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Democracy in India


John Simkin
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With all this talk about Western nations imposing democracy on underdeveloped countries, it might be worth congratulating the people of India for their great achievement. This week 650 million people elected a new government in India. All reports suggest it was a free and fair election (unlike in the United States). It was also the first country to use a large-scale electronic voting system. It is worth noting that India’s democratic system was not imposed by a foreign country but won as a result of a struggle with a colonial power. I suspect the people of Iraq will get their democracy in the same way.

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Guest Adrian Dingle

John

On the face of it, it looks like you allowed your political beliefs to get the better of you when you posted the statement;

.....it was a free and fair election (unlike in the United States).

That implies that you KNOW for a FACT that the American election was unfair and NOT free, AND that the exact opposite was true in India. Sweeping statements indeed.

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John

On the face of it, it looks like you allowed your political beliefs to get the better of you when you posted the statement;

.....it was a free and fair election (unlike in the United States).

That implies that you KNOW for a FACT that the American election was unfair and NOT free, AND that the exact opposite was true in India. Sweeping statements indeed.

The United States has a very flawed electoral system that is not as democratic as most other advanced countries.

To understand why you need to look at the way democracy has developed in the world. The rich and powerful have never been very keen on the idea of democracy. They knew that once everyone had the vote they would start demanding equality in other areas. They therefore used whatever methods at their disposal to prevent the development of democracy.

By the middle of the 19th century male members of the middle classes had obtained the vote in most advanced countries. The majority of males and all women were excluded from this process. Working class males were the next group to get the vote. Their power was coming from the rapidly expanding trade union movement. By the late 19th century working class males in nearly all advanced economies had the vote. In some countries there was legislation put in place to exclude some categories of working class men and in those cases they had to wait like women until the early 20th century for the vote.

In every country a similar pattern emerges. These trade unions helped to fund political parties to contest elections. All these parties embraced the ideas of socialism. As the rich in the 19th century had so rightly feared, the working and middle classes wanted a fairer distribution of the nation’s wealth. Socialism appeared inevitable. The only answer was to try and control the thoughts of these new voters. This involved the control of the mass media and public education. The established church also played an important role in this although this was not consistent and some devout Christians claimed that Jesus Christ had been the world’s first socialist.

Throughout the 20th century the working and middle classes have struggled with this problem. In most advanced countries this struggle has been fairly successful and have become fully functioning democracies. The United States however, has been the most successful at preventing this taking place.

As you probably know, after the American Civil War racist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan managed to prevent a large percentage of black men from voting. What is less well-known, is the role played by these organizations in the attempts to destroy the early trade union movement in the United States. The main method used against trade union organizers was the threat of lynching. This was a method of control that was not only used against black people.

Another method was the persecution of socialist leaders. This often involved the “framing” of activists for crimes they did not commit. In some cases, such as Joe Hill, Albert Parsons, August Spies, Adolph Fischer, Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Nicola Sacco, Louis Lingg, George Engel, etc. they were executed. Others, like Eugene Debs, the leader of the American Socialist Party, served long periods of imprisonment.

Even so, socialism continued to grow. By 1913 the socialist journal, Appeal to Reason reached a circulation of over 760,000. The First World War caused problems for the socialist movement in America. Most of its leaders were against the war and as a result large numbers were imprisoned for sedition. However, once the war was over, socialism emerged stronger than ever.

In 1920 Eugene Debs, the Socialist Party of America presidential candidate, received 919,799 votes while still in Atlanta Penitentiary. His program included proposals for improved labour conditions, housing and welfare legislation and an increase in the number of people who could vote in elections (Debs, like other socialists, was opposed to the way black people were prevented from voting in elections).

The capitalist state in America was in serious trouble. At this stage it looked like America would mirror events taking place in Europe where socialist governments were being established. In fact, conservatives in America described socialism as an European disease.

The next stage in the fight against democracy was to deport all those socialists who had been born in Europe. Over the next few months over 10,000 known left-wing activists were arrested (known as the Palmer Raids or the Red Scare) and accused of plotting revolution. No evidence of a proposed revolution was found but large number of these suspects were held without trial for a long time. Eventually they were released but a large number were deported back to the country of their birth. This strategy was highly successful and America saw a rapid decline in membership of left-wing organisations. This was reflected in the sales of left-wing newspapers and even those that had been selling nearly a million copies before the war were forced to close.

