The World's Biggest Democracy

India Votes 2009

Newly reelected Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his cabinet aim to harness India's potential and turn it into a world power.

When Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was sworn in for his second successive five-year term on May 22nd, it brought to an end a tumultuous election cycle that had been rife with enough drama to fill multiple seasons of Days of Our Lives. When we arrived in New Delhi in mid-April, candidates vying for federal, state and local governmental posts had already been campaigning for several months for their share of an electorate numbering upwards of one billion people. Having just been inundated by endless rhetoric, mudslinging and media conjecture during our own elections, the Indian equivalent fit seamlessly into our daily lives. The CNN framework for the 24-hour news cycle was implemented with similar efficacy and monotony by Indian news outlets, and of course BBC and CNN: election coverage was inescapable. Despite this all too familiar sound-byte fest, the nature of Indian politics proved itself to be a bit more alien. Explicit bribing, corruption and hate inciting speech seemed to be the norm, and while I do not espouse that the American political system is devoid of such unscrupulous activities, the "biggest democracy in the world" is teaming with them. But first, as always, a bit of history...

INC Inc.
Indian politics can almost be summed up in three words: Indian National Congress. The Indian National Congress (INC) has enjoyed domestic political supremacy from the time that it became the flag bearer for the Indian Independence movement in the latter half of the 19th century. Since India achieved independence from Great Britain in 1947 the Indian National Congress, or the "Cong" as it is now called for short, has proved to be a political juggernaut by dominating almost every parliamentary election. The concept of the INC as a political party was opposed by Mahatma Gandhi before his assassination as he instead favored the establishment of new parties that represented the wide variety of interests (religious, social and political) within India. Jawaharlal Nehru--the son of the founder of the INC, and Gandhi's comrade--thought differently and assumed his role as the first Indian prime minister. The INC then began to consolidate its power base by forging political alliances and coalitions, which are paramount to its continued success in the multi-party system today. The Cong appeals to a broad base of support and truly does promise everything to everyone.

Enter Indira Gandhi and India's Dysfunctional Camelot
Nehru proved quite a success in his two successive terms as prime minister. In fact up until current prime minister Singh's reelection, Nehru was the only PM to be reelected. Nehru managed to begin the process of healing and reconciliation after a period of intense political and religious division that resulted in the partition of India into India, Pakistan and eventually Bangladesh. When Nehru's daughter Indira Gandhi--her husband Feroze's family is of no relation to Mahatma--was elected as prime minister, her policies, although economically successful, began to tear at the delicate social fabric her father had woven. During the Great Emergency of 1975, Indira on advice from her son and political advisor Sanjay, turned India into a de facto autocratic state for the better part of two years. Indira ruled by her own