On 4 November, the results of the U.S. elections enthralled the entire world. Whatever its other faults, the democratic process in the United States threw up an impressive candidate followed by a truly positive result. The Indian media coverage of the US elections has mostly been glowing, apart from a few murmurs about the strategic consequences for the Indo-US relationship.

But there is another noteworthy aspect. Indian opinion has almost universally contrasted the US election with our own flawed electoral process. The potential election of Mayawati as the first Dalit Prime Minister is foreseen as the Indian version of Obama's election to the US presidency. However, whenever that possibility is written about in the Indian media, it is followed immediately by a strong disavowal of any comparison between Mayawati and Obama.

The negative comparisons between Indian and U.S democracy are partly real; the US has made more progress in race relations after the signing of the civil rights act in 1965 than India has made in caste relations after independence. Obama is a more visionary figure than Mayawati. The reasons for the better outcome in the US are several, and need not be rehashed here; this article is about the how we imagine democracy and how that leads to a negative perception of Indian democracy.

Keeping negative outcomes at bay

In both popular and elite parlance, democracy is about positive achievements: freedom, justice, equality etc. To the extent the democratic process takes us towards those goals, we think of it as a success, and otherwise we label it a failure. However, democracy is not just about positive achievements; it is also about keeping negative outcomes at bay. The twentieth century showed us that when things in the modern world go bad, they can go really bad. Millions upon millions were slaughtered in the name of one revolution or the other.

India was no exception. The famine in Bengal had hundreds of thousands starving to death while resources were diverted towards the British war effort – ironically a war written about as a fight between freedom and tyranny. Post-Independence India is rather placid in contrast with these spectacular failures of humanity.

India's marginal successes include the prevention of human disasters that were considered inevitable by knowledgeable western and Indian commentators only decades ago.

 •  The nation and nation-state
 •  Us, them and us

Amartya Sen's famous work has convincingly demonstrated that democracies prevent famines from occurring. When we contrast British India with Independent India, the scales are firmly tilted towards the latter: independent India has not seen disasters on the scale of the 1942 famine. Nor has it seen genocide on the scale of Rwanda. Democracy in India may not have created a secular heaven that we were hoping for, but it has prevented us from descending into a secular hell. When comparing India to the United States and other developed countries, it is important to add up the 'marginal successes' as much as the 'actual failures.' By marginal success, I mean the negative outcomes that were prevented while actual failure counts the positive goals that remain unachieved.

I believe that Indian democracy has been quite successful in the marginal success department even if it has not been quite as good at achieving positive aims. Of course, history does not allow counterfactual reasoning; we cannot really ask "what if India had been a revolutionary society rather than a bumbling democracy?" but the absence of continental disasters should count for something. Why do we not acknowledge the marginal successes of Indian democracy?

The reason why we neglect marginal successes is because the mythology of democracy is a mythology of progress, of what Francis Fukuyama called the end of history. If human societies are moving inexorably towards liberal democracy, there is no reason to be joyful about the lack of hiccups on the path towards freedom. Fukuyama's view is essentially a theological view of society, but there is no reason to accept it. The end of the cold war in the west made Fukuyama and others think that liberal democracy was the final word in human progress.

The liberal utopia is now officially dead; it was always a distant dream but Bush and his crusade towards democracy ended any talk about the end of history. Instead it now seems as if democracy is neither natural nor sustainable without active participation by citizens of democratic countries. If human societies in general are on a random walk towards nowhere in particular, then societies that protect basic liberties are to be commended for their lack of failures as much as they should be criticised for their lack of successes. Here, Indian democracy has worked. However, its shine cannot be seen when you compare it with the west.

In the western world, liberal democracy took three hundred years to achieve, a period that saw plenty of war, slavery and oppression. In 1945, the western world had almost destroyed itself in an orgy of violence. Liberal democracy was established in Western Europe after the alternatives revealed themselves as horrendously painful. India, on the other hand, saw democracy for the first time in 1947. Our marginal successes include the prevention of human disasters that were considered inevitable by knowledgeable western (and Indian) commentators.

I am harping on our marginal successes, for we are seeing quite a few disturbing developments in the past year or so, developments that might seem unbearable if not set against a larger context. In the last few months, we have seen more than a few instances where democracy has colluded with our worst impulses to produce sectarian violence. Whether it is Hindu-Christian violence in Orissa and Karnataka, the brutality of Nandigram or the anti-North Indian agitation in Maharashtra, we are seeing one example after another of violence going hand in hand with electoral politics. Of course, there is nothing peculiar about West Bengal or Maharashtra. We might well see 'pro-Tamil' agitations in Tamilnadu and anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat before next years elections. It is as if nothing is sacred in the quest for electoral power. All is fair in love, war and politics.

An odd juxtaposition

While I am repulsed by the use of violence by various political outfits, I find it curious that the unrest is accompanied by a deepening of electoral democracy. Paradoxically, it is the acceptance of electoral power as the ultimate prize that drives some of our politicians towards violence. There is no logical reason for things to be this way; for example, the contesting parties need not have any allegiance to electoral democracy at all - Kashmir is a good example where neither the Indian state nor the secessionists have shown any commitment to democracy. The level of violence in Kashmir, Punjab and the North-East is qualitatively higher and more sustained than periodic riots elsewhere.

As I mentioned earlier, Amartya Sen has shown that democracy prevents famines. While poor people all over India are still undernourished, they are not starving to death in large numbers. It might not seem like a major achievement, but it is something. So, to echo Sen, does democracy do the same thing for violence? In other words, just as democracy prevents famines without addressing everyday food scarcity, does it prevent horrendous violence while accepting and even abetting smaller acts of violence?

I am making an empirically unsubstantiated claim (except for Sen's work) about democracy as a vaccine, i.e., that democracy makes room for small acts of violence in order to prevent catastrophes. But at the very least it seems plausible that democracy acts as a dampener on the worst forms of violence. Are Raj Thackeray and the MNS part of the vaccine we have to take as a society in order to prevent a larger disease from killing us altogether?

Let me reiterate; I am not saying that street violence is a good idea. Such acts must be met with the force of the law. However, violence should be seen with a political lens as much as it must be stopped with police action. In order to address violence in a democracy, we need to give up the fairy tale notion that democracy is only about freedom and other laudable goals. Human beings need societal norms not only to fulfill their deepest desires, but also to protect themselves from their basest impulses.

The fact remains that conflicts in India are all too real. There is always trouble to be had when people labeled 'outsider' come into a city and become prominent in its economic landscape. That was the original problem with Jews in Europe. Similarly, conflicts over caste and religion are not going away, however much they might appear medieval to the liberal cast of mind. Societies need an outlet for these negative emotions as much as they need visions of the greater good. One of the key contributions of democracy is that it gives a marginally acceptable outlet for interest groups with negative goals - groups that are anti-this and anti-that.

Without the pressure valve of democracy, negative emotions can descend into wholesale terror as happened in the west in first half of the twentieth century. I think that Indian democracy is doing us all a service by providing an electoral incentive to Raj Thakeray. Far worse is what the nation-state is doing in Kashmir. By conducting an election where electoral democracy is itself seen as illegitimate by the people, they are devaluing the value of democracy as a whole. A sham election will make it all the more difficult to bring militant Kashmiris into the mainstream.