Why is Indian Democracy So Stable?

Sixty-seventy years ago much of today’s world emerged from European colonial occupation with great hope for their future. That hope has died in most countries. Look at Egypt and Yugoslavia, the leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement in the 1950s. Yugoslavia doesn’t even exist and Egypt is once again a military dictatorship that is killing its its own people. Multi-ethnic, multi-religious societies that tried to become countries have failed miserably. Even Pak-i-Stan, named so because it was to be the religiously pure homeland for Muslims, could not manage the ethnic divide between Muslim Panjabis and Muslim Bengalies. The Middle East is exploding into an orgy of religious sectarian violence.

In this world, Indian Democracy remains a shining monument to stability, a beacon of hope for a fractious world. Strange, isn’t it?

Why strange? Because India is a complete mess right now – an utterly dysfunctional government mired in corruption, an economy that is teetering, a currency in crisis, a government that is dreadfully scared of Chinese military aggression, a government that is even scared of the much weaker NonPak-i-Stan.

There is no major or large society on today’s earth that is ruled and owned by a foreign uneducated immigrant  woman of a foreign religion who cannot even speak the language, who is contemptuous of the society’s culture, who has zero understanding of the society’s large & complex economy and who regularly victimizes the majority religion, the religion of 81% of the society’s population.

How on earth can this utter unique mess called India still survive as a country? Why hasn’t it broken up or at least convulsed with sectarian, ethnic riots of every kind? If any country on earth should be thoroughly unstable, it should be India. But stable it is. That is obvious to all and accepted by all.

So why is India so stable? Because India has become the most successful electocracy in the world. That is why India is admired even by those who have contempt for it. But then why is this stable electocracy so pathetic in governing itself? Why is this stable electocracy so incapable of maintaining a viable institutional system, of turning itself in to a vibrant economy and into a confident, strong nation? This is a question that perplexes most American and European analysts. Because that question goes to the heart of their central tenet about the virtues of a democratic system.

They are perplexed because they do not understand the fundamental reason for the stability of India’s electocracy. And since they don’t understand it, their myriad English-Educated Indian followers don’t get it either.

Below we provide our answer to the above questions. This answer may stun analysts and disturb those who live in the bubble of their new and modern India. We have discussed our concepts with real Indians over the past couple of years, taxi-drivers, laborers, lower middle class & poor people we met during our travels in India. And they completely concurred with our analysis below. In fact, their eyes and faces lit up when we presented our basic theme to them. 

Today we present that theme and rationale to you.

1. Time Honored Indian System

Think back to North India in the 14th century, the 15th century, the 16th-17th century under the Mughals. That Indian economy was much better than it is now. According to many western and Indian analysts, India’s GDP in 1700 was about 21% of the world’s GDP then, the same share American GDP has of the world’s GDP today. That India was occupied by foreign invaders but it was stable. What was that Indian system?

All politics and governance are local. Take any district and province in India. The people of that district and province have always been ruled by a local warlord or a kinglet. That leader made sure he or she was in the good graces of the ruler in the main city of that province by accepting that ruler’s sovereignty.

In turn, the ruler of the province made sure that he or she remained in good graces of the central ruler in Delhi by sending an agreed upon sum of money every year with a suitably rich nazrana or tribute on important social occasions. And it did not much matter to the central ruler in Delhi who the provincial warlords or kinglets were or how they governed their provinces, as long as the central ruler’s sovereignty and image were preserved.

Yes, there were frequent ferocious battles between competing warlords within districts or provinces. Succession was usually resolved by armed might. But upon winning, the victorious warlord, “Sardar”,  kinglet sent massive tribute to the ruler in Delhi with profuse declarations of loyalty and fealty. The central ruler was usually smart enough to receive the tribute, accept the declarations of loyalty and in an act of empirical magnanimity proclaims the winning warlord as a loyal Sardar or “Mansabdar”. 

An engineer friend who worked at Ford in Detroit once told us that to them Ford meant their boss and their bosses’ boss. Managers above that just didn’t mean much to them. That perfectly sums up the Indian system over the last several centuries. The Indian people just didn’t care who the ruler in Delhi was. All that mattered to them was the local district warlord or Sardar and the ruler or kinglet of the province. The Sardar and the kinglet were the ones they went to in their time of need. 

Once you get this, you understand why tribe after tribe invaded India from Afghanistan & beyond and occupied Delhi without the Indian people ever rising up. It just didn’t mean much to them. Their only preoccupation was their family, their livelihood and their village. As long as their local warlord or Sardar was semi-just, they were fine. Who that Sardar reported to in Delhi was immaterial.

The British were smart enough to continue this system that got perfected during the Mughal occupation of North India. During the early years of British rule, the Indian people were still generally ruled by the local kinglet who delivered an agreed upon sum of money to the British and surrendered his/her army to the British. But the British slowly became more intrusive in their occupation. To maximize their plunder of India, they set up their own administrative mechanism to administer India and relegated the kinglets to more ceremonial rule. During the later period of British rule, institutions became centralized and power got more centralized.

This British intrusive presence became obvious in the urban areas but not in the rural areas. This may be why urban India got active in the Independence movement but rural India generally stayed out of it. They remained so until Gandhi touched the religious chord of their Vaishnav Bhakti-marg. But despite this and their love for Gandhi, the rural poor did not get as active in his movement as the urban people who experienced intrusive British presence. This is also why Indians never rose up against the Mughal and pre-Mughal occupiers the way they rose up against the British.

2. Today’s Indian System

In the first couple of decades after Independence, India was administered in the British mold, one because Nehru was more British than Indian and two because he did not need electoral support from any local leaders. But slowly and inexorably over the next four decades, Indian governance went back to the days of old. Regional politicians gained more power in the electoral calculus and with that power came greater control over regional offices of central institutions. This transformation accelerated as coalition governments became the norm in Delhi.

As a result, today’s Indian system is virtually back to the Mughal and pre-Mughal days. The Indian people, especially the rural Indian people who form the bulk of the electorate, are still ruled by the local warlord who makes
sure he/she remains in good graces of the ruler of the province. And the ruler of the province makes sure that he/she remains in good graces of the central ruler in Delhi by sending regular amounts of monies. And the central ruler is smart enough to accept the winning warlord in the province or district as long as they publicly profess loyalty and deliver monies.

The local warlords in the Mughal and pre-Mughal days used to become so by military might, by collecting and paying young men in their district to fight for them against competing warlords. Today’s competing warlords don’t fight with swords, guns or artillery. They fight electorally. But the method is the same.

Today’s electoral warlords collect and pay young men, now called activists instead of soldiers, to fight elections against competing warlords. Once again, the winning warlords profess loyalty to the central ruler in Delhi and the central ruler is smart enough to accept the declarations or loyalty and the monies sent by the winning warlords.

The only difference is the nomenclature. Today’s local warlords are not called “Sardar” anymore; they are now called “Neta”. And rulers of provinces are not called King or Nawab anymore. They are called Chief Ministers.

The biggest difference between today’s system and the old system is that the rural Indians, including the poorest of the rural poor, now get a chance to choose their local warlord or Neta. This is something they never had before. And they now have a chance to experience their local warlord beg them for their votes and, in exchange, offer them something material. And they choose their warlord or Neta based on who they believe more and who offers them what they want. But once the election is over, the winner Neta discards the humble requesting garb and once again becomes the unquestioned warlord of the district.

The hereditary system of succession is also back in today’s India. Today’s elected warlords or Neta are bequeathing electoral power to their heirs just as the military warlords or Sardars bequeathed power to their heirs in the old system. The son/daughter of a urban corporator (city councilperson) becomes a corporator, the heir of a MP (member of Parliament) becomes a MP, the heir of a Minister becomes a Minister.

And the Indian people accept heirs of today’s electoral warlords or Neta just as they accepted the heirs of the military warlords or Sardar of old. This is why the son, an inexperienced unqualified son, of the current ruler in Delhi will be accepted as the next ruler of Delhi by the Indian people, provided the current ruler can win the next election for him. After all, rural Indian people still do not care about anything except their living, family or their local area. 

When you meet some one from rural North India ask them whether today’s Neta are just like Sardar’s of yesterday and they will say absolutely yes. Ask them if today’s Neta system is just like the Sardar system of old and they will nod.

This is why today’s Indian electocracy is so stable. It is after all the same proven time-honored Indian governance system that has been in place for centuries with one great improvement – power of a vote for the 800-900 million rural Indians.

This is why today’s Indian electocracy does not concern itself with big issues. This is why today’s Indian electocracy doesn’t really care whether the ruler in Delhi is a native Indian, an Italian immigrant or whether the ruler is a Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist, or Christian. And this is why the Indian electocracy really has no interest in playing a major strategic role in the world.

3. Upcoming Change

Underneath the exterior of stability, there is real change taking place in India. The urban middle class has begun to think differently. As they get more secure in their finances, they have begun to worry about governance. As they get in contact with the outside world, they have begun to experience shame at the mess that is India. They are getting more hawkish in their posture and beginning to demand a cleaner system, a stronger economy and a winning military.

And that, interestingly, is creating greater instability in Indian society. But their numbers are still too small to make a real difference in the electoral calculus. So they see their demands getting ignored by the Indian electocracy, the time honored stable system of hereditary Neta or warlords. This is leading to a build up of rage in the urban middle class. You see that in the massive urban protests against corruption in the Anna Hazare movement, in the rage expressed in the anti-rape protests in Delhi.

If you extrapolate these trends, you can make a case that Indian Democracy will become increasingly unstable over the next 10 years and much more so over the next 20 years. Struggles will erupt regularly in Indian states and cities, struggles for greater local rule, greater linguistic/religious/cultural content and greater share of the national wealth. What will that Indian Democracy look like in the next 20 years? That is anybody’s guess.

In the meantime, the world should enjoy the relative peace and stability of the mess that is today’s Indian electocracy. 

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