Written by Nikita Sud.

Tracing the trajectory of India’s democracy, this article points to successes in its institutionalisation and in its broadening of representation to include some of the country’s poorest and historically most oppressed groups. At the same time, it highlights concerns in the wake of several sub-national elections this year and the impending national elections in mid-2019. Despite regular elections in India, questions of legitimacy remain. This is particularly the case in zones of conflict such as Kashmir or in the central and eastern ‘Red Corridor’ which is riven by insurgency.

The weakening of opposition parties such as the Congress and the dominance of the right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have brought to the fore concerns about majoritarianism, the repression of religious minorities, authoritarian strongman politics, the clampdown on institutional freedom including that of the media, and the growing role of big business and money power in the political process. These are global rather than just Indian concerns. Can the world’s largest democracy help to shed light on matters that hold relevance for us all?

The world’s largest democracy: Success, institutionalisation and the broadening of representation

Major states in India went to the polls in November 2018. Further sub-national and national elections are to be held in April-May 2019.  This is therefore a good time to take stock of the trajectory of ‘the world’s largest democracy’. India is the second most populous country in the world with 1.34 billion people. Barring a brief period of political ‘emergency’ declared by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1975–1977, the country has regularly held elections ever since its first universal poll after independence in 1951.

Indians value the right to vote. Scholars have commented on voting being almost sacred to Indians, with elections being treated as a festival for which people dress up and take time off work and home duties. What is so celebratory about voting? It is the one time in the life of Indians that every citizen has an equal opportunity to be heard. This matters greatly to people in what is otherwise a highly unequal society with a Gini Coefficient of 0.83 in 2017. The top one per cent of the population owns approximately 30 per cent of the country’s wealth. Yet when you line up outside that voting booth, housed in a somewhat dilapidated government school building or community hall, it doesn’t matter whether you are rich or poor, lower caste or upper caste, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Jain, Sikh or Buddhist.

Indians celebrate the right to vote as a proclamation of equal citizenship, but not because they fought for and won this privilege. Sections of the population in the UK or America or South Africa had to struggle for the vote. The UK has recently celebrated the centenary of suffrage for women. In the Indian case, the struggle for independence from the British also resulted in the universal adult franchise.

This did not happen automatically, however, and it was certainly not a gift of the departing British. When the British left India in 1947, only around 11 per cent of the population – mostly men of property – had the right to vote. Independent India held its first election in 1951. As the scholar Ornit Shani points out in a recent book, the quick initiation and institutionalisation of universal suffrage is largely to the credit of the independent government of India and the Election Commission that it established.

Between 1947 and 1951, the Election Commission drew up a list of all Indians who were eligible to vote – irrespective of gender, economic status, or property. Thus the refugees of partition, which was the largest migration in history comprising around 10 million people, were also counted. This included the registration of refugee women as voters and it was an amazing feat for the mid-twentieth century. It showed vision, even in the face of resistance. Shani thus tells us that many women wanted to register under the name of their husbands or fathers, but this was not allowed by the modernising, somewhat zealous Election Commission. Women had to enrol for the vote under their own name on the principle of one citizen, one vote. Even when people were housed in temporary refugee shelters, they had the right to vote because property was not a deciding factor.

Indians may not have struggled for the vote in an independent country, but they have certainly fought to keep that vote. Thus when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi clamped down on democracy and its watchdogs such as the free press in 1975–1977, she was punished at the polls as soon as the Emergency was lifted. Contrary to her expectations, she suffered a humiliating electoral defeat and her government was replaced with a new one under the Janata coalition.

