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Democracy in India
India's jumbo election
Apr 16th 2009
From The Economist print edition
The worst possible way of choosing an Indian government—apart from all the others
Illustration by Jon Berkeley
LIKE a lumbering elephant embarking on an epic trek, India ’s general election got under way this week (see article). That it keeps going is something of a miracle. The scale is mind-boggling. It will be spread over five stages, taking four weeks and involving 6.5m staff. In 543 constituencies, 4,617 candidates, representing some 300 parties, will compete for the ballots of an electorate of 714m eligible voters. In 828,804 polling stations, 1,368,430 simple, robust and apparently tamper-proof electronic voting machines will be deployed. It is hard not to be impressed by the process—and its resilience.
A poor, diverse country of more than 30 main languages and six main religions, India also has, in the Hindu caste system, a tradition of hierarchy seemingly at odds with a system of universal suffrage. The country suffers security threats that would provide many a government with the excuse to suspend elections. Kashmir has been riven by insurgency for more than two decades; parts of the north-east for even longer. Maoist revolutionaries-cum-bandits stoke another fire in India ’s interior and staged attacks as polling began this week. Yet, apart from the brief months of the “emergency” in 1975, India has never curtailed its people’s right to choose their rulers. And now, more than ever, that right is to be prized.
The election comes amid the deepest global economic slump for two generations. India faces difficult choices as it seeks to escape the worst of the downturn. Voters have a chance to judge five years of government by a coalition led by the Congress party and its elderly prime minister, Manmohan Singh. It has presided over an unprecedented economic boom, and has continued the course of cautious liberalisation and globalisation followed by its predecessors. It has succeeded in raising India ’s international standing and, with its controversial agreement on civil nuclear co-operation with America , has accomplished an important strategic tilt.
Yet Mr Singh’s government has made scant progress towards one of the main goals it set itself in 2004. This was to reform India ’s creaking, corrupt administrative structures so that policies formulated in Delhi might actually be implemented in the villages where most Indians still live. Partly because of that failure, and despite sharp falls in the poverty rate, appalling numbers of Indians are still desperately poor. One-quarter of the world’s malnourished live in India , among them 40% of all Indian children under five. To Mr Singh’s credit, it is the plight of the poorest, not India ’s GDP growth-figures, that is usually the starting-point for his policy speeches. This is also shrewd: the poor do not care about his achievements as a diplomat and globaliser, which scarcely impinge on their lives.
As in other countries, elections in India tend not to be dominated by grand national issues. And, as elsewhere, an Indian election may look splendid from a distance, but up close can be ugly. Campaigns are dominated by personalities, money and, in some places, intimidation. Many candidates seek votes through beggar-thy-neighbour appeals to the self-interest of a particular linguistic, caste or religious group.
Even in such an unpredictable contest, two outcomes are sadly fairly safe bets. First, parliament will have to make room for a lot of shady characters. Nearly a quarter of the current members have faced criminal charges. Nor are their alleged offences all petty. They include murder, rapes and kidnaps.
Second, the resulting national government will be a coalition, its policies held hostage by its smaller members. The secular trend in Indian politics is the gradual decline of the only truly “national” parties, Congress and the main opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In 2004 the two combined won less than half (49%) of the votes. On the rise is a legion of regional and caste-based parties that do not even pretend to be guided by the national interest.
In part, the big parties can blame themselves for this. Congress, despite able technocrats, like Mr Singh, remains an antiquated dynastic machine. The prime ministership was bestowed on Mr Singh by Sonia Gandhi, the party’s Italian-born leader. He seems to be keeping the seat warm for her son, Rahul, a pleasant-seeming but unconvincing chap apparently destined to represent the fifth generation of his family to lead Congress. Nor is the economically liberal Mr Singh a typical Congress-man. Much of the party is still nostalgic for the Nehruvian socialism that for so long impeded India ’s growth.
In power, the BJP also had a creditable record of economic management. But it has not escaped its origins as the political wing of the Hindutva, or “Hindu-ness” movement. That has an extremist fringe that has at times been guilty of terrible violence against India ’s large Muslim minority and smaller Christian one, who may never trust BJP rule.
For this reason, The Economist, if it had a vote, would plump for Mr Singh’s Congress. But in reality, the choice between the two big parties is not the one on offer. In India the poor, proportionately, are more likely to vote than are the middle classes. It often makes sense for them to back regional parties campaigning on local issues: they are more likely to fulfil their promises. But it does make for hopelessly unwieldy governing coalitions. One solution would be to introduce national thresholds below which parties would be ineligible for seats in parliament. But reform would need the approval of those elected under present arrangements, so it is not on the cards.
Before yielding to despair over the intractability of political reform in India , it is worth considering the outcomes of recent elections. Since launching liberalising economic reform in 1991, India has had a succession of governments that have frustrated with their timidity, but have broadly kept the economy on track and avoided dangerous policy lurches—the BJP, to forge a coalition, had to ditch its core Hindutva demands, for example. Undemocratic governments might have been bolder, quicker and more efficient. But they might have been a whole lot worse, and certainly a whole lot harder to replace. Let the elephant lumber on.