As with most advanced countries, the United States, saw a growth of socialism after the Second World War. Once again the Red Scare was introduced (this time it was called McCarthyism). Officially it was used against communists but its real target was liberals and socialists. People with left-wing opinions were ousted from their jobs (including teaching) and blacklisted. Very few Americans were willing to pay this price for holding onto their political beliefs (an important factor in this was the absence of a welfare state in America).

By the late 1950s FBI agents were reporting that left-wing groups had virtually been destroyed (it was claimed that FBI informants were outnumbering actual members of these groups).

Unlike other advanced countries American right-wingers had much more success at gaining control of the mass-media. There was no mass-circulation left of centre newspapers. More importantly, there was no public broadcasting organisations like the BBC to provide impartial news reporting.

America also had a democratic system that enabled it to stop people from voting. This was mainly used against black people in the Deep South.

The 1960s saw young, middle class liberals from the North trying to change this system. In 1964 the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) organised its Freedom Summer campaign. Directed by Robert Moses, its main objective was to try an end the political disenfranchisement of African Americans in the Deep South. Volunteers from the three organizations decided to concentrate its efforts in Mississippi. In 1962 only 6.7 per cent of African Americans in the state were registered to vote..

America once again resorted to its tactic of murder and intimidation. However, they made a serious mistake when they started murdering well-connected white students such as James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner and this resulted in the passing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Yes, it was as late as 1965 before all adults in America got the right to vote.

Even so, it was still impossible for the people of America to elect a government committed to the redistribution of wealth and power. By the 1960s the United States had established a two party, first past the post, electoral system. Both these parties were right of centre and had control over all local and national government bodies.

What is more, American politics is dominated by money. Without large sums of money you cannot run a political campaign. The buying of television time is vitally important to the success of politicians. The political literacy of the American population is the lowest in the advanced world. For example, a recent study by the University of Maryland showed that 57% of Bush’s supporters believe that “before the war Iraq was providing substantial support to al-Qaida”. Moreover 65% believe that “experts” have confirmed that Iraq had WMD. That level of ignorance does not exist in other advanced nations. But when you consider the way the Americans get their information, you can see why this has happened.

In 1960 the American people elected a conservative politician. However, he was educated by his experiences of office (especially by the events in 1962 concerning Cuba) and decided to negotiate an end to the Cold War. This posed a serious problem for the Military Industrial Complex and so a Coup d’Etat had to take place. Its power over the media was so great it was able to promote the idea that Kennedy was killed by a “lone nut”.

The far right had similar problems in the 2000 presidential elections. Gore’s environmental policies could have caused serious problems for the powers that be. Therefore it was necessary to rely on election practices that most thought had been eliminated by the 1965 Voting Act.

America has a long way to go before it can have a democratic system that is as good as the one in India.

http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAcivilrights.htm

http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAsocialist.htm

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Guest Adrian Dingle

John

A very nice history lecture. However, like most on the left (and the right for that matter) would have us beleive, the picture is seldom as black and white as you portray. The "democracy" that exists in the USA is certainly flawed, as it is in all other "democracies", with money most definitely being the main obstacle in the US. But this is America! That's what capitalism is about! That's the caveat that goes along with democracy here, just like the trade unions power is the caveat to democracy in socialist countries.

Given that fact, I think you are over complicating the situation. In the United States they have a Capitalist Democracy - it's just a different type - not perfect but no more or less valid than the Indian version. Surely you are not suggesting that there is such a thing as a one-man-one-vote, equal opportunity, perfectly democratic system are you? If you are, then I think your ideology is clouding reality.

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A very nice history lecture. However, like most on the left (and the right for that matter) would have us beleive, the picture is seldom as black and white as you portray. The "democracy" that exists in the USA is certainly flawed, as it is in all other "democracies", with money most definitely being the main obstacle in the US. But this is America! That's what capitalism is about!

