Posted by: Vikram | January 26, 2012

India’s big idea: A simple comparative assessment

Every nation has a big idea. The idea of India is perhaps best contained in the word democracy. In India, democracy takes on new proportions, gigantic in scale, expansive in diversity. Democracy is that higher ideal, the ‘big picture’ that is supposed to give us a purpose. So how exactly is our democratic project doing. Is India close to being the democracy envisaged by the Constitution makers ?

A reductionist definition of democracy from Sir Bernard Crick’s book ‘Democracy: A Very Short Introduction’ gives us the framework to perform such an analysis in a simple, clear way. I will also compare India to the US, Pakistan and China, since for a lot of people, the meaning of terms like democracy are perhaps better understood in a relative sense than an absolute one.

Bernard Crick splits democracy into three components:

  • Democracy as a principle of authority: This means that any political authority in the society should come via democratic means i.e. political power be allocated via free and fair elections at regular intervals.
  • Democracy as a set of institutional arrangements or constitutional devices: This is the principle of checks and balances. An independent judiciary, a free and lively media and an independent bureaucracy are all part of such a democratic setup. In short, no single entity in society is allowed to function without oversight and become all powerful.
  • Democracy as a type of behavior: Sir Crick describes this as “People acting and behaving democratically in patterns of friendship, speech, dress, and amusements, treating everyone else as if they were an equal”. This means that in civic interactions, material and social standing becomes irrelevant. Every human being is treated with dignity.

A simple democracy score for a country can be estimated by combining scores for each of the three components above. I feel that the first two components are of equal importance, while the third is more important than the first two. Therefore, I shall score the first two components out of 10, and the third out of 20, for a maximum total possible score of 40.

First, here are my estimates for the scores of America, Pakistan, India and China in 1960.
Democracy as a principle of authority: US: 6.5/10, Pakistan: 2/10, China: 1/10, India: 5/10
Democratic institutions: US: 8/10, Pakistan: 2/10, China: 1/10, India: 5/10
Democratic behaviour: US: 11/20, Pakistan: 4/20, China: 5/20, India: 2/20
Total score: US: 24.5/40, Pakistan: 8/40, China: 7/40, India: 12/40

In 1960, the US already had a long history of competitive elections, although they were obviously not fair because African-Americans were prevented from voting by various means. China was a totalitarian state in the grip of Mao. Pakistan was already under military rule. India had managed to hold two general elections, but social equality was a distant dream. The US society was quite democratic for the whites but excluded the blacks. China was quite socially unequal but was still more equal than India or Pakistan. Overall, the US was about 60% democratic, India about 30 % while China and Pakistan were not very democratic.

What would the scores look like today, on India’s 63rd Republic Day ?
Democracy as a principle of authority: US: 8.5/10, Pakistan: 5/10, China: 1/10, India: 7.5/10
Democratic institutions: US: 8.5/10, Pakistan: 5/10, China: 2/10, India: 7.5/10
Democratic behaviour: US: 18/20, Pakistan: 8/20, China: 15/20, India: 10/20
Total score: US: 35/40, Pakistan: 18/40, China: 18/40, India: 25/40

Today, the US is socially a very free and equal place. There is still some discrimination, but it is the exception rather than the norm. Pakistani society has moved forward as well, although at a disappointing rate. Chinese institutions and political authority remain undemocratic, however the Communist revolution has transformed the Chinese society. It is much more democratic today than it was in 1960. As for India, in terms of the protocols and hardware of democracy: competitive, free and fair elections and checks and balances, it is almost on par with the US. However, Indian society is far less democratic than the American or even the Chinese one. Overall, today India is about 60 % democratic, China and Pakistan about 40 % while the US is close to 90 % democratic.

In India, we have banked on democracy and liberty to reform society. I feel this incremental social revolution has worked in most parts of the country. And we have to keep this social revolution going. The idea of India was first and foremost about creating a great society, where people of any gender, religion or ethnic group would be equal citizens. Every voice and action against gender discrimination, caste/religious divisions, corruption and abuse of power adds a little bit to India’s democratic score, bringing us closer to the big idea.

Readers may also like to read a similar post on The South Asian Idea blog:


  1. Hello,

    I for once don’t rate that book much highly.

