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India: The Biggest Democratic Failure

India: The Biggest Democratic Failure

Friday, 18 April 2014 09:44 Kasim Javed

From the 7th April to May the 12th the world’s largest democracy will be having the world’s largest elections – arguably the largest democratic event in history. Over 800 million people inImage India will go to the polling stations to elect the next parliament of India. The sheer size of the population (the average constituency size is 1.3 million people) and the convolutions of such a big electoral process has created euphoria around the world. ‘people Power,’ ‘transparent governance,’ ‘accountability’ etc have become the mantra of newspaper headlines, however, beyond the surface of this event, democracy is in fact the virus that has infected India and turned it into another basket case of democratic failure.

Since India’s opening era in 1991, which was predicated with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 India has been analysed by economists, geopolitical experts and futurologists as an emerging power. It was recognized as one of the BRIC nations and a state that is today success story of global capitalism with a $1.7 trillion economy. Whilst the Chinese economy has been characterized as “The World’s Workshop” due its large manufacturing sector, India is known as “The World’s Back Office” due to the large IT services sector that generates 54% of the nation’s wealth. But like all capitalist countries, the wealth of India is concentrated in a handful of individuals with the 100 richest Indians worth $259 billion. The wealth that the country has generated has not trickled down to the rest of the population with 32.7% of the country living in extreme poverty of less than $1.25 per day, and although not considered as poverty, 96.3% live on less than $5 per day highlighting the sheer wealth disparity that exist and the failure of capitalism to distribute wealth. Today India is home to a third of the world’s poor.

India contains all the features of a democracy from disproportionate wealth distribution, social decadence (India has a huge rape problem) and a system of governance that breeds corruption. A report released by Ernst & Young in 2013 titled “Bribery and Corruption: Ground Reality in India” found that between Oct 2011 and Nov 2012, corruption in India (including major cases such as the Commonwealth Games scandal) cost India $5.92 billion. In 2012 India ranked a dismal 97 out of 176 countries in the Corruption Perception Index of Transparency International. In a recent poll 96% of Indians said corruption was holding their country back and 92% thought it has got worse in the past 5 years. The report further highlighted one senior figure in the ruling Congress party, worried about the feeling that “The law for the common people doesn’t apply to the political princelings and industrialists.”

The outgoing government of Manmohan Singh has been hobbled by corruption scandals ranging from resource allocation to old fashioned bribery allegations and critics are calling Mr Singh’s government the most corrupt in India’s history. On the other hand, Narendra Modi, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate for prime minister who is currently ahead in the polls is accused by critics for his cozy relationship with tycoons.

India is a hugely fragmented nation with competing factions with varying interests pulling and pushing across various geographical, religious, caste-based and class-based fault-lines. Indian politicians have, for most of India’s post partition history, utilized the differences for their short term gains never bothering to rise above petty differences and marshal the resources of the nation. The fact that India is the world’s largest democracy is a problem not an advantage for India. Parliamentary democracy institutionalises differences and allows parties to be established to protect such interests. This results in most issues lingering into parliamentary deadlock as was seen with the civilian nuclear deal with the US.

India has a population of 1.2 billion, with 80% of the population Hindu. However India is a fragmented nation that has been unable to integrate its minorities, this has created a secessionist problem with various factions leading violent campaigns against the Indian government.

India’s fundamental problem is in its identity. Is India a Hindu nation or a secular nation? Secularists are in the minority and have argued against Hindu nationalists who have led mass riots against minorities. Those who have benefited from India’s liberalisation have to a large extent been those who believe Hinduism should have no role in governance. A number of historians have highlighted the obstacle Hinduism places on development. “The sheer rigidity of Hindu religious taboo’s militated against modernisation: rodents and insects could not be killed, so vast amounts of foodstuffs were lost, social mores about handling refuse and excreta led to permanently insanitary conditions, a breeding ground for bubonic plagues. The caste system throttled initiative, instilled ritual and restricted the market and the influence wielded over Indian local rulers by the Brahman priests meant that this obscurantism was effective at the highest level.”[1]If India is a Hindu nation with Hinduism its identity, then this institutionalises the caste system which stratifies India into a system of hereditary groups. Currently India is a mixture of secularism and Hinduism which means the nation cannot move in a unified direction and this is what has caused its secessionist problem as Hinduism cannot deal with people outside such a caste system.

The image of an ‘India Shining’ post-1991 is not representative or a fully accurate portrayal of a country where over 100,000 villages have never heard a telephone ring. While the economic reforms of the 1990’s did much to liberalise and stimulate growth, the direct beneficiaries were more affluent urban dwellers. The fact that India has elections is irrelevant as politicians of all persuasions are only in parliament for themselves rather than the people. The politicians pass laws that institutionalize their corruption and no amount of elections will change this. This is because the more elections you have the more you corrupt your system as politicians need to raise money to run for office and then use the office to stay in office and reward their supporters. These problems are not just specific to India, as similar problems exist with other democracies. In a report by researchers from Princeton and Northwestern universities, they concluded the US political system only served special interest organisations, instead of voters. Democracy is India’s problem, not its solution.



[1] Paul Kennedy, ‘The rise and fall of the great powers, economic change and military conflict from 1500 – 2000,’ New York Random house, pg 13

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