India’s election: the world’s largest question mark

Dolan Cummings on the biggest election in the history of mankind.

Dolan Cummings

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The next few weeks will see India voting in the biggest democratic election in the history of mankind. More than 800million people are eligible to vote in the elections for the Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of parliament, which will determine which parties will form the country’s next government. Not only will this be the biggest election India has ever seen, thanks to a still-growing population. but it also represents a major crossroads for the 64-year-old republic.

The ruling United Progressive Alliance, led by the Congress party, which has ruled India more often than not since leading the struggle for independence from the British Empire, is widely considered to have fared poorly in its last five-year term. Indeed, the outgoing parliament has been plagued by political stalemate and disruption, and leaves no fewer than 74 bills pending. After two decades of impressive growth, India’s economy is ailing. A sense of exhaustion hangs over Congress’s leaders, from the aged prime minister Manmohan Singh to the not-quite-youthful youth party leader and party vice-president, Rahul Gandhi, scion of the dynasty that began with India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.

The Congress’s primary adversary is Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial candidate of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), usually characterised as a right-wing, ‘Hindu nationalist’ party. Modi’s name is especially tainted by association with a 2002 massacre of Muslims in Gujarat, the state of which he was, and remains, chief minister. But Gujarat is also Modi’s selling point, because it has been relatively successful in attracting investment and is presented by some as a development model to be emulated by the country as a whole.

For many observers, the election is a contest between two competing visions of India. Congress supporters insist that the very idea of India as a secular, modern republic is threatened by the BJP’s backward politics of communal division, sometimes adding that its development credentials amount to little more than support for corporate greed at the expense of the poor. Unsurprisingly, Modi’s supporters see things differently.

Last July, he dismissed Congress’s fearmongering about communalism by accusing the party of hiding behind the ‘burqa of secularism’ rather than addressing real issues. This was a two-pronged barb (in part highlighting the association between the Congress and Muslims), but it was the charge of evasiveness that really struck a nerve. Many Indians, Muslims among them, are indeed sick of being told they must simply vote Congress, regardless of its many failings, or risk seeing the country torn apart by communalism. And the popularity of Modi himself – especially among younger people – has less to do with the appeal of right-wing Hindu nationalism than with the perception that he represents a new start for the country – and one based on rapid development rather than ideology. To quote another pithy Modi soundbite, ‘I say build toilets before you build temples’. (Around half of all Indian households lack toilets.)

Latterly, some Congress strategists seem to have learned this lesson, and have challenged Modi on his perceived strengths. Early this year, the party in Gujarat organised a 20-day ‘Vikas Khoj Padyatra’ (footmarch to explore development), during which young Congress workers sought to expose a lack of development at the grassroots level throughout the state. Certainly, there are reasons to be sceptical about the ‘Gujarat model’, but whoever wins that argument, it would be a mistake to see the election as simply a contest between Congress and the BJP. While these are the only two parties with significant support throughout India, there are countless other parties with strong support on a regional level, from the caste-based parties of north India to the alphabet soup of bewildering acronyms in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. Communist parties also retain significant influence in many parts of the country. And then there is the new brand name in Indian politics, the Aam Admi Party (AAP).

A changing political landscape

Translating as the ‘Common Man’s Party’, the AAP emerged from a huge anti-corruption movement that arose in 2011 under the leadership of social activist Anna Hazare. While Hazare did not support the establishment of the party, and there have been bitter recriminations among other former leaders of the movement, the AAP’s leader, Arvind Kejriwal, has won support by appealing to the same anti-corruption sentiments.

A notable feature of the anti-corruption movement is that it was supported by many among India’s educated middle classes, who are traditionally aloof from politics. (The same was true of the furious protests that arose after an infamous rape in Delhi in December 2012.) Part of the reason for Anna Hazare’s refusal to endorse the AAP was that the movement was explicitly anti-political; its primary goal was the establishment of an unelected jan lokpal, or civil ombudsman, to keep politicians in line. Nonetheless, the AAP is seen by many as a welcome alternative to the established parties.

The AAP made a major breakthrough in state elections in Delhi in December, coming second between the BJP and Congress. Since no party had a majority, the AAP formed a state government with the support of Congress, with Kejriwal as chief minister. It lasted just 48 days, however, before he resigned after failing to pass the controversial jan lokpal bill in the state parliament. Nonetheless, in his short tenure, Kejriwal made an impression by continuing to behave more like a protester than an elected politician, even sleeping on the street at one stage in a bid to wrest control of the city police from the federal government.