All capitalist countries have had to grapple with this problem of equality within democracy. If you do not get near to solving this problem you don’t have a democracy. Most European countries have tried to make adjustments in order to make sure that the system does not allow the rich to exploit the power they obviously enjoy. This of course means government intervention in the process. Some measures employed include:

(1) Imposing restrictions on the ownership of the media. Without this, a small group of wealthy individuals will be able to manipulate the political opinions of the voters.

(2) Having a healthy public broadcasting organization. In this way you can insure that at least you have one fairly unbiased media organization. For example, the British people have the BBC. Of course, this is not completely unbiased and tends to favour the status quo. However, it does help to keep people like Rupert Murdoch and Conrad Black in their place.

(3) Government control over how much political candidates and parties can spend on elections.

(4) Government control over the way political parties advertise. For example, in Britain, there is restrictions on political advertising on television. This is vitally important as this is currently the main way people get their political information. If these restrictions were not in place those political parties with the largest amount of money would be much more likely to get the most votes.

(5) A register showing how much individuals and organizations are contributing to political parties. Without this, there is a strong danger that rich people will try to bribe governments into making certain decisions.

(6) Developing a political system that stops one or two political parties dominating government. This is a particular problem for those countries with a first past the post system. It is no coincidence that countries with this type of system tend to get the most extremist governments (USA and Britain). These countries also have a low participation rate in elections. This is understandable as many people realise their vote will have no impact on the result. There are many people living in Britain whose preferred candidate has never been elected in an election. (People living in safe Labour or Conservative seats).

Research suggests that some countries have made a good job of developing effective democratic systems. These include Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, Finland, Norway, the Netherlands and New Zealand. The United States does particularly badly in these international comparisons.

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Guest Adrian Dingle

Like I said, a Capitalist "Democracy" exists in the US. Does the system amount to a dictionary definition? No. Does it anywhere? No. In that light is it correct to characterize the system in the US in this way?

All reports suggest it (the Indian election) was a free and fair election (unlike in the United States).

I think not.

I would never argue that the United States does a better job of creating a true democracy than any of the countries you listed, but what I really object to is your original sweeping statement;

it (the Indian election) was a free and fair election (unlike in the United States).

which I think is misleading and inaccurate. It still appears as though your general anti-Americanism/politics are unfairly demonizing the USA in this regard.

As a footnote, I am not an American, I'm English and I feel no particular affinity for the USA, or need to defend it, in way, shape or form. In the fullness of time I will become eligible for naturalization but I would NEVER consider taking it!

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It still appears as though your general anti-Americanism/politics are unfairly demonizing the USA in this regard.

I see you have been in America long enough to pick up George Bush’s tactic of accusing everyone who disagrees with him as being “anti-American”. I am even more critical of the political system that they have in China than the United States. Does make me anti-Chinese? I am critical of many aspects of the British system. Does that make me anti-British.

I suggest you would find it more profitable to stick to the arguments I have put forward. Do you disagree with the six points I have made about the ways you make capitalist countries more democratic? If so, how high does the United States rate in these different areas? What other factors are important in ensuring that system are democratic?

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The Indian elections, as I understand it, were not without their troubles. Rioting resulted in very poor turn outs in some regions and in Lucknow where women were offered saris in return for their votes some women were trampled to death in the crush that ensued.

That said, I was joyful to see the pleasentness with which the handover of power is being handled. I always breath a sign of relief when the elected party is allowed to step into its new role unimpeded.

It was also wonderful to read interviews with the poor and uneducated who had strong views about who they would like to see in power and who they felt would be good for the country. They had a genuine belief thet their voted counted, which is more than I can say!

I would like to add that Europe is hardly free of Megalomaniacs in politics. Take Italy...I could be here for days!!

The trouble with America is that the outcome of an election, that very few Americans vote in and very few people even understand the politics of the people they are voting for, is a government that does not only control America but controls the world.

For that reason alone it is essential that democracy prevails in as unflawed a form as possible.

As an aside, a colleague from my college in Oxford is writing a paper on democracy at the moment regarding the fact that no modern country is democratic by the original definition of democracy. In order to be truely democratic people need to be selected at random from the population to preform tightly constrained roles in government. That way a true cross section of the population controls the country rather than those who have the money to get themselves noticed.

