Sunday, September 16, 2012

Copycat Democracy: Gangnam Style

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

I thought it would be a good idea to let him see where I work, so I invited him along. As soon as we entered my office, he began making a ruckus. Not only did he start shouting at random people, he began to break off pieces of the furniture and throw them at the cubicles on the other side of the isle. We were unable to do any work that day and had to suspend our proceedings. Serves me right for trying to celebrate ‘Bring Your MP to Work’ day.

Watching the Democratic National Convention while politicians in India continued to punch democracy in the face, gave a lot of people on twitter some pause. They were wondering why our polity is not more like America’s. ZOMG! Obama let a pizza shop owner give him a belly-to-belly suplex-hug. When will Sonia Gandhi/LK Advani/Manmohan Singh/Narendra Modi do that?

Whenever something terrible happens in our politics (which is almost every alternate day), people are always wondering why we couldn’t be more like America. We always want to adopt other country’s traditions..P.A. Sangma even called for a Presidential debate like the ones they hold during American elections. Which was great except for one thing: Presidents in India don’t really set policy. They’re supposed to sit there and parrot whatever the Prime Minister and his ‘council of ministers’ tell him. What would have Sangma and Mukherjee argued about in their hypothetical debates? That who would use better cutlery while entertaining creepy heads of state? Let’s import a system without first understanding how it works! Not that there aren’t things wrong with the American system; as some fellow once said, I like it but I have some notes.

Democracy is the art of selecting the person you feel will do the least damage to the country, even though sometimes a couple of people who care about actual policy and wanting to do some good manage to sneak in. In India, we don’t elect politicians based on their policy credentials. We elect them based on their last name or if they have the same caste as us or if they promise us a free colour teevee after the election. No one who is serious about tackling corruption or enacting laws that would benefit a large swathe of the populace will spend large amounts of illicit money providing potential voters with more alcohol than the other guy. The system of democracy always seems greener on the other side of the fence (unless the country on the other side of the fence is Pakistan. Then it’s a land so barren that it has less life than Mars). For example, many analysts in America have argued for a multi-party system’ while in India, we once lived under Prime Minister Deve Gowda, the best argument against a multi-party system.

People also lament the fact that we don’t have an Indian ‘Jon Stewart.’ That’s because as a country, we don’t have a sense of humour. We tend to take things very seriously. We get so worked up about shit that doesn’t matter. We even arrest people for ‘sedition.’

Sedition is blasphemy by another name. Both consist of perceived crimes against man-made symbols which must be protected from imaginary assault and both don’t belong in a democratic country. We think symbols of our democracy are more important than our democracy itself. These ‘symbols’ have survived wars, famine, emergency, assassinations, currency devaluation, coalition governments and terrorist attacks. Nothing is more insulting to them than the fact that we presume that they cannot handle being mocked by a shitty cartoonist.

We are unable to laugh at ourselves. We turn everything we like into a revered object that we expect everyone else in the world to also treat with ‘utmost respect.’  And we’re ready to gather into a mob and go on a rampage if they don’t.

In a healthy democracy, no god, no person and no symbol should be above being mocked.

Not even Sachin Tendulkar.

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