What a clumsy, beautiful mess democracy can be. As India goes to the polls today, people across the world may deservedly feel a breath of hope. If this massive, multi-ethnic, developing nation of 1.2 billion can resolve its competing aspirations and interests at the ballot box there may just be hope for humanity after all.
India's chaotic democracy is good for us all
What a clumsy, beautiful mess democracy can be. As India goes to the polls today, people across the world may deservedly feel a breath of hope. If this massive, multi-ethnic, developing nation of 1.2 billion can resolve its competing aspirations and interests at the ballot box - as it has more or less for the past 60 years - there may just be hope for humanity after all. No one can argue that it has been smooth sailing since independence in 1947, and the ship of state has come close to foundering on the shoals of sectarian tensions, but the world's largest democracy has weathered considerable challenges to chart a sound course for its future.
Indian democracy has been an act of faith from the outset. The sheer scale of the undertaking begun today emphasises the extraordinary task of the civil union: 714 million people are eligible to vote for 5,435 parliamentary candidates in five rounds of voting spanning four weeks. A simple process, this is not. But it is worth noting that modern-day democracy is not patterned after the yea or nay of the Athenian agora, but the guiding institutions of representative government that have been crafted over time to resolve conflict in a peaceful manner. "Among the numerous advantages promised by a well constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction," writes James Madison in the tenth essay of the Federalist Papers, one of the compelling arguments supporting another model of democracy farther abroad.
The point is not that the democratic institutions have been perfected, nor that the ballot box is a panacea for India's ills, but simply that civic participation channelled through the vote is better than the alternatives. In part the purpose of any political system should be the peaceful resolution of conflicts of interest and the just apportionment of public resources. These are fundamental considerations in a society that faces considerable challenges posed by poverty, illiteracy and threats against national security. Public services such as clean water and provision of electricity deserve their prominence on the agenda, and politicians like Mayawati, a woman from the "untouchable" caste who now governs the state of Uttar Pradesh, have driven the concerns of the poor to national prominence.
Her case exemplifies another force at work as democracy can act as the great equaliser. This is an important mechanism of social justice but the consequences are not necessarily ennobling. India's parliament is by no means a meeting hall of paragons of virtue; one-fifth of MPs elected in 2004 had criminal cases pending against them. There is also grist for the demagogues and rabble rousers, and the society is particularly vulnerable to the politics of communalism and narrow-minded chauvinism of the sectarian divide.
Sadly the hatemongers are also representative of society, but it is through the democratic process and the marketplace of ideas that these elements can be exposed and refuted. Just as the electorate continues to change, so do the institutions of society evolve. India's electoral process is increasingly digital and as people gain access to the information and exchange enabled by cyber-politics, politicians and power brokers must contend with this. The digital media may offer a mechanism of accountability - politicians who in the past have got away double dealings and deception would be wise to show caution. The people, and the world, are watching.