His critics invoked BR Ambedkar, the principal author of India’s constitution, who had famously warned against ‘the grammar of anarchy’ in politics when democratic means are available. Kejriwal, a bespectacled former civil servant, responded by declaring himself ‘India’s biggest anarchist’. For some, all this made a joke of the AAP, and it was easy for BJP leader Arun Jaitley to explain Narendra Modi’s decision not to grant Kejriwal a pre-general election meeting, by dismissing him as a ‘maverick’ best left to express himself on Twitter.

While Kejriwal lost stock among the educated middle classes, however, his intransigence may have been calculated to appeal to a larger demographic ahead of the general election. An AAP strategist told India Today: ‘Evidence suggests we are strongest in the middle, but middle not in the sense in which the word middle class is understood, because in India, the middle class is a euphemism for the ruling class.’ Instead, the party’s target is an emerging aspirant class, no longer below the poverty line but still very poor by Western standards. Accordingly, the AAP’s first act in government in Delhi was to provide free water and subsidised electricity to city households – a blow for the common man or an act of short-sighted populism, depending on your perspective.

In fact, disagreement about the benefits of such government programmes is a recurring feature of contemporary Indian politics. One late (cynics would say ‘pre-election’) measure introduced by the present government was the National Food Security Act, which entitles much of the population to subsidised food grains. Development economists like Amartya Sen and Jean Drèze argue that measures like this and the 2005 National Rural Employment Guarantee Act at least provide the short-term relief many Indians need to survive (whatever their flaws and suspect motivations). Their critics, like fellow economists Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya, insist that the government should instead focus on promoting growth.

In fact, both sides agree that the long-term solution is growth, so it is unfortunate that public debate tends to focus on the pros and cons of particular poverty-mitigation schemes rather than on the much harder question of how exactly you promote growth, what the obstacles are, and how they might be overcome. An even bigger problem is that what debate there is primarily takes place among economists and commentators rather than the population at large. While ‘handouts’ may indeed win votes, the election is unlikely to be swung by more considered debate about how India’s recently ailing economy might be made to work for the benefit of the masses.

Democracy and development

In their recent book, Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions, Sen and Drèze consider the role of democracy itself in driving development. It is a refreshingly optimistic book, given the tendency to present India’s democracy as an obstacle to progress, especially in contrast to authoritarian China. They identify three states in particular as encouraging models of progress in social infrastructure, from schools to water supply, health to transport: Kerala and Tamil Nadu in the south, and Himachal Pradesh in the north. Significantly, they argue that, in these cases, direct, state-funded improvements to quality of life have facilitated, rather than hindered, the conventional economic progress necessary to sustain them in the longer term. Most importantly, they argue change has come not just through enlightened administration, but through active, democratic politics.

While Sen’s regular praise of Kerala perhaps raises as many objections as the praise other people heap on Modi’s Gujarat, the idea of democratically driven and accountable development is undoubtedly appealing. What is striking is that wherever else it might be happening, it is not happening on a national level. The rhetoric of the AAP is certainly ‘populist’. It should also be remembered that the BJP’s name translates as ‘Indian People’s Party’, and that even Rahul Gandhi likes to present himself as a champion of the people who endures mosquito bites during forays into rural villages. But Sen and Drèze are rightly sceptical. They argue: ‘Many of the demands that are often called “populist”, such as higher pay scales for public-sector employees or low fuel prices, are in fact primarily demands of the relatively affluent, with limited benefits – if any – for the underprivileged.’

In the absence of genuine democratic movements among the masses, populism is little more than another political ‘grammar’ to be manipulated by whichever interest groups are able to exploit it. Arvind Kejriwal’s ‘anarchist populism’ is based on a rejection of the political status quo, but lacks a constituency beyond a vague demographic. ‘Common man’ symbolism is therefore important to the AAP, from their Gandhi-style hats emblazoned with party slogans to the party emblem, a simple broom. As chief minister of Delhi, Kejriwal made a show of rejecting the official residence to which he was entitled, along with other trappings such as elaborate cavalcades.

Certainly, Indian political leaders have a reputation for putting on airs. Mayawati, the former chief minister of India’s most populous state Uttar Pradesh, boasted a legendary 35-car convoy, including two ambulances and two SUVs carrying mobile signal blockers. Nevertheless, it would confuse matters to describe Mayawati as a representative of the ‘elite’ in contrast to a Kejriwal. She in fact came to power as a leader of the Dalits (the historically oppressed castes formerly known as Untouchables) when her Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP, which also roughly translates as ‘majority people’s party’) forged an electoral alliance of Dalits, ‘Other Backward Classes’ (regarded as somewhat less oppressed than Dalits) and minorities. Politics in India has for a long time been based on such manipulation of caste-based ‘vote banks’, and it is the support of such groups that gets politicians elected, whether or not they then succeed in doing much for their voters.