    One of the litmus test of a democracy, which in modern world takes the form of representative parliamentary democracy, is that whether the issues that the public, which is the electorate, considers to be of direct concern to them are being debated by the people who are their representatives, ie Senate, Parliament, etc. ie are the representatives acting like the true representatives of the people, giving a voice to their issues or not.
    Applying that criteria Indian polity is a far more democratic setup than the US. The merits of IAC movement or anti-nuclear protests might be debatable but they are the issue which are being raised very vocally in the parliament. Compare that to the recent state of the union address by Obama, he didn’t even mentioned the OWS, ecological movements – which obviously are some of the issues that many people identify themselves with.

    Regarding the development of liberal parliamentary democracy, rights of man , etc it mustn’t be forgotten that the evolution of these ideas had a very bad side effect also. This peculiar evolution inculcated among the ‘citizens’ an attitude that all their duties are for the fellow citizens only and outside the national boundaries its a bad bad world. Firstly, it led to colonialism because colonial subjects were considered to be un-human and secondly, when the world became too small, it led to the great wars which led to Nazi horrors on one side and Hiroshima/Nagasaki on one side.

    I am not trying to say that liberal democracy is a bad thing, but it had it fall outs as well and they should be acknowledged.

    • Shwe, the dominant issue in the US these days seems to be jobs. Americans have become accustomed to relative prosperity and continuous improvement in their quality of life since the end of the second world war. This was further buttressed by the victory in the Cold War. Now, two decades of trade with East Asia has dismantled their industrial base and caused widespread un and underemployment across this country. This is especially true in the midwestern states like Michigan and Ohio which are now facing depopulation because of their poor economies. So, the major issue in the US is jobs and livelihood. The second major issue is the rapidly climbing debt which eventually the next generation of Americans will have to repay. And Obama addressed both these issues in his speech. Now whether his remedies are satisfactory or not are a separate issue.

      The Occupy Wall Street and ecological movements are important, but they are not the dominant issues here right now.

      About the second part of your comment, I think we may be too focused on America there. One can look at countries like Germany and Canada where people are not as negative about the rest of the world.

      • Actually I was just stating Nather’s point of view on the address and I don’t think that OWS, you can keep eco movement apart, was such a small thing that it didn’t deserved a mention. Its just the nonchalance about the public opinion on various issues like foreign policy, medicare, eco movement, and so on that makes me believe that India is a more functioning democracy than US.

        I was talking about the evolution of the ideas. National and ‘rights of man’ developed side by side and in the heydays of colonialism no one really cared about anyone outside the national boundaries, and it continued up to the WW-II. Now with the concept of human rights obviously things are better and general outlook is starting to change.

  2. * Nader’s

  3. Well, an argument could be made that Indian democracy can accomodate more views because of the parliamentary system, which actually makes smaller parties viable and share a chunk of political power. However, in many ways Indian democracy is not as fair as the American one, especially considering the barrier to entry. For example: a very high percentage of young MPs had a family connection to politics

  4. Agreed,

    imo the only remedy for this patronizing behavior in Indian Politics is a vigilant electorate. And it is precisely in this point that civil society and NGOs should play a more constructive role. IAC should first of allow educated their core support base ie the urban middle class to at least play a role in electoral politics. Lets see what happens in this elections which is the first one in post Anna scenario.

    • Fully agreed !

  5. * first of all educate their

  6. I don’t mean to sound like a conspiracy-loon/leftwing nut but I believe that in judging parameters like free and fairness of elections and of media one cannot overlook the influence of ‘the market’ or corporate interests have on these and hence on the over all fabric of democracy. Primarily in developed nations and to a significant extent in emerging economies like India/Brazil/South Africa too.

    Traditionally these qualities are seen to be hampered or subdued through direct exercise of power and force((e.g., various dictatorships and their hold on power and public institutions)) and/or explicit discrimination((e.g., African-Americans not being allowed to vote)) but today in the age of corporations and globalization a much more covert((and effective)) structure is in place that usurps and subordinates media and polity.

    The main tools of this structure is implication and filtration:

    Filtering out of undesired elements; in politics by heavy donations to a bunch of mainstream parties, virtually making parties not subservient to their interests insignificant; in media this happens through much of mainstream outlets, print or electronic, being owned by corporations or conglomerates of corporations, and most of the media relying on ads for majority of their revenue which leads to a culture where only those journalists who are in conformity are promoted or kept on payroll, these people may not require censorship or threat to say what they and may well truly believe in them but if they did say something against these interests then they wouldn’t be in their posts in the first place.