Any comments on this idea!?

Rowena

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Guest Adrian Dingle

John

My observation of your anti-Americanism is not confined to your comments about the electoral system in the USA, more a measured analysis of your political comments as a whole on the forum.

As to your six points, as I said before, I largely agree with them - but what's your point? Flaws (of different kinds) can be shown up in any "democratic" system, I don't beleive that the USA is any more or less effective than quite literally hundreds of others. Interestingly enough, the one thing the USA is very good at doing is not being ashamed of what it is - i.e. a society based upon money, where the influence of cash is felt in all arenas, politics being no exception.

I suspect most Americans would react to your comments by saying, "So what? This is America you know!"

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Adrian,

at a different time and about a different topic you said that some of the debates had become too personal and less objective and less to the point of education for your liking. I agreed with you then, but the debate going on between you and John at the moment is much too personal and too far away from the topic suggested for my liking. As far as I know we already have a section "Do we live in a democracy" on the forum and many points made here have been made there already.

Unfortunately I am no expert in Indian democracy and I have not followed the election closely. Still, what astonishes me is that once again a member of the Ghandi (I hope I put the "h" after the right letter) family will run the country and that whatever happens the old parties eventually gain the upper hand.

On the one hand I would support John's praise of Indian democracy and support his argument that it was not imposed on India from the outside but the result of a liberation movement but on the other hand I would say that Gandhi (the real one) grew up with British democracy - faulty as it then still might have been when it comes to voting rights - in front of him and simply wanted to have the same for India (and independence, of course). Actually not so very different from USAmerican history.

Although India has a political system we all hold in high esteem she has not yet managed to come to grips with her social problems, her religious divisions and we all know that equal rights for women (despite Indira and Sonia Gandhi) are unknown in many parts of the large subcontinent.

Coming back to my original statement about the old elites being reelected again and again in India, I have my doubts if these problems will be taken seriously by the new government and even though I do believe that democracy is the best political sytem to have, I think that as long as these social problems are not adressed India's democracy has as many flaws as the American/German one.

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I am surprised that Adrian has tried to "label" John Simkin as anti-American. Having met John on a couple of occassions I know for a fact that he is actually (unlike me) fascinated by all things American (especially their history and politics).

It is a strange and uneccessary comment which I can only assume is politically motivated by Adrian's dislike of John's politics. This is fine, I just wish Adrian would engage in debate on the points of dispute rather than issue sweeping labels about the general nature of John's posts on the forum or resort to complaining about "too many political posts".

I would also like to move the debate forward. Unlike my impartial and well informed friend Mr Simkin I am less than well informed about American "democracy." I am however sceptical (or indeed skeptical :) ) as to how the circumstances of the election of George W Bush can in any way be aptly described as "democratic".

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Firstly, I think that it's important to be able to compare and contrast 'democracies' - otherwise the word loses its meaning (as in the German Democratic Republic - DDR).

When I teach Swedish students about the political system of the United States, I often have to start by pointing out the *good* things about the USA (since most Swedes find it impossible to believe that there are any!).

One of these good things is the system of checks and balances which was intended to ensure that no one branch of the government (such as the President's Executive) can dominate the entire political system.

You could argue that the USA departed from this system when Reagan started packing the Supreme Court with the very conservatives who decided to halt the re-count process in Florida, ensuring Bush's victory in the 2000 election. Looked at from one perspective, this was a very 'Soviet' act - you have the appearance of democracy, in that people vote, but there's a mechanism hidden away which ensures that the Communist Party always gets in.

When I get round to 'gerrymandering' (the constant design and re-design of the physical shapes of political constituencies in order to ensure both that your candidates' supporters are sufficiently concentrated so that your party always wins, and that your opponents' supporters are sufficiently dispersed so that they never win), Swedes get really confused. As I understand the situation at the moment, there are very few seats either in the Senate or in the House of Representatives where there is a genuine contest (i.e. in which the incumbent has any chance of being defeated). This looks like evidence that the USA is *not* a democracy - at least in the accepted sense of the word.

