Thursday, October 06, 2005

The success of Indian democracy

Rediff is running a column with a speech by our foreign minister, Natwar Singh. He talks about the broad successes achieved by India as a democracy. He makes some good points.
The building of a democratic India has not been an easy exercise. There is no historical precedent for a billion people determining their collective destiny through a mechanism of consent. There is no blueprint or textbook that sets out a road map. We have improvised along our way, trusting the innate wisdom of our people.

Elections in India currently encompass an electorate of almost 700 million. It is a political statistic not easy to digest. Equally worth noting is that these votes have often resulted in changes of government at both the federal and state level. It is the peaceful transfer of power that is the true test of democracy. Not all societies claiming to be one have passed it. India has -- with flying colours!

One testimony to our strength is the example -- the first in history -- of a Communist Party coming to power through electoral means. In the Indian ethos, no one is outside the pale and we have stretched the definition of an inclusive society to its limits and beyond.
Besides the pleasure of an eloquent Indian political speech, this "big picture" view gave me some food for thought. We normally do think of India as an anarchic society (frequently compared to a car without a driver) with a huge number of problems -- from corruption, hunger, poverty, lack of infrastructure, religious/political strife, terrorism... the list goes on. Yet we do have an extremely functional and progressive society when seen from other perspectives -- like economic growth, education, technology, telecommunication coverage, culture and expression. Even though a large part of India is non-urban (see the Madhukar Shukla's insightful post), it too, receives a lot of attention thanks to the media, and thanks to being a large votebank.

One of India's "problems" isn't a lack of solutions - its actually a multiplicity of solutions. Problem -- not enough representation of women in Parliament. Solutions -- tons of them, from constitutional reservation of seats to party level allocation of election tickets. The important point is that there are things that can be done, and people are thinking about them. With such a diverse population its not really a wonder that there are arguments, but there are ways out of the problems we're facing and most of those ways are reasonable. Time and consensus will decide which solution we adopt but there is, nonetheless, progress.

I believe that the framework of democratic principles in India has to be doing well given these observations. Which leads me to feeling sort-of optimistic about India's future. We may take a long time to get to a place given the diverse opinions, beliefs and motivations that people have - but eventually we'll get there, because of the principles that India is based on.

A computer scientist (those afraid of geek alerts may stop reading that this point!) might compare this to a global optimization problem where the task is to get to a universal optimum of society with respect to its laws, attitudes and culture - and the way to do it is to take steps in what seems like the right direction and re-evaluate whether we did better or worse than where we were and move on accordingly. A mathematician would tell you that there is a tradeoff in taking large steps based on little information (comparable to a more dictatorial model in which a few important people make all the decisions and are relatively unquestioned), and taking smaller steps using more data (comparable to an anarchic model where a lot of people's conflicting views have to be heard and there is resistance to change). Too much of the former, and you're likely to go way off course unless your little information happens to be 100% accurate; and too much of the latter and you're likely to move too slowly to get anywhere at all. I think India's democracy achieves a good balance between the two cases.