From its relatively recent, mid-twentieth century beginnings to now, the world’s most populous democracy considers its ability to hold regular elections to choose representatives at the local, sub-national and national level as a great success. Regular elections, healthy voting percentages – for instance, the last general election in 2014 had 66.4 per cent voter turnout comprising over half a billion people – and something which Indians call the ‘anti-incumbency factor’ are often cited as reasons for contentment. Anti-incumbency is the contemporary phenomenon whereby the ruling party rarely returns to power in India’s capital Delhi, or in several though by no means all sub-national states. High voting percentages, but also a high level of anti-incumbency, mean that people by-and-large have faith in the democratic process, and at the same time are not afraid to punish politicians for failing to deliver on tall promises.

Anti-incumbency has increased since the broadening of democracy in India from the 1980s onwards. Broadening refers to increased political competition, a greater number of political parties, the breakdown of the Congress Party’s hegemonic hold over Indian politics (established in the aftermath of its leadership of India’s movement for independence), and in particular increasing space for parties led by and representing regional and lower-caste interests in politics.

Long before the United States voted in an African-American as its President, India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, elected Kumari Mayawati as Chief Minister. Mayawati is the daughter of a Post Office worker from a former ‘untouchable’ caste. She began her professional life as a teacher in a slum, or informal settlement, having studied in a state school. In 1995, she became the elected head of a state of over 200 million people, i.e. four times the size of the UK in terms of population.

Mayawati has had several chief ministerial stints since 1995 and heads India’s largest party, which represents former untouchable and other so-called lower and backward caste groups. With their empowering language, Mayawati and other admirable politicians like her represent India’s Dalits and Bahujans: literally, the downtrodden and populous, i.e. the majority of India. Many contemporary Dalit-Bahujan politicians, such as Jignesh Mevani from Gujarat and Chandrashekhar Azad or Ravan from Uttar Pradesh, have taken inspiration from the political path charted by the likes of Mayawati and Bhimrao Ambedkar – the father of India’s Constitution.

Dalit-Bahujan politicians are active in the politics of the poor and downtrodden today. This politics, according to the Dalit intellectual Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, is one of dignity, recognition and representation. It is about righting historical wrongs and wresting a seat at the table of power which was once dominated by the upper castes and classes. Many countries have much to learn from India’s politics of the poor, including the UK and the US, where the working-class and Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) groups are woefully under-represented in national and provincial politics.

But all is not well in India’s democracy, and the next part of this article explores the downs that go with the ups.

Sacred but also profane

Despite the rather uplifting story of widening, deepening and much-valued democracy, all is not well. India has a procedurally functioning system but with substantial shortcomings. After the elections, things tend to go back to a routine where certain classes and groups continue to control the operations and resources of the state.

These groups – i.e. big business, white-collar professionals including the state bureaucracy, big farming interests and Hindu upper-caste elites – drive politics and policy and actively keep the lower classes and castes as well as other subaltern groups out of the decision-making process. This dominance of the state by some ‘proprietary classes’ explains the rising inequality in India. The state is dominated by the proprietary classes and works largely for them.

However, another version of this argument of substantive versus procedural democracy can also be discerned, namely, that the state cannot remain entirely controlled by dominant groups in a broadening democratic context. Instead, there is an increasing cacophony of demands being made on the state and on the scarce resources it controls. When these demands get out of hand, as they often do in India, the country faces what one scholar has called a growing ‘crisis of governability’.

To this crisis of governability we can add a problem that affects politics the world over. My reference here is to the increasing influence of money and muscle in Indian elections. Numerous studies have shown that politicians are increasingly resorting to a clientelistic politics of vote buying.  Voters are induced to go to the polling booth and press the vote button in favour of a particular party by incentives of cash and material goods like clothing, electronics, food and liquor.

The Election Commission of India and the police regularly seize large hauls of cash and liquor in the run-up to elections. Much more escapes the regulatory net. It is not clear, however, whether voters are actually bribed into voting for certain parties. In fact, we have evidence that voters may take inducements from several parties and then strategically decide which one they will enter into a relationship with in patron/clientelist terms. Nevertheless, the existence of large volumes of cash, and muscle power to distribute that cash, has huge implications for democratic politics.

