Understanding India’s democracy is tough. Describing it is even tougher. Like most things Indian—a soothing Ayurvedic massage, piping hot parathas and bhurji at a roadside dhaba—it is best simply experienced.
Often these experiences offer themselves as unexpected vignettes that pop into our everyday lives, like the aunt who drops in for evening tea. But if anyone were to seek out a democracy “tour” in India, I would suggest a long ride on our city roads—not just the main arteries, but also the side streets and the galis that branch off like the veins on a leaf.
Our city roads are lined with signposts to our democracy.
Start with those who occupy these roads. Cycle rickshaw holding up the chauffeur-driven Mercedes, overloaded Maruti challenging an overbearing city bus, paanwala and bicycle mechanic parked permanently on the pavement. Flower-seller, milk booth, cobbler, hopping schoolchildren. All jostling each other in a display of democratic interdependence, with space being made for everyone.
The physical architecture of our roads are also motifs of our public governance systems.
Trees of all species—many totally inappropriate for roadside planting—hang over the streets, gnarled trunks pushing through the tar. The line between private and public property is blurred on the country’s city roads. All varieties of properties, ranging from residential to commercial, encroach public space. Electric transformers brazenly occupy half the pavement—invasion of public space by the public utility. And the electric company wonders why people don’t think twice about taking illegal connections from the overhead wires.
Watch the road surfaces, they tell a tale as well. The smooth blacktops of the main thoroughfares give way to grainy side roads and dusty slum lanes. Our democracy, too, is more accessible to some Indians than others.
Look carefully and you can see the corruption as well—the recently-laid road surface with an anaemic coat of asphalt that won’t survive the next monsoon.
In our democracy, we sometimes see different arms of government unable to work with each other, and indeed, sometimes undermining each other. On our city roads as well, we see the municipality finish laying a road one day, only to have the water board cut it open the next.
As for our behaviour on our city roads, that is a reflection of how we run our democracy.
Every stretch of road has traffic violations. Law-abiders feel like fools as they see the lawbreakers getting away scot-free. Democracy demands that we compromise our personal liberty for a larger common good. But each of us will be ready for these compromises only if all of us are ready for them. There is a “tipping point” of unchecked violation, beyond which rules don’t mean anything. Roads or democracy: six of one, half-a-dozen of another. No difference.
Most of us suffer silently, cooped in our self-created urban cocoons—in the overcrowded bus or the air-conditioned car, millions of human pressure cookers gathering steam.
We all feel the pain of poor roads—lack of planning, bad design, poor execution, minimal legal compliance. Yet, somehow we are not able to come together to claim ownership over the road and say, “This is ours, and we are going to fix the problem.”
Often, this is not because we don’t care—in fact, we care so much that it hurts. But we don’t know how to step out of that private space and fix the problem—it’s too overwhelming. The system has made the citizen feel frustratingly irrelevant.
Nothing possibly captures the similarity between our roads and our democracy better than the temple in the middle of the road. It is a remarkable sight: You can almost visualize the pattern of growth that engulfed the temple, with the road snaking up to it, gradually encircling it, and hoping to eventually choke it out.
And yet the temple survives, a resolute reminder of a different way of life, a complete ecosystem transported in time.
To many, the presence of this “obstacle” is stupefying—“How can we allow this to happen, how can we ever progress like this?”
Maybe the temple is a reminder that the road of economic growth that we are rushing on eventually leads nowhere unless we are able to carry all with us, even those whose views we are not able to fully comprehend.
So there you have it—this chaotic, multicoloured, maddening, almost-on-the-verge-of-collapse-but-amazingly-still-working democracy, sorry, city road of ours!
Ramesh Ramanathan is co-founder, Janaagraha. Möbius Strip, much like its mathematical origins, blurs boundaries. It is about the continuum between the state, market and our society. We welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org