    Implications, or what could be crudely called propaganda, are entwined in the established narrative which has effectively created quasi-dogmatic beliefs in general/popular discourse which co-incidentally fall well in line with corporate interests((e.g., free market being neutral and unambiguously *the* path of progress, technology itself is progress, etc.)) and ridules and sidelines dissent against the same.

    This leads to election being a meaningless PR war between two parties((Rwpublicans and Democrats)) whose are only superficial and both serve the same interests accept for rudimentary variations in policy.

    Better articulation of what I mean to say can be found here:

    • *”these people may not require censorship or threat to say what they say and may well truly believe in it”((in 4th para))

    • Priyank, there is a lot of truth in your comment. This is one of the reasons I wont say that the Indian and American democracies score a perfect 10/10 on the democratic institutions component. In essence, the media (information networks) no longer function democratically but are in control of certain interest groups. This has become especially pronounced in America with the decline of traditional city-based newspapers and their replacement by more centralized television networks. The internet has improved the situation somewhat though.

      • Indeed, people should rely more on independent web media like “Democracy Now!”, etc. even if someone doesn’t agree with the propaganda model the quality of mainstream journalism is horrid anyway.

        However, I wonder how long internet will be able to provide the free space it does now, with attempts to pass acts like SOPA/PIPA and the intensifying of prosecution under current “copyright” and other laws((like the case involving MegaUpload and other upload sites)) all points towards an aim of homogenizing the web within the market culture, the base for it was always there:

  7. “However, I wonder how long internet will be able to provide the free space it does now”

    Priyank, I think a lot of the internet news outlets have been out maneuvered due to the revenue model the internet news media relies on. Most of the websites rely completely on advertising for revenue generation. This obviously makes them vulnerable to influence from corporations/businesses who tend to be the major advertisers. If these news outlets rely want to stay independent, they need to raise more of their revenue through subscription fees or other public sources.

  8. That is very true, however I was referring more to nature of web itself, it is more possible to run outlets like Democracy Now or The Nation, which run completely on voluntary viewer donation((though as of now these are focused largely only on US or Europe)) on here compared to television or print and also to the fact that it is the only electronic medium where common individuals can freely discuss and opine on any topic((which is impossible on T.V.))

    Hopefully this characteristic of the net will be retained and one day there will be a robust and active independent media, focused on West *and* emerging economies.

    • I agree Priyank. The very nature of the internet makes it more difficult to control or influence than television, but there is also the question of credibility. Sites like Democracy Now dont seem to be becoming more popular, see here
      It seems Democracy Now’s internet reach has been stagnant for a while.

      • That was interesting indeed.

        However I think this is because- the readership that seeks out independent media is small and therefore the potential audience of sites like Democracy Now! is too, this problem is further compounded because such sites start out with very few resources and are capable only of analysis of broad events compared to the range of reporting, giants like NYT, The Guardian or CNN offer, making competing with them virtually impossible. ((In general people do indeed think that internet-based sources may not be credible and many are certainly not but identifying honest sources isn’t really hard if one is willing to think for oneself.))

        As far as widespread change is concerned, such sites only offer a model of an alternative, realizing this alternative cannot be achieved by them competing with established commercial media, but instead by challenging the assumptions and omissions of it through direct activism and criticism in the same mainstream space it dominates.

  9. Priyank, I do hope that what you have written in your second paragraph comes true.

  10. I do agree that democracy sort of works in India, but not at the level of high ratings given in your post. Even though elections are considered to be predominantly fair, politicians and political parties influence people to vote for them by giving various freebies, etc. If coercion in communism is wrong, so is influencing in democracy.

    Don’t we essentially vote for the ‘lesser evil’ these days? Don’t we vote in revenge that a ruling party has involved in massive corruption and hence we need to send them out, instead of the development policies/execution by any party? With corruption rooted heavily from top to bottom, its a failure of democracy, nothing less.

    • DI, I do agree that some voters in India can be swayed by so called ‘freebies’ and vote against their own interest. However, I have seen little in the way of evidence that such voters are a majority or even a significant %age. Lets not forget that the DMK suffered a massive defeat in the recent TN elections despite giving out freebies to many voters.

  11. “democracy” gives one the discretion! to choose your dictators.

    • Better than not having choice at all 😉

  12. @ anrosh, wrong. Your concepts are flawed.

    Democracy isnt just about going out and vote once in a while.

    Democracy means free and fair elections, rule of law, independent judiciary and free media. Nothing of that is possible in a dictatorship.

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