In The Armchair

Good Dictators

Posted in India by Armchair Guy on August 2, 2010

It is a peculiar feature of Indian democracy that the people expect the government to act, not like elected representatives, but like benevolent kings.  If you look at what people seem to admire, it isn’t a propensity to stay within the limits set out by the constitution, self-limiting their own power.  This has been a characteristic of many Indian politicians who believe in procedure and democracy (S. M. Krishna, Chandrababu Naidu, Atal Behari Vajpayee).  But such politicians haven’t lasted.  What the people seem to admire is the tendency to use an initial election to grab onto power and step outside the limits of the constitution (Laloo Prasad Yadav, Jyoti Basu, Indira Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi, Mayawati).  Such politicians have lasted far longer than the “good” ones who self-limit power.

There are many reasons for choosing a politician, some of which have more to do with immediate concerns than any grand theme.  But if we grant that the pattern above is real, it’s interesting to speculate why.

First, the voting masses actually admire this kind of power-grabbing.  Those who eschew such power grabs are viewed as weak.  That is understandable from a base point of view: why would someone not grab power if they could?  Finer ideas like checks and balances and democratic propriety don’t make much sense in a dog-eat-dog world.  From this point of view, a king should act like a king, not like a sarkari naukar.

Second, the masses expect to be given benevolent handouts once the people they voted for establish themselves as all-powerful maharajas/maharanis. (Think Sonia Gandhi visiting Amethi, thronged by worshipful subjects, bestowing her munificence as fancy takes her.)  This kind of “reward for our electoral loyalty” is an expectation across the masses.  These rewards are usually (though not always) not in terms of generally applicable legislation.  They are out-of-turn gifts bestowed in return for loyalty.

Of course these are not the only reasons; the voter is very aware of other intermediate-term benefits: revenge against an inimical social class, free power/food/credit, reservations, material gain as in land reforms, etc. These are usually granted more gradually and less gratuitously often through legislation. I’m talking about the type of person the voter wants to vote for, modulo factors such as these. In other words, who would the voter prefer, assuming they promised the same legislation?

The power-grabbing legislator is what I’ll call a dictator.  S/he is a dictator because s/he doesn’t believe the laws really apply to her/him. If s/he is kind to the constituencies that gave her votes, then s/he is good from the voter’s point of view. So the Indian voter’s electoral aspirations can be summed up as the desire to elect a good dictator.


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