Nov 7, 2008

World - India;US - Two brands of democracy

Madhukar Sabnavis


The Indian and American brands of democracy derive their differences from their cultures.

George Bernard Shaw quipped many years ago, “America and England are two countries separated by a common language.” Something similar can be said about the two biggest democracies in the world — the US and India. They are two countries separated by a common political system, democracy.

Democracy is what creates a great affinity between the two nations. An American journalist once told me that he wanted India to succeed economically, and do better than China simply because it would establish to the world that free government works. Yet, the democracies of the two are quite different.

The commonalities are quite easy to understand and appreciate. Both elect their chief executives bottom up on the principle of universal adult suffrage. Both, the American President and the Indian Prime Minister do not need to get ‘majority’ votes — of all Americans/Indians who voted — to win. The American system is based on seats per state and the Indian system is based on constituencies, and the candidate who finally sits in the seat of power should win a ‘majority’ of seats or have the support of most constituency winners. Both systems go to the polls regularly — once four years in the US and once five years in India. And this is fairly meticulously followed. Both the chief executives appoint their cabinet of ministers (called Secretaries of State in the US) and both are answerable to Parliament. Though both have a clear party system — two-party in the US and multi-party in India — it’s the individuals who garner support. The people are bigger than the party.

However, dig deeper into the two systems and one discovers differences. The democratic systems subconsciously follow patterns consonant with the country’s culture and religions.

In the US, people elect a President— one person. It’s a two-party system but ultimately people vote for an individual — one God. So, it’s the individual who has to go canvassing for votes and support. He does represent a party, but it’s the individual’s views, charisma and philosophy that make a big difference. Each presidential nominee comes bottom up. He needs to first garner support in a transparent intra-party election process through party primaries (the nail-biting finish we saw between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama was one such exercise). And then he needs to go to the general electorate. There are confirmed Democrats and Republicans and then there are the fence sitters. Of course, it’s not only the fence sitters who decide the final outcome; there are the undecided among party supporters who can also be swayed. Colour and gender do play a role. It’s na├»ve to think that because the US is a developed and educated nation, the electorate’s decisions are purely rational—emotional affinities do count. However, there is an active role of the issues raised by and the character of the candidate. Domestic policy and foreign affairs where the US is directly involved are often key issues. Not surprisingly, this is similar to the basic culture of the country. Hofstede in his culture study identified America as a highly individualistic culture. (The US was 90 on the individualistic scale and India just 40!) Further, like Christianity, the US democracy believes in just one God — one President — who is voted for and then he decides his apostles (the Secretaries of State). It’s all geared towards one fountainhead.

The Indian system is more complicated, just like Indian society. We are a country of 330 million Gods loosely connected to one religion, Hinduism. Our democratic system reflects the same. Each constituency ‘selects’ its own God, all of who then get together to anoint the main God. Or better still, the chief God needs to garner the support of the local Gods to actually make it to the final slot. The local Gods are selected based not so much on local issues as on local affinities, like caste, creed, community and local charisma. Dynastic power comes into play here — the halo from one generation gets naturally carried into the next generation. In Hofstede’s study, the power distance in India is 80 while in the US it is 40; clearly reinforcing the view that Indians tend to ‘venerate’ more easily than their American counterparts! So, in India, to become the ‘chief executive’ it’s not just about the individual’s charisma, power and points of view, but about the support he can mobilize at the grassroots level. It’s as much about the ability to select or partner the right candidate at each constituency level to enable you to finally win. Clearly, there is more affiliation required in India — the ability to galvanize people to support you. The leader cannot win on his own. This sounds contrarian, given that there seems to be dynastic power operating at the centre. It’s perhaps less about dynasties, and more about the inheritance of skills to mobilize people from one generation to another. It’s about activating the network at the grassroots level rather than depending on a national manifesto, the manifesto being more a statement of party intent to come together. Not surprisingly, the Indian democratic system has gradually moved away from a two-party system to a multi-party one, all coming together as loose federations of three groups— the UPA, NDA and the Third Front.

The cultural manifestation is reflected even in the electoral process. Political journalists moan the absence of open debate in the Indian system: the type that takes place between the American presidential candidates. Debates are un-Indian. Gods don’t justify their views to other Gods or their subjects; there are only discussions. Leaders are open to coming and giving their views and sharing their perspectives, but not willing to pitch themselves openly against each other. That’s a cultural nuance of Indian democracy. Similarly, the American ritual of election is organized. It happens every four years, voting occurs on particular dates and swearing in on January 20. There is a clear two-term limit on an individual, much like the structured Aristotelian vision of life. Indian election terms, on the other hand, are more fluid, even chaotic, within the framework of five years, much like Hindu culture. Events get shaped as life evolves and leaders can go on forever!

Are the similarities or the differences stronger? Are they both democracies or are they two political systems loosely similar? Can a person successful in one system succeed in the other?

Something worth thinking about.

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