Terms of Trade | Transparency is overrated in realpolitik in India - Hindustan Times

Terms of Trade | Transparency is overrated in realpolitik in India

Mar 22, 2024 03:52 PM IST

The fight for political transparency is important for India's institutions, but transparency is not the driving factor when it comes to political hegemony

The Election Commission of India, this week, finally released data which makes it possible to map donors and recipients for almost three-fourths of the total amount donated via Electoral Bonds over the last seven years. Lest there is any confusion from the headline, it needs to be stated at the outset that had it not been for the highest judiciary, the executive would have got away with the bluff of institutionalising opacity in India’s political finance regime, in the name of promoting transparency. These are occasions which remind us that the judiciary continues to be an important guardrail when it comes to preventing the powers that be from riding roughshod over the spirit of our Constitution and democracy. Countries without such institutional guardrails can often plunge into chaos or tyranny. India is lucky to not be a part of this doomed club.

Will the publication of electoral bonds change realpolitik in India? (AFP) PREMIUM
Will the publication of electoral bonds change realpolitik in India? (AFP)

Having said this, there is a more interesting question which needs to be asked. Will the publication of these details change realpolitik in India? The terse answer, in this author’s view, is a no. However, there is some merit in explaining this in detail.

There has always been a school of thought among political commentators and activists in India which has believed that a lot of the institutional vices in Indian politics, such as the misuse of money and muscle power are the result of political parties withholding critical information from the voters. A generation of activists has fought very hard to get rid of this information asymmetry and some of their efforts have borne fruit over time.

Voters today have a right to know the criminal and financial antecedents of their candidates. Candidates who have been convicted of serious crimes cannot contest elections or hold elected office. Political parties have to publish a lot of information (but not all) about their sources of income and spending. At some levels, this has made it difficult for strongmen and moneybags to control politics. We must be grateful to the advocates of such institutional reforms.

Without taking anything away from the efforts of such activists, has it changed politics in the larger scheme of things? Not really. Also, there is more than enough evidence to show that the tendency to use compromised money or people is a secular vice in Indian politics and not the preserve of any particular party or ideology. In fact, most of the time, such material and human resources are more likely to gravitate towards the dominant party irrespective of its ideological hue.

Is this just a cynical way of looking at things? Will Indian politics never change for the better?

What some people might think of as cynical is actually pragmatic from the voters’ perspective. Findings from CSDS-Lokniti’s National Election Study (NES) for 2019 are a useful place to begin this argument.

Between 75% and 92% of the respondents in the survey did not report participating in any campaigning activity (rallies/processions/door-to-door canvassing/fund collection, etc) during the elections. The number is the highest for people who did not participate in raising money. 80% of voters were not visited by political party workers in the six months before the announcement of elections. These numbers suggest that the average Indian voter is very unlikely to have any organic contact with electioneering or regular political activism in India.

Such lack of organic link, however, does not mean the voter has no opinions about politics both at the micro and macro level. According to NES 2019, a political party was the most important criterion while making a voting decision for 43% of voters. Another 17% said it was the prime ministerial candidate. The local candidate was a driving factor behind the voting choice of 31% of voters. Put together, this is more than 90% of votes being decided by political affiliation or affinity for a political actor at the local or national level.

These two sets of statistics suggest a very weird relationship between voters and political parties in India. Almost 90% of Indian voters are very distant from political activism but an equal lot are very political while making voting decisions.

To be sure, this is not as counter-intuitive as it sounds. There exists enough political wisdom in India to suggest that popularity and democratic traction for parties, whether at the local or national level, is much more rooted than what the day-to-day functioning of their organisations suggests.

This could be a function of historical hegemony, such as in the case of the Congress in the early post-independence years. Or it could be the result of class or caste-based counter-hegemony, such as the rise of Communist parties against the feudal interests in the agrarian economy or Dravidian/Mandal parties against upper caste dominance in local politics. What is counter-hegemony today can very well face a similar challenge in the future. The BJP’s success against the Congress’s version of Nehruvian nation-building or othering Mandal parties by building an alliance of lower OBCs are some such examples.

Political power has changed hands in the country or at the level of states depending upon the strength or lack of it of such competing political hegemonies of the time. While the deployment of money/muscle power has often been used as a tool to fight such hegemonic battles, it would not be very far from the truth to argue that barring some exceptional cases – political violence in West Bengal and to some extent, Tripura, irrespective of the party in power are good examples – such tools have been very marginal to the eventual political outcome.

Simply speaking, this means that elections are largely free and fair in India even though they are far from pristine. Politics, not thugs or suitcases of cash, is what drives the essence of the contest. This is exactly why, once in a while, we see parties with huge resource deficits winning massive victories. Aam Aadmi Party’s success against the Congress and BJP in Delhi after the 2011 anti-corruption movement or the Communist Party of India (Marxist) victory in West Bengal in the 1977 elections are some such examples. Lest there is any confusion, it needs to be reiterated that massive victories for incumbent parties such as the BJP in 2019 are also a reflection of their political hegemony more than their resource advantage.

While some people might see part of such politics as being subversive under the existing constitutional framework – a hard-core liberal, for example, would see both communalism and redistributive class politics as assaults on individual freedom – we would do well to remember that when a political ideology acquires a certain momentum constitutional morality is the least likely headwind to control it.

In fact, one can make an argument that the essence of political competition in post-Independence India has been between ideologies, which have been trying to evolve the best ‘othering narrative’, which seeks to consolidate a majority by making a villain out of another group. In the case of the Communists, it was the landlords and the capitalists. For the socialist turned social justice crusaders, it was the upper castes and institutions controlled by them. For the BJP and its ideological predecessors, it has always been the religious minorities and the Communists.

The Congress, because it was pretty much the mothership of politics in post-Independence India, has become weaker and weaker with the unravelling of each of these fault lines at the national level. To be sure, there have been Congress leaders, both at the national and state levels, who have managed to arrest this long-term trend by trying to renew their hegemonic status against such challenges. Indira Gandhi’s anti-poverty rhetoric or social coalitions such as AHINDA or KHAM by the likes of Devraj Urs or Madhav Singh Solanki in Karnataka or Gujarat are some such examples.

To be sure, it would also be a mistake to think that political parties alone are responsible for challenging existing political hegemonies. They can very well be a result of changing socio-economic dynamics too. For example, the massive migration of people from eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to Delhi has forced Delhi’s political elite to share power with this cohort of people. Similarly, increasing land fragmentation and agrarian crisis have, by and large, defanged feudal politics of the old times in large parts of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

Whether or not a political party can successfully preserve its hegemony or undermine that of its competitors, depends on its ability to achieve a perfect balance between the politics of othering and the current political economy framework.

It is in this inability to achieve this balance that one should locate the failure of the Congress or the Opposition at large to achieve a radical class/caste consolidation against the BJP. Most of the poor do not see an Adani or Ambani or their direct oppressor and the socio-economic landscape has become too complicated and competitive to usher in an OBC consolidation of the kind which brought the Congress to its knees in the 1970s.

To give a simple analogy, the problem as far as the opposition is concerned, is not that the rules of the game are not being followed (which is what greater transparency would bring to the table). Their problem is that the game itself has changed and older skill sets are no longer useful. Unless the opposition pays attention to this fact, it will keep losing and keep crying foul without much effect.

Roshan Kishore, HT's Data and Political Economy Editor, writes a weekly column on the state of the country's economy and its political fallout, and vice-versa

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    Roshan Kishore is the Data and Political Economy Editor at Hindustan Times. His weekly column for HT Premium Terms of Trade appears every Friday.

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