. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said June 14, 2008, 10:45 am:

    Great post Priya. Very insightful. The underclasses wanting socialism and the upper classes wanting capitalism resulting in the confused policies of the government – this is very insightful. Overall, as you say, the people not really questioning the government or taking any kind of action is actually the real problem. Without this active questioning by the people, there is no real democracy and this is one of the biggest reasons for why India suffers.

  3. Quote

    Vamsi – Thanks for your comment.

    Since you are interested, Malaysia has the highest PDI of all the countries studied: 104. For many Arab countries, it is 80. Interestingly enough, Pakistan’s PDI is 55. Considerably lower than India’s.

    I also believe that NGOs are the way to go. To solve problems & to spread awareness, one can’t depend on the govt any more.

    Unfortunately, corruption is at all levels. Only a small minority is uncorrupt. Caught speeding? Offer a bribe to the cop. VAT regime? Offer to pay cash, so that you won’t be charged tax. One way traffic & no cop in sight? Just go any which way you please. I despair that there’s no straight-forward way to end corruption.

    Yes, I agree that politicians in developed nations are more polished & knowledgeable. This is probably because their electorate is made of more sophisticated people. And I agree – Our Central Ministers & MPs are a lot more cultured than their regional brethren.

  4. Quote

    Sukumar – Thanks for your comment & kind words.

    Apathy, Apathy, Apathy. That’s what I see all around me in India. When I assert my rights as a citizen, my compatriots deal with me as if I have leprosy. They think assertiveness is a character flaw.

    They expect every problem to be solved by the government. That’s a dumb & unreasonable expectation. The govt is made of human beings, not witches & wizards from Hogwarts. There’s a limit to what can be done. Especially when 90% of a state’s budget is spent on salaries & pensions for govt employees. Where will the money for civil works/infrastructure spring from?

  5. Quote
    Karthik.PK said June 15, 2008, 2:56 am:

    That was brilliant Priya……Apathy,Apathy and Apathy…is widespread.Indian we always say that some one need to take action..Somebody needs to do it…But we never conclude that y not I be the some body…We are prefer living in our own comfort bubble..we dont care about problems if they trouble others…As long as I am safe y shud I bother……Inspite of being the world’s largest democracy…we are still enforce it …….

    PDI is really interesting …

  6. Quote

    Karthik – Thanks for your comment.

    Yes, we are all ready to follow. As long as there’s someone to lead us there. If people are selfish & don’t take steps to help others – that would at least make sense. But in India, people don’t even put up a feeble fight when their own rights are trampled.

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    Sridhar N.K said June 16, 2008, 8:47 am:


    Very very interesting post. I really loved the PDI concept. I am not sure though that PDI alone explains everything. Like you mention in your note, PDI is low in some of the countries where we have either psuedo-democracy or no democracy at all. What’s the use if all are equal and all are poor – democracy might not survive there.

    I think we probably have to combine PDI with overall poverty/development level to truly measure how successful a country will be with democracy. It sure explains though some of the lackluster, non-committal approach from us in India.

    Great post.

  8. Quote

    NK – Thanks for your comment.

    I’m not saying that a country’s PDI determines if democracy will survive there or not. What I mean to say is, for this particular problem that bothers India – People keeping mum in the face of atrocities – is because of its high PDI culture. And democracy can not survive if people don’t speak up.

    Other countries with a low PDI & a failed democracy will have some other problem. I agree that overall poverty level is a factor. But, there must be some other factors at play too. China’s poverty level is < India’s. Will China become a democracy? When pigs fly, perhaps 😉

    One of these days, I’ll give this topic more thought & try to publish a set of parameters that will determine whether democracy will succeed in any given country.

  9. Quote

    #1: Is democracy for people or People for democracy..

    /** So, in the 1830s, de Tocqueville toured America to find germane answers. And out of it came the book “Democracy in America” –

    #2: Is there any one who had toured India to understand its polity & society and wrote any books on it. ?

  10. Quote

    Senthil – Here are my answers, specially formulated for you. Hope you like them.

    1. No, democracy is not needed. Let’s destroy all cities & go back to living in villages as Dharampal has outlined. Which means this is the last time any of us will use internets, English or blogs. Or, work in an IT or bio-tech company. From tomorrow, it will be the fields for Senthil. Ganesh, NK Sridhar & Sukumar better start chanting the vedas right away.

    2. No one has toured India to write any authentic books. Shops around the world are full of books on Indian history, society, philosophy & what not – filled with lies, naturally. Of course, they were written by the damn firangs, whose sole aim in life is to make Indians miserable. Its a huge western conspiracy, which Indian intellectuals have abetted.

  11. Quote

    Btw, in the recently concluded karnataka election, the IT people are the ones who did NOT turn up to vote.. the polling percentage in bangalore was well below 55%,, a city that is filled up mostly by professionals..

    I would like to know the answer from vamsi regarding this as he had suggested that educated youths can change politics..