Politicians and parties that invest heavily in winning over voters then have to recover those amounts if they come to power, or even if they don’t. The result is an extractive politics of corruption and backroom political deals with high net-worth industries such as real estate and mining, or with criminal syndicates. My field research on the real-estate sector shows close links between politicians and real-estate barons across parties.

Politicians invest their undeclared, untaxed income in real estate, usually through a front organisation. They expect to multiply this cash through real-estate speculation. The followers of politicians – various varieties of musclemen and middlemen – seek employment for their chelas (hangers-on) in real-estate projects. This employment often takes the form of security services or the supply of transport, labour and building materials. Even when businessmen are unhappy with this arrangement, they continue with it to buy themselves peace and to have a way of funnelling money towards powerful political actors. They receive goodwill and avenues into the state through this nexus.

The vast demands on the state and its skewing towards elite interests make politicians vulnerable to populist pressures at election time. Fulfilling (some of) these demands in a quick-fix manner puts politicians in a never-ending cycle of corruption and crime that takes them ever further away from the everyday lives and demands of the people they are supposed to serve.

Indian democracy is certainly a drama, and one which has thrills but not necessarily a happy ending. In this drama, which can appear messy and chaotic, there is a dangerously growing space for an authoritarian strongman.

Such a strongman, acting from above, claims that he knows the will of the people – as being embodied in him – and will do what is right for the nation (narrowly defined as Hindu, or otherwise ethnically or racially pure, depending on context). The strongman claims to know what is right for India (in this scenario) and promises to make India (or any other country similarly moving towards authoritarianism) ‘great’ or ‘great again’. The strongman claims to be above corruption and the pettiness of everyday politics. And so, in our desperation for order, we choose to believe him, much against logic or evidence.

Aside from the pressure placed on the state by the groups which elect or constitute its democratic representatives, time and again the state itself has faltered and even failed to deliver as an upholder of democracy. I have already referred to the Emergency of Indira Gandhi above. More recently, there have been serious questions around the region of Kashmir, where the Indian government rigged elections in 1987 in order to keep out groups it perceived as leaning towards Pakistan. This botched election furthered separatist sentiments among several stakeholders in this Himalayan region, and the resultant cycle of violence and terrorism has not abated to this day. In fact, when municipal/city council elections were held in the region in October 2018, voter turnout was only 3.4 per cent, pointing to the extremely low legitimacy of the electoral process here.

Like Kashmir, the heart of India is a so-called ‘Red Corridor’ which faces a long-standing Maoist insurgency. Insurgents repeatedly attack the state and sections of the population around election time, targeting polling booths and polling officials. Many of the insurgents have valid grievances, such as against a state-business alliance that is extracting minerals from these resource-rich areas, while dispossessing the indigenous populations. The reason why this state-business alliance is blind to the needs of the wider population has been suggested above in the discussion on the collusive politics of money and muscle.

Democracy today

Despite much to be proud of, there is also cause for concern with regard to India’s democratic trajectory. A looming threat today is the increasing hold of a Hindu nationalist party on India’s national and sub-national political landscape. India’s ruling BJP, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is propelled by an ideological movement for Hindutva that advocates India as ‘one nation, one culture, one people’. This majoritarian form of politics, which sidelines or even violently obliterates religious minorities, is a threat to the idea of a plural, secular, liberal India that was constitutionally envisaged at independence.

In the most recent government headed by Modi’s BJP, the political representation of Muslims – India’s largest religious minority with 172 million people – is alarmingly low. Muslims constitute 4 per cent of representatives in the national parliament today, which is dominated by the BJP, and the BJP does not have a single directly elected Muslim Member of Parliament (MP).

This lack of representation at the legislative level is reflected in the systematic violence meted out to Muslims by BJP supporters or those who support the BJP’s agenda of, say, protecting the cow, which is held sacred by some sections of Hindus. There have been around 60 incidents of cow-related violence in India since 2010 as well as 254 hate crimes – with 97 per cent of the attacks happening after 2014 when Modi came to power. Eighty-four per cent of those attacked are Muslim. The government has been largely silent on the matter, sparking fears of rule by politically-backed mobs stoked by populist religious fervour.

Even as religious minorities are facing a crisis of representation, and alongside overt violence and hostility from those in (or close to) power, there are also fears about the undermining of institutions. Recent elections have seen criticism of the Election Commission, with concerns that it is being peopled by those close to the government. Opponents have suggested that the electoral body has delayed announcing the holding of certain elections so as to allow the ruling party to make policy pronouncements that would be monitored once an electoral code of conduct was in place. Opposition parties have also criticised the Election Commission for imposing the election code of conduct more strictly on their leaders than on government functionaries.

This appraisal may be a sign of a functioning democracy, with the opposition keeping a hawk’s eye on the government and democratic institutions. However, these repeated concerns around the government’s undermining of institutions should be carefully observed and followed closely by anyone interested in the fate of the world’s largest democracy. Also to be watched is the clampdown on the media, which is essential to a country’s democratic health. In recent years, journalists have been attacked or even killed for being critical of the government and its majoritarian, illiberal ideology. Equally serious, major news sources have been accused of bias towards the ruling party, with one investigative ‘sting’ operation even uncovering well-known media houses offering to go soft on the government and ruling party in the run-up to elections in exchange for cash.

Are we looking over the edge of a precipice? Is democracy truly under threat in India? Recent months have seen a rallying of the opposition against the dominant BJP. The main opposition party – the Congress – which suffered a humiliating defeat in 2014 and was reduced to its lowest ever tally in parliament, seems to be regaining some political chutzpah. It has repeatedly attacked the government on allegations of corruption, on its human rights record, and on its political illiberalism. It has also sought alliances with regional and identity-based parties.

This seems to have paid off to an extent. In sub-national electoral results declared on 11 December 2018, the Congress made gains in the so-called Hindi belt of the north and central India, representing the most populous regions of the country. Perhaps even more heartening, important regional and identity-based parties such as the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party have decided to set aside long-standing differences to fight Elections 2019 as a joint front.

Apart from regaining power in crucial regions such as Uttar Pradesh in north India, these parties aim to defeat the increasingly hegemonic BJP. The leaders of regional parties such as the TMC in West Bengal, the DMK in Tamil Nadu, and the SP, BSP and RJD in north India fear that losing political ground in the crucial 2019 polls will embolden the BJP further. It will also set off a spate of corruption and related cases against the regional leadership, pursued by state agencies that the party in national government will control. For many, 2019 is a do or die election.

In the run-up to Elections 2019, the BJP would prefer a presidential style contest. It will be keen to pit the powerful oratory and personality of Mr Modi against the relatively inexperienced dynast Rahul Gandhi of the Congress. It will also seek to portray regional alliances and any hint of opposition unity via pre- or post-election coalitions as confused and the essence of bad governance. Modi, on the other hand, will campaign hard to project himself as the flagbearer of good governance.

The Congress, meanwhile, headed by Gandhi and together with its allies and the regional parties, has tried to focus on the issues in a parliamentary system. This gathering oppositional politics is supported by popular movements of students, Dalits and others who have kept up the pressure on the ruling party and its populist-in-theory-but-elitist-in-economic-practice government.

The political and civil-society opposition is acutely aware that Hindu nationalist populism, repression and elitism friendly to big business would be ratcheted up if the current government were to return to power, especially if this was without the checks and balances of an electoral coalition. After the lethargy of a big electoral defeat in 2014, the opposition in India is finally beginning to do what citizens would expect of an opposition. The question is: Is it enough?

Dr Nikita Sud teaches at the University of Oxford. She is the author of Liberalisation, Hindu Nationalism and The State: A Biography of Gujarat (Oxford University Press 2012), which places the career of Narendra Modi as Chief Minister of Gujarat in a wider political context.

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