Friday, April 25, 2008

Mock Democracy

Back in the day before I had a mini Obamaphile in the household, I could barely keep my Democrat and Republican definitions straight. I had no idea who stood for what and what if any difference any of it made to my small world. As an immigrant, I am only too painfully aware that political sentiment toward my lot is fated to sway like a pendulum.

There will be carrots by the bushel when we are needed and viciously painful prodding by way of inscrutable and interminably long immigration processes to encourage us to get out of the country. You have to take your chances when you decide to immigrate and make the best of whatever carrot, stick and combination thereof that you find yourself dealing with.

So I never knew who was running, what the polls were predicting and what the spin doctors were frothing. This year, for the first time I’ve been paying a little attention, trying to understand how the country that seeks to define democracy as we know it and indeed takes it upon itself to bring this incredibly precious gift to the oppressed , disenfranchised and tyrannized peoples of the third world - even if it takes a hundred year war to get there. Coming from the biggest democracy of the world, I turned curious to see where and how quality differed from quantity.

First the obvious differences – a two party system versus more parties than anyone can count or remember. Low decibel, graffiti free electioneering versus strident sloganeering from the makeshift stages, traffic obstructions and every inch of public white space covered with all manner of political drivel. I might add that Indian politicians attract huge gatherings at their rallies but almost all of the crowd is paid to show up. Often food and an article of clothing is part of the inducement package. Not sure if similar tactics are employed here in the States but the get out the vote sandwich platter sounds very much like the what they have going on back home.

Sudhir Venkatesh in his book Gang Leader For A Day writes about the gangs in Chicago involved in voter registration in inner city housing projects. Part of the “registration” process involves telling the voter who to vote for. When the “telling” is done by a gang member it is likely to carry quite a bit of weight. It seems to me the word of best fit here is coercion. That’s not unlike what goes on India. For the uninformed, Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City is an excellent resource for learning about the under-belly of Mumbai and its enormous political clout.


The more I follow the news these days, the more I am struck (dismayed really) by the similarities in the functioning of democracy in two countries that should in theory operate very differently. Yet in my mind I find myself replacing all references to Bible Belt with Cow Belt, Rust Belt with Bimaru states and everything else falls perfectly in place. Sometimes the sense of déjà vu is so strong that I forget which part of the world I am in right now.

In a culture fundamentally defined by individualism the electorate is most astonishingly not viewed as individuals but as so many distinct blocks of votes. There are racial, income, class, religious, gender and age based blocks. Back in India I never found this way of treating human beings as herds of cattle very surprising. After all we are an underdeveloped country with staggering poverty and illiteracy levels – not the kind of people one expects to have an exacting sense of self. They are too desperate trying to make ends meet to be able to participate in political discourse and yet it is the exercise of their franchise that keeps our democracy going.

It was okay to lump us all together however it made sense and get it over with. Life had to go on and a living had to be made. The fact that the vastly more developed, prosperous, industrialized and educated America would treat its citizenry no different is eye opening to say the least. As in India, all votes are not equal and states have vastly different powers in influencing the final outcome of an election.

In India the educated middle and upper classes are too small a block to make any sizeable dent to the total vote. Our politicians don't need to pander to us and they most definitely don't. It is far more important to appease the constituencies that have the numerical strength to make a significant difference - our version of the working class lunch-bucket voters who apparently hold the key to elections here.

There is the text book definition of democracy and there is Somerset Maugham’s view on the subject. I remembering writing this passage down in my journal when I read it as an adolescent – it helped me make sense of the utter travesty of democracy that I saw all around me and it still does. In his book Christmas Holiday, the character of Simon says :


"Equality? Equality is the greatest nonsense that’s ever muddled the intelligence of the human race. As if men were equal or could be equal! They talk of equality of opportunity. Why should men have that when they can’t take advantage of it? Men are born unequal; different in character, in vitality, in brain; and no equality of opportunity can offset that. The vast majority are densely stupid. Credulous, shallow, feckless, why should they be given equality of opportunity with those who have character, intelligence, industry and force? And it’s that natural inequality of man that knocks the bottom out of democracy. What a stupid farce it is to govern a country by the counting of millions of empty heads! In the first place they don’t know what’s good for them and in the second, they haven’t the capacity to get the good they want. What does democracy come down to? The persuasive power of slogans invented by wily, self-seeking politicians. A democracy is ruled by words, and the orator seldom has brains, and if he has, he hasn’t time to use them, since all his energy has to be given to cajoling the fools on whose votes he depends. Democracy has had a hundred years’ trial: theoretically it was always absurd, and now we know that practically it’s a wash-out."

1 comment:

K. M. said...

You might be interested in this post on equality.