BR Ambedkar, who was himself a Dalit, always argued that the caste system would have to be abolished if democracy was to flourish in India. In 1948, he told the Constituent Assembly, ‘constitutional morality is not a natural sentiment. It has to be cultivated.’ He described democracy in India as ‘a top-dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic’. In the decades since, democracy has undoubtedly transformed India, but rather than abolishing caste, it has in some ways institutionalised it. A system of ‘reservations’ of government jobs and college places for ‘backward castes’ was originally supposed to be in place for only 10 years from 1949. But what began as an attempt to cultivate ‘constitutional morality’ in place of traditional prejudice and discrimination became the stuff of democratic politics itself, kept in place by vote banks as much as necessity.

In a recent collection of essays, Jay Panda, an MP of the Odisha-based party, Biju Janata Dal, argues that caste-based politics peaked in the 1990s, amid controversy over the implementation of the Mandal Commission Report, which recommended further reservations. The many smaller parties that flourished on all sides in this context soon found there was a limit to how far they could grow as long as their appeal was based solely on caste, and consequently many entered into electoral alliances with the major parties they had previously opposed. In the same volume, however, Mumbai Congress MP Milind Deora points out that such coalitions are very unstable, because ‘policy debates and ideological considerations’ are sidelined by ‘personalities and caste loyalties’. Personality can sometimes transcend caste – Modi’s broad popularity has little to do with his OBC status – but without clear political ideals and concrete goals to unite (and divide) people, politics remains a fickle business.

A learning curve

Panda and Deora are among 12 young Indian parliamentarians who contributed to India: The Future Is Now. The book was edited by Shashi Tharoor, a leading Congress politician, but the contributors represent the spectrum of Indian parliamentary politics, including the BJP, communist and regional parties. As the title suggests, the tone of the book is upbeat, and although some of the contributions are rather shallow, their implicit belief in democracy as a means of national betterment is in stark contrast to the cynicism about democracy that often prevails in the West.

Nevertheless, there is also a recognition that all is not well, and that Indian democracy needs to be deepened and reinvigorated. Panda’s party colleague Kalikesh Singh Deo echoes a familiar concern when he says, ‘The era of idealistic nation-building of the 1950s and 1960s has been replaced by the era of aspiring and ambitious youth who want only the best for themselves, with very little interest in the welfare of the country’. In fact, the issue is not so much a young generation that is more selfish or less patriotic as the fact that the rapid development of the past two decades has disproportionately benefited the more privileged classes, who have thus been able to rise above politics. It is the parents of ‘aspiring and ambitious youth’ who urge them to put their careers first; engineering before electioneering.

Noting that class disparity, MB Rajesh, a Kerala MP for the Communist Party of India (Marxist), breaks from the mainstream consensus by insisting the economic reforms begun by Manmohan Singh, when he was finance minister in the early 1990s, were disastrous, and that India needs to rediscover the socialist ideals of Nehru. He points out that, by some measures, absolute poverty actually increased even in the years of spectacular GDP growth and that the growth rate of employment is lagging behind population growth, with unemployment high even among those with graduate degrees. In common with Sen and Drèze in their book, he also notes the country’s unenviable record on such issues as hunger and infant mortality. And if Rajesh’s nostalgia for ‘socialism’ seems perverse, Sen and Drèze point out that even the sluggish and much-derided ‘Hindu rate of growth’ that prevailed in the decades after independence was a vast improvement on the stagnation that had characterised the British Raj. Out of necessity, India had already come a long way when Singh lit the touch paper.

Of course, despite its unevenness, development in recent decades has had knock-on benefits for many poorer Indians, too. And few disagree that after an alarming drop in the past couple of years, a return to growth rates of seven to nine per cent is essential to create the jobs and wealth the country so badly needs. But it is also essential that growth is comprehensive, and offers real opportunities to the millions of rural and urban poor as well as the middle classes. Because the truth is that much of India is not yet fully part of the modern world.

Sen and Drèze argue that the success of East Asian nations like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and China is based not only on their much-touted embrace of the global market, but just as much on their focus on education, largely provided by the state. Many in the West have a distorted impression of the quality of education in India, imagining that all young Indians are taught in English and accomplished in maths and engineering. Many thousands are, but at the lower end of the class pyramid, the authors note, ‘India’s education system is tremendously negligent both in coverage and quality’.