  12. Quote

    Regarding bribes, where is the authority that will heed to complaints and take action? Even courts are filled with bribes..

    A practical example that happened to us recently.. in my father’s business, suddenly a minister’s PA called up and asked around 60,000 rs for each transport vehicle.. otherwise we could not even participate in the tender.. before that, when my father went to apply the tender, he was directed to a pune waiting at the backyard.. when my father went there, he was asked to shell 10,000 rupees.. then he was given an empty tender form to sign .. (to change the quoted rates in the new form and replace later.. its not wished by us.. but forced on us)..

    what can we do in that situation.. i think, the post author can offer some suggestion here 🙂 .. this is a practical incident that happened just few weeks ago..

    We did not oblige, and so as others who applied for the tender.. the tender has not yet taken place, and waiting for further progress..
    For some obvious reasons, i dont want to reveal the location here..

  13. Quote

    Senthil – What solution will you offer? That’s workable, implementable & within your control, I mean 🙂 Or, do you intend to talk about how wonderful things were in the past in a roaring, loud voice, while wearing a lion mask & scare corrupt officials away? 😆

    The instance you’ve quoted is nothing new. Most people don’t have friction with peons & judges everyday. So, we can speak out against the ills that we encounter in daily life. There are zillions of such problems that we can solve.

    If you want to know how that will solve the bigger ill that you’ve outlined – please read about the “Broken Window” theory. I believe that people speaking out will start a virtuous cycle of reform.

    This is related to what I intend to explain in my next post, so let me stop with providing a broad brush-stroke as an answer.

  14. Quote

    You need to understand why IT people are not participating in elections. I see few reasons (there could be more)
    a) Economic Security – They are not compelled
    b) Busy Life – Treating Election Day as another holiday. This is apathy
    c) Lack of proper candidates – There may not be great choices in their constituencies.
    d) Not rooted well – Most of them are from outside the city – recent migrants. They might think that it is not their state/ constituency yet.
    e) Lack of belief in political system – This comes due to not believing in anything. True freedom would be appreciated not if we fight a war and win. But if we experience tyranny like live under Saudi rule for few years/ in countries like USA where your vote makes a difference. It is a journey to go there. Not an on/off state we can choose to when we want to.
    f) Acceptance – 1000s of years of oppression under various external forces ( who are not inherently Indian in spirit) might have made us accept our fate (Karma).
    g) Imagination – We lack how to think of future. Americans have goals like retire by 45/ 50, to buy a new luxury car etc. Chinese have goals to become Super Power and be proud of everything Chinese. Indians have no such lofty goals. They think short term. Or else you will not see people jumping between companies like frogs in shallow wells, or people faking resumes. Also, I observed this when interviewing people with 10 years experience. They dont know what they want to do. Just drifting along. People with lofty and ambitious goals, will move up. It is an eternal debate. Isnt the post itself about this? Perhaps it is national phenomenon.

  15. Quote

    Vamsi.. excellent compilation.. points ‘a’ and ‘g’ are apt..

    There is another angle.. the psyche of the people, and the social setup..

    What is the priority of an average citizen? to run behind a girl to make her love him, marry her, form a family, then raise children, and then spend the next 20 years for his children & family, and then marry off his son or daughter awaiting a grand child, and then spend next 10 years spending with them..

    At no point, they are interested in politics or governance.. Evreything is fine as long as they get what they wanted ..

    This is one of the reason why the social stability of india is very strong.. all the disturbances and clashes are only by the politicians..

    That’s why, i was telling, Democracy is not a right form of government.. people dont care who rules, as long as the ruler provides good governance..

    If the britishers had given good governance, there would never be an independence struggle..

  16. Quote

    Senthil, you missed the point. It is not that democracy is not a right form. It could be that the present form of 1 person representing 300K population with simple majority may be not the best form. Britishers gave good government. But it is not Indian ruled and hence not preferable form. So our ancestors fought. The more decentralized the government is, the better I guess.

  17. Quote

    boy it was a very chisseled analysis add a bit more on the complementing relation of free market and democracy that would make a interesting read for all the netizens.

  18. Quote

    it is a very chisseled anslysis of the contemprory situation of democracy and the linking of free market and democracy was good

  19. Quote

    Manisha – Thanks for your comment & kind words. Glad you liked the post.

  20. Quote

    Priya, nice pour out on Indian Democracy. Thanks to Abdul for pointing me to this post. One of the reasons why media is not doing much, is because most of the media is owned by the politicians. Even the few good newspapers are burnt down or forced to join a party.

  21. Quote

    Shoba – Thanks for your comment.

    I think the media has forgotten its primary role – all the news that’s fit to print (or televise). Rather, they want to dumb the news down, so that more people would tune in. This leads to selective reporting, where only news that can be sensationalized will be shown. Shallow reporting by rookie anchors who are ignorant of the subject leads to superficial coverage.

    In the end, we are simply left with vomit inducing coverage.

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