It’s amazing that Indian democracy works. I am not talking about the staggering figures of 714 million eligible voters in 543 constituencies with 828,000 polling stations and 1.36 million electronic voting machines, administered and protected by six million officials and security forces—statistics that are trotted out in awe by foreign correspondents every election to grab the attention of their news desks.
My point is, it is so surprising that the vast mass of India’s electorate tolerates this exercise and accepts the result, even though it will do them little good. Every five years, and sometimes more frequently, around 60% of those eligible troop into polling booths and vote for aspiring parliamentarians and politicians who are most unlikely to have any interest in improving their lot.
Many will not know or have even heard of the candidates because constituency MPs rarely exist here in the way that they do in the UK, where most local MPs tend their local area, hold "surgeries" to help answer people’s questions and meet their needs, and generally become local figures. There are only a few such MPs in India—Mani Shankar Aiyar, for example, in Tamil Nadu, and Kapil Sibal in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk. Usually, party power brokers allocate seats at the last minute. The successful candidates then blast their way noisily around their constituencies, making speeches full of empty promises, laced with gifts (when the Election Commission is not looking), and then get elected, or not.
Party policies seem to matter little, despite detailed manifestos. There is, of course, a sharp divide over the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) Hindu nationalism and the Left Front’s soft communism, even though both of these are at least partly curbed in coalitions. The decline in economic growth and rising prices in shops, plus terrorist attacks, may count against the Congress; but there seems little to choose between the parties on these subjects. Both the BJP and the Congress, for example, have strong liberalization policies, with the BJP perhaps carrying a little more conviction because both Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh have reservations. And both parties would be tough on terrorism and security.
The first election I reported was in 1984, when Rajiv Gandhi and the Congress won on a huge sympathy wave after Indira Gandhi’s assassination. The elections of 1989 and 1996 produced unclear results as the dominance of the Congress declined. The party won again in 1991, on another sympathy wave after Rajiv was assassinated. Then the BJP, under Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s skilful leadership, came back firmly in 1999 at a time when Sonia had yet to pull the Congress back together. In 2004, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) won a totally unexpected victory because voters had tired of the overconfident BJP and its leading regional allies. But while the system works, and in some ways is getting stronger, it risks being devalued.
On the positive side, the expansion of the urban middle class means that more people are able to decide for themselves how to vote without being herded or bullied by caste groups or gang bosses. On the other hand, the system is slipping into the hands of political dynasties and regional party leaders, whose personal agendas often mean they care less for democracy or India than past MPs, and politicians with criminal links.
The Public Interest Foundation’s website, www.nocriminals.org, shows that one in five MPs elected in 2004 had criminal cases pending against them, either awaiting trial or on appeal after conviction—about half of them for murder, violent robbery or rape.
They included 40% of the MPs from Maharashtra, 35% of those in Bihar, and 28% of those in Uttar Pradesh (UP). Among them were five of the nine MPs in Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), and eight of the 19 in Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). It is well known that criminals use politics to help run their gangs and fix government decisions and contracts.
Dynasties generally have a negative impact on politics because they block a party’s development and prevent new leadership from emerging at the top. This is not to undervalue the contribution made by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, nor to ignore the potential of young dynastic MPs such as Omar Abdullah (now chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir), Jyotiraditya Scindia, Sachin Pilot, Manvendra Singh and Milind Deora, as well as Rahul Gandhi. These men seem to have positive agendas for improving the lot of the poor and how India is run, though they have yet to prove themselves as able politicians and leaders—and their existence means that outsiders have been denied positions.
There are also numerous sons, daughters and other relations being brought in by politicians who do not have such high ideals and seem to be there mainly to sustain a family’s prestige and patronage—and, I suspect, to ensure that the illicit assets and money accumulated by their fathers or uncles remain in the family. It would be good if disillusionment with such patronage led to them losing in elections.
The growth of regional-based parties such as Mayawati’s BSP is more worrying because few of them are interested in national policies. They line up with whatever national government suits them (though some do shun the BJP), and this time are working as a (not very stable) Third Front that could try to step in if neither the Congress nor the BJP has enough seats to lead a coalition. They habitually seek cabinet posts for ministries that are most lucrative in terms of kickbacks—defence, telecom, highways, aviation and power, for example—and seek influential ministers of state posts, such as in the finance ministry. National parties also, of course, covet these jobs and there have been Congress party defence and power ministers in the current government, but these politicians have had a national focus.
Yet, despite all the lack of focus and sincerity—and the corruption, caste-influenced voting and occasional violence—the system works. That is shown when swings happen and poorly-performing MPs lose their seats and governments are ousted, or elected, by unexpectedly large majorities. But the downsides make the system vulnerable. The main thing India needs is strong leadership to develop the economy and resist terrorism. For that, it needs a stable government—the risk is that it might not get it.
John Elliot has been reporting from India for 18 years. He is based in Delhi, contributes to Fortune magazine and writes a blog, Riding the Elephant (http://ridingtheelephant.wordpress.com/).