Indians pride themselves on having the largest democracy in the world. Of course, that all depends on your definition of “democracy.” Fraud, intimidation, bribery, and vote-rigging are all widespread here; many villagers show up to the polls only to find out that the village headman has already voted for them all. Anyone who objects could wind up dead.

These past weeks, we were treated to the spectacle first hand. We didn’t see any overt violence or rabid mobs, but what we did see gave us occasion to pause and reflect on our preconceptions of how democracy works.

The most interesting aspect of the process was seeing how each candidate identified himself with a particular symbol.

In a place where the majority of the population is illiterate, this is the easiest way for voters to distinguish between candidates. When they went to the polls last Wednesday, the voters of Tamil Nadu found themselves forced to decide between glasses, ladder, road roller (which we thought was toilet paper), water tap, and eggplant (just to name a few). I was later informed that these symbols bear no relation to the candidate’s platform and promises (though it does seem like a good idea to associate yourself with what the voters hope will come to their villages).

In this society, the means of campaigning are often comical and primative. If running for office, the surest way to get your message out is not to print flyers or direct voters to websites, but to pay rickshaws to drive around to blare out recordings of your promises (accompanied with the occasional sample from a popular Tamil film song).

As a result, we were bombarded for a week straight from 7AM to 8PM with ceaseless campaign ads from all directions. The rickshaws would often just stop on the road outside our place and sit there for hours on end as the same message replayed itself over and over again. Even for India, one of the loudest places I’ve ever been, this was too much! I was forced to conclude that the key to success was repetition: even though I didn’t have a clue what he was saying, I would have been ready to make the same supplicating gesture and vote for the eggplant guy just to get his music to shut up.

It’s not hard to critique the whole thing: after all, if voters have to choose between symbols to make their choices, what kind of reasoning process went into that decision?  If you’re illiterate, does that mean your capable of weighing your options to make a rational choice? It brings to mind Plato’s objections to democracy- that most people can’t be trusted to make an informed enough decision for their future. I certainly felt like the whole thing was just a joke.

But then I began to discuss it with Giulia, who brought my attention to the fact that even though it seems so foreign and different than the west, our system is equally propagandistic . The only difference is the medium: here, it’s an oral culture, whereas the west is a print-based culture. All politicians, Indians and Americans, rely on the technique of shouting out their name and postering up their image, trying to pass themselves off as the most consumable candidate. And when elected, they seem equally corrupt as well- the only difference is that in America, the corruption is just better organized and less visible.

At least it was over in a week. If it would have lasted as long as the American process does nowadays, I’d be back in Montreal right now.

The results are not yet in; I’ll be sure to keep you informed as to what the victory party looks like if road-roller guy wins.