Indian Driving 101: A Lesson in Geopolitics


Despite rising concern in “the West” over CO2 emissions and climate change, the booming consumer demand for cars has emerged as a central and visible feature of India’s rising economic growth. The New York Times describes how accelerating demand has outpaced regulation to produce comical dilemmas like this one:

Delhi issued more than 300,000 drivers’ licenses last year, which could be seen as either a feat of bureaucratic efficiency or Indian ingenuity. At one city licensing office this week, the test consisted of turning on the ignition and driving in a wide circle that took about a minute. Ramfali, a professional chauffeur, said he scored a license even though he cannot read. Mr. Sharma paid about $40, or five times the official fee, to an independent broker who fetched him a license in half an hour.

After reading this wildly entertaining article, I realized driving in India is remarkably akin to certain views of international relations — regardless of (inter)national norms, drivers (think states) will do whatever they can maximize their power and get what they want by exploiting every open crevice and fragility.
Most of the vehicles could be considered states but you can extend the metaphor to the competing actors for the road: fast-peddling cyclists, nimble but low-tech pedestrians, and the occasional lumbering elephant (think transnational actors like multi-nationals, terrorist networks, and the lumbering international organizations and bureaucracies, ever-trying to keep pace).

indian car.JPG

The above video of an Indian thoroughfare provides visual corroboration of my thesis: out of a sea of anarchy emerges a strange but fluid order. And particularly adept at exploiting this order is an actor with few scruples or inhibitions about exercising power when it can. Watch closely for the white car (shall we name it the Vladimir?) at the top center of the youtube screen emerging at 1:20 that flouts the norms of the existing order and likely heads off to make mincemeat of Herbie the love bug.
— Sameer Lalwani


4 comments on “Indian Driving 101: A Lesson in Geopolitics

  1. bob h says:

    My experience of being driven in India is that the drivers get quite adept at avoiding the large number of cows, pigs, donkeys, and other animals wandering the roads.


  2. David N says:

    First, my qualifications for writing on this subject: India was my first Foreign Service posting, and I lived — and drove — for a year in Delhi and two years in Madras. I then lived for three years in Kathmandu. I have also driven — and more often been driven on — long-distance, intercity trips.
    And while I could thus write for pages about the phenomenon of Indian driving, I will try to keep it short by saying that many of the theories and metaphors for the phenomenon are bullshit.
    Here are the main characteristics to be aware of:
    1. Variety: Everything from Mercedes to put-puts to ox carts. This makes the roads very inefficient and keeps all speeds low.
    2. Ignorance: As Sameer notes, most drivers haven’t a clue about the basics of driving. Lanes and rules are things they haven’t even heard about; so they can’t ignore them. In East Asian countries, it bears noting, the only reason traffic isn’t just as chaotic is that planners have been careful to construct solid barriers between the oncoming lanes.
    3. Status: Most drivers do not own the vehicles they are driving. They really do not have any investment in the welfare of their own vehicles, or any other. Insurance is a joke, and the drivers have nowhere near the means to redress any damage they may cause. Plus, often the drivers are determined to maintain the right of way in order to demonstrate the importance of the person in the back seat.
    4. Impersonality: Those other things on the road are objects. I found it quite useful to make eye contact with other drivers when I could. That way, I became a person (admittedly, a sahib), and suddenly courtesy became possible.
    5. Danger: Clips like the example given aside, accidents are common and often horrific. When driving in the country, it was routine to encounter two lorries that had rammed each other head-on in the night, because they were both driving in the middle of the steeply pitched road (because of monsoon rain drainage), without lights to save gas, the drivers (deceased) hopped up on pills to stay up through the night and earn extra money. There is little mystical about it; in the cities, speeds are low, vehicles are underpowered, and they still kill each other at an alarming rate.
    I could go on, but you’ve probably stopped reading this rant already.
    Given the above, I certainly hope that there is no metaphor for international relations there . . .


  3. ... says:

    for anyone trying to understand indian driving, i can comment from a trip 8 years ago… the bigger the vehicle, the more they have the right away.. when you watch the video keep that in mind and it might make more sense… the nice thing about their traffic is that it oftentimes keeps moving as opposed to our system of advanced left hand greens and etc where a whole lot of cars are sitting around waiting for the light to change.


  4. Ben Rosengart says:

    Thinkers have applied game theory to international relations since at least the 60s. I have noticed that game theory also works with auto traffic — gridlock, for example, can be modeled using the Prisoner’s Dilemma. There are also applications to computer networks (which I work with for a living).


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