Gerrymandering, both in the US variety and the UK variety (where the numbers of votes needed to elect a Labour MP and the numbers needed to elect a Conservative MP are still very different), is very difficult to pull off in a country like Sweden, which uses an extreme form of proportional representation. Interestingly enough, until very recently Sweden had fixed-term *3* year parliaments - it really kept the government of the day on its toes! They've just gone over to 4 year fixed terms. Nevertheless, the socialists still managed to rule Sweden unchallenged from 1932 until 1976 - being re-elected regularly every three years. Does this make Sweden *more* democratic than the USA?

Edited by David Richardson
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I would be very interested in hearing from people living in other countries how they have dealt with the problems identified in my earlier posting. (Most of your countries seem to have dealt successfully with point 6).

(1) Imposing restrictions on the ownership of the media. Without this, a small group of wealthy individuals will be able to manipulate the political opinions of the voters.

(2) Having a healthy public broadcasting organization. In this way you can insure that at least you have one fairly unbiased media organization. For example, the British people have the BBC. Of course, this is not completely unbiased and tends to favour the status quo. However, it does help to keep people like Rupert Murdoch and Conrad Black in their place.

(3) Government control over how much political candidates and parties can spend on elections.

(4) Government control over the way political parties advertise. For example, in Britain, there is restrictions on political advertising on television. This is vitally important as this is currently the main way people get their political information. If these restrictions were not in place those political parties with the largest amount of money would be much more likely to get the most votes.

(5) A register showing how much individuals and organizations are contributing to political parties. Without this, there is a strong danger that rich people will try to bribe governments into making certain decisions.

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Bourgeois democracy has been defined as a system in which people have the right to say what they like so long as finance capital takes the decisions ;)

When Harold Wilson came to power in 1964 he wrote about Labour's program being sabotaged by a "strike of capital." It was suggested that big business refused to allow the elected government to carry out its election pledges.

In India it seems that the financial institutions sought to undermine the incoming government with the stock market rising and falling according to political changes. The Congress Party has been quick to insist it has a moderate economic agenda. Any radical measures which those who voted for them might have expected are ruled out because it would upset those who wield real power - economic power.

Recent elections in Spain and India have in common the fact that the ruling government were so appalling that people enthusiastically endorsed the opposition despite the previous performance of the PSOE and Congress. In the UK the government is equally appalling but there is no opposition worthy of the name. People shouted themselves hoarse on the anti-war marches yelling "Blair Out!" but none of them were calling for "Howard in!"

Freedom of speech

The right to vote

Freedom of assembly

The right to strike

All of these are worth fighting for, that is why people fought for them and go on fighting for them all over the world.

Social Justice requires more. All of these rights can be subverted by the power of unelected corporations and that power exists throughout the world, not just in the USA.

Derek McMillan

socialist

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All is far from perfect in the state of Sweden, but the country does pretty well on John's latest 5 points.

There's a system for subsidising the smaller or poorer of the local newspapers, for example. (People get their news from local papers. In the town I live in, the 60,000 inhabitants have three local dailies to choose between: one Social Democrat, one conservative and one Conservative.) This system has kept at least a semblance of variety, although the same tendency to form monopolies is present here too.

Information at elections is also fairly tightly controlled. The employers' organisations usually try to get round it by forming 'non-political' action committees … which always end up supporting the bourgeois parties.

There's another long-established principle (since 1766) which is incredibly important here: offentlighetsprincip. This is a law which states that every single document which any public body receives or sends must be given a file reference number and must be made available to any citizen without delay upon demand, unless a tightly-defined set of criteria are met to have it classified. It makes public corruption very difficult, since anyone can present themselves to the office of the Parliament or arrive at the town hall and demand to see the credit card receipts (for example) of any politician. It makes journalism very easy here!

The lack of a similar type of openness is one of biggest problems Swedes have with the EU.

The fact that the tax rolls are also subject to this principle means that you can inspect the tax returns of anyone - including politicians - on demand. You can see what they've tried to claim for, and how much their properties are worth. It's amazing how many bourgeois politicians end up not paying tax at all, and how many businessmen manage to make a 'loss' on their personal income! This has ruined many a political reputation here, and ensures that 'surviving' politicians are fairly clean.

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