In defence of the UPA government, Congress MP Priya Dutt Roncon points out in India: The Future Is Now that the UPA did succeed in passing the ‘historic’ Right to Education Act in 2009. The act finally guarantees free and compulsory education for all children between six and 14, an aspiration that had been written into the constitution nearly 60 years earlier (it was supposed to be done within 10 years). But Dutt acknowledges that it could be many more years before universal education becomes a reality, making the act more of a spur to action than a realisation of the goal. Indeed, many have questioned its effectiveness as a spur, and in particular whether sufficient attention is being paid to the quality of education on offer.

An unfinished revolution

Education is not necessarily the magic bullet for development, but the lack of good schools in India arguably stems from a deeper, historic problem that must be overcome for the sake of democracy as well as development. Sen and Drèze make the point that when it came to education, post-independence India compared badly with even the worst Communist regimes, which, for all their other failings, typically made a priority of universal schooling. India did not, and the reason the authors suggest for this is revealing.

While India’s first five-year plan emphasised the importance of university education (effectively for the country’s elite), it downplayed proper schooling for the masses in favour of ‘basic education’, characterised by Sen and Drèze as ‘the hugely romantic and rather eccentric idea that children should learn through self-financing handicraft’. This drew on Mahatma Gandhi’s even more eccentric belief that learning to read and write before learning to weave would hamper children’s intellectual growth, but the authors suggest it also reflected a broader upper-class and upper-caste prejudice against the education of the masses.

While the independence movement was hugely popular, its leaders were disproportionately drawn from the Indian elite; moreover, the bulk of the country was woefully underdeveloped. It was perhaps inevitable that in ‘taking over’ from the British, the Congress took on something of the character of a colonial administration, albeit one motivated by patriotic feeling and committed to the idea of democracy.

In some respects, the same will be true of whatever government is formed as a result of this year’s election. Nonetheless, in principle at least, that government can take steps to boost development and to make improvements to its citizens’ standard of living, including access to proper education. Those things would at least create more fertile conditions for a deeper democracy. But the importance of India’s existing democratic constitution and culture, however limited, should not be underestimated. As historian Ramachandra Guha points out in his book India After Gandhi, the very fact that the country remains a democracy – and, for that matter, a country – flies in the face of predictions at the time of its birth. Modern India is an incredible achievement to build on.

One ambitious proposal Narendra Modi has made is to build 100 new ‘smart cities’, both in order to take the pressure off India’s biggest cities and bring much-needed infrastructure to populous rural areas. In India: The Future Is Now, the Congress’s Deora makes the same proposal. But the question is not simply which party can actually deliver, but also whether either can do so in a way that fosters democracy as well as development. Deora insists town planning should be democratically accountable, but the model he cites is the British planning of Bombay (now Mumbai), which was clearly anything but. Gyan Prakash explains in his book Mumbai Fables that even after independence, town planning was very much an elite affair: ‘The nationalists assumed power claiming that the nation, not alien rulers, must exercise authority over India. But once India was independent, the power to decide India’s future was ceded to the technocrats, bypassing the citizens.’

Many commentators today complain the opposite is the case: the enlightened technocrats are frustrated by the unruly demos. In fact, the sclerotic nature of government decision-making and action in India is not the result of democracy but of its dysfunction. That problem will not be solved by the election, whoever wins. But colonial-style technocratic administration is no solution, either. And while democratic participation has never quite bridged the gap between the elite and the masses, development is changing India in ways that could also transform its democracy.

Wealthier, better-educated citizens might begin to see themselves as active agents with a genuine stake in politics and further development, rather than as passive vote banks in receipt of handouts or spurious communal recognition. Democracy and development could form a ‘virtuous circle’. Of course, there is no guarantee. Development could stall further, democracy could degenerate further into the politics of identity and resentment. The fragmentation of India is not inconceivable. But the country’s democratic tradition at least puts its future in the hands of its people.

The right to education is just one of the ‘directive principles’ in the constitution that an Indian government is eventually expected to accomplish; others concern social justice and equality. BR Ambedkar said in 1950 that since the principles are not legally enforceable, no government would have to answer for failures on this account in a court of law, but added it ‘will certainly have to answer for them before the electorate at election time’.

Progress has been slow, and few Indians will cast their votes in this election with any confidence that their party of choice will bring about the kind of India envisioned by the nation’s founders any time soon. But the really big question is not whether Congress or the BJP wins enough seats and allies to form a government, or whether Modi is a hero or a villain. The question is whether, in the longer term, the great mass of Indians can truly take possession of their democracy and use it to shape their future. The rest of us can speculate; India will decide.

Dolan Cummings is a writer based in London.

An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions, by Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen, is published by Allen Lane. (Order this book from Amazon (UK).)

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