On the ground in India: The largest democracy in the World

“Political Science?!” replied my grandfather, bemused, when I tried to explain to him what I would be studying at university. Notwithstanding my own quiet satisfaction at having secured a place to read what, in the UK, is a competitive academic discipline, my grandfather’s cynicism is borne out of years of witnessing governance in India. A philosophy major and a retired civil servant, in his eyes, politics is in a bad way in India.

If you hold politicians back home in low regard, in India the reputation of parliamentarians borders that of criminals. The profession is generally seen as a place for failures – those who have not succeeded in other industries – or the reserve of ‘political’ families. Why is this the case, you might ask, in a country that prides itself on democratic principles, after emerging as an independent state in 1947? There are several reasons, and all of them reveal a political landscape that is complex, multi-layered and riddled with fault lines.

In spite of my sceptical introduction, you would be wrong to assume that the Indian people are not interested in politics – indeed, quite the opposite is true. Voter turnout has consistently been around 60 per cent for general elections and even higher in local elections. With a vocal, vociferous public that has an opinion on everything that it expresses loudly and frequently, politics is very much ingrained in the culture of Indians. It is not so much seen as a topic of national news but rather a connection between their direct interests and the people who can effect change.

I stumbled upon a political rally in Delhi a few weeks ago in which the Chief Minister of Punjab, a prosperous state in the North, was endorsing a candidate for the Delhi Sikh Committee. This was an altogether fascinating spectacle: held on the road in a modest neighbourhood, everyone was invited to take a seat as speeches boomed from a stage rigged-up just hours before. The street was packed, buzzing and all listened eagerly to Punjabi sound bites. Take this as anecdotal, but across the nation, political messages, symbols and movements litter the streets in various forms: huge billboards, graffiti, flags and protests. Apathy is not the problem. Then what is?

Corruption has been the centrepiece of criticism for years now. Indeed, for the Western media it has become the staple feature on India. It is no secret that corruption is a serious problem. But it is more than just a political problem. It, too, is one that is embedded in the culture: things as mundane as a utility bill get shoved under the carpet by knowing people in India. The more people you know, the more power you have. This may not seem like a problem until you realise that it means authorities and processes are often bypassed: protocol, conventions and rules are broken when things get done quicker and more efficiently with a little help under the table. At the most basic level, the State is often undermined. Governance is almost devolved, by tacit consent, to local hierarchies of power – not official in any way – where things are driven by contacts, favours and trust. It almost reminded me of the Big Society!

Until this changes there will be no scope for improvements in politics. The politicians are only as good as the people – The Telegraph (of the UK as opposed to Kolkata) reported that one third of Indian MPs have criminal charges against them. In reality, the proportion is probably larger, but these charges are never followed up. There is also a consensus that a section of parliamentarians are self-interested individuals, not concerned with the mammoth task of bettering India but rather keeping their cushy salary and plethora of perks.

The biggest problem is not actually corruption at the ballot box – the Election Commission is probably one of the most effective government agencies and has conducted incident-free general elections using electronic ballots for its billion voters – but rather undemocratic practices within parties. The average age of an MP is around 53 and almost all young MPs come from political families. This suggests that getting into politics on merit is a difficult task that takes time, and this surely cannot be good for the quality of India’s leaders.

The most powerful of these political families is that of Jawaharlal Nehru, Old Harrovian and India’s first Prime Minister. His descendants continue to run the mainstream Congress party, the largest in the ruling coalition. According to the Guardian, ”The [Nehru] Gandhi brand has no peer in the world – a member of the Gandhi family has been in charge of India for 40 of the 60 years since independence.” Only recently, Rahul Gandhi was mysteriously elevated to Vice-President of the Party. There is no shortage of news analyses on his incompetence as a leader. What we are seeing is a dynastic democracy where the Nehru-Gandhi name is still more powerful than merit; where more than a billion people are governed by people who earn the right to do so by birth.

To add to this, the profession has little allure for India’s young population. Although they are interested and follow politics – students can always be found voicing their opinion on news channels, and they are often the most critical demographic – they have many other professions that are seen as more respectable and certainly lucrative. In a booming (now-slowing-a-little) economy, and in a society where job security and income are key determinants of social status, the best students become engineers, doctors and run businesses. A growing middle class is recognising that they don’t really need an ailing state to help them. Instead, they are becoming leaders of India in other industries.

In an odd kind of way, I see this as a way out: as an educated, progressive, outward-looking youth are disregarding, almost ignoring their lagging government, I can see this leading to long term changes in the structure and make-up of politics. With 65% of the population said to be under the age of 35, it is only a question of time before the voice of the population will permeate into governance. This could take many forms, and in some ways is already being felt. A powerful media play a huge part in politicians’ accountability; celebrities, not content with mere stardom, are increasingly speaking out on social issues; students do not hesitate to take to the streets to make an impact.

I have deliberately intended this to be a portrait of India’s broader politics as opposed to an analysis of the pertinent issues, of which there are many: the recent gang rape in Delhi that has galvanised the nation’s apathy with women’s rights, relations with Pakistan, post-colonial relationships and the upcoming election, to name but a few. These merit independent commentary. Alongside all of these issues, India must try its best to keep up with China, and take any economic slowdown as, partly, a proxy for political dysfunction that it must deal with. China’s demographics and one-child policies are now pointing towards an ageing population and this might well be the longer term edge for India over the coming decades.

Nevertheless, India continues to grow in other ways: it may be not be as fast as China, but it can pride itself on unyielding democratic roots, and the intrinsic value of an increasingly liberal society – something far more precious than GDP growth that will pay dividends in the long term, and may even be its own saviour.