December 15, 2000


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Ashwin Mahesh

Nothing like us

The dramatic events of the last month have unexpectedly turned the selection of the American president into a crash-course in constitutional law and representative democracy. In the early days of this court-room and public relations wrangle, it seemed improbable that a month after the actual casting of the votes, the result would be in doubt. Indeed, I was anticipating some disappointment that while I was away in India during the second week of November, the grappling might conclude, and the winner established while I remained distant from coverage of ongoing events during a very rushed week. I was mildly happy, even, when upon my return there were plenty more legal arguments to be made.

For the Republicans amongst us, that should suggest a certain ideological difference, and I admit of this readily. Certain forms of social organization appeal to me -- the redistribution of wealth for the public good, universal medicine, the welfare state, a woman's right to her reproductive choice, plurality of faith, and sundry other notions readily identified with left-of-center politics -- and these are better represented in the Democratic Party than in the GOP. The establishment Democrats are best embodied, I suppose, in University faculty and at trial lawyers' associations; as many of us see it, a drawn-out legal battle that seeks to count every last voter's intent is both fair and necessary.

That is not to profess disrespect for the opposite view, merely disagreement with some of it. The rules of the game are as important in democracy as any other aspect of its practice, and I understand why some would insist that the rules, as they were promulgated, pronounced George Bush the winner. And yet, if it were to be true that the rules, or as the courts put it a hyper-technical enforcement of them, would subvert the intent of the people, the purpose of any reaction must be to establish what the voter really wanted, not merely how effectively s/he demonstrated that on the ballot. Barring a re-election, this process is necessarily fraught with friction.

In India, and to some degree amongst Indian friends in the US as well, I found this friction and the extraordinary media scrutiny of the process to present an interesting face. Amongst family as well as friends, I heard the claim repeatedly, that when all is said and done, American democracy isn't particularly better than its Indian counterpart. Didn't the US have its own version of T N Seshan? How can the Americans claim any leadership amongst the free nations when their own electoral process is so fractious? Isn't it surprising that US politicians are just as corrupt and self-serving as our own? Bush and Gore are a bit like our Laloo and Jayalalitha, eh?

Take my advice on this one, don't attempt to explain the nuances of the American electoral system and their present manifestation in the courts. The legalese and maneuvering are maddening enough even in context; on continents quite distant from North America the pecking order of the courts and balance of powers amongst the three branches of government aren't even remotely apparent. All anyone can see is the parallel to bitterly fought and enormously divisive battles for power. And by that measure alone, it is true that even those we regularly proclaim to be criminal among our political class aren't so different from the most upstanding politician elsewhere.

There is, however, vastly more to it. First, the greatest difference between perceptions of the electoral melee in the US and elsewhere lies in this crucial sense -- people in the United States, who may disagree vehemently, are not hurling accusations of fraud except in isolated instances. In America itself, the dispute is one of process and propriety, and there is a significant fraction of the population that will throw its weight behind either president, once he is sworn-in. Further, the ideological differences that are inevitable at the contest are not carried into the streets; a violent resolution is rarely attempted. If the other guy gains office, his legitimacy will admittedly be in some question, yes. But a scrutiny of either candidate will repel the charge of personal crookedness quite handily. That's more than you can say about many an Indian public figure.

At any rate, that shouldn't be the issue. The longing to be equal with better organized and more prosperous nations is understandable. Indeed, its clearest sign is that such comparison is made only to the free and prosperous west; there is little discussion of whether Indian elections trump their Peruvian or Nigerian counterparts. But a chest-beating equation of Indian life and government with the American versions, during a stale-mated and divisive time in US politics, is little more the misplaced chuckle of the weak at the chagrin of the strong. One need only to look around oneself, in any part of India, to be acutely reminded of that. Representative democracy here in the US, and its interpretation in the courts, maintains a system that is qualitatively different from the Indian one.

We are a young democracy, and this is sometimes offered as an excuse. But was our Constitution not framed and approved in hindsight of experience amongst the world's greatest democracies? Is it not widely reputed to be an instrument of considerable scholarship in regulating public life? And yet it is disregarded and abused without the slightest fear of retribution. Court-ordered remedies for public ills are ignored, the judges themselves are easily punished! It is the simplest thing in the world for an Indian state government to step into the courts and aver, without the slightest hesitation, that it has successfully repatriated millions of our rural displaced. The courts ask not for evidence of this. We have no right to education, we have no meaningful right to speedy trials, we have no measure of security and privacy in our homes.

Our politicians do not argue the law, they argue instead its right to judge them. They consider it their privilege to claim unavailability for trial; they view as their right that they can dismiss their abuse of the law as little more than the manifestation of political will across a section of the population. Our soldiers die by the hundreds each year, with little regard from any in the ruling class. Our people die of illnesses and deprivation unlike any in most of the world while the privileged few swat their presence away at inconvenient times. Our municipalities strive to render the poor invisible.

In the midst of such entrenched apathy and disaffection, the odd moments of embarrassment in others appear as tonic. The powerlessness of the masses, and even of some among the privileged, in the face of the unspeakable decline in public institutions in India, is easily worn on a sleeve of self-proclaimed deliverance at such a turn as we are now witness to. When our children are born into relative health and prosperity, when our schools teach those who now are enslaved in their poverty and labor, when the squalor of our public lives is transformed by at least the intent to remove it, then we will have attained the right to equate our public institutions and government with the rest of the world. But whilst we remain mired in the trappings of the criminal nexus that governs our public lives, the notion of parity with the developed world is sour grapes at best.

Do other nations stumble? Absolutely. America may now be in such a state, torn between the half of the nation that believes that all votes must be counted, and the other half that insists that without a pre-agreed standard for such counts, some votes must necessarily be discarded even if their messages have not been tabulated. The animosity from this battle may yet scar much of the coming presidency. But what joy can there be in such discord for us, or anyone else? What might we discern of those who find parity with a prosperous and calm society only in its time of distress? Is the best of Indian public life to be equated only with the very worst in America? The notion that our governing classes and the institutions they have given us are no worse than elsewhere is a childish attempt to explain away the misery of Indian public life. More than a resigned acceptance of the lot we now possess, it is an invitation to more of the same.

Ashwin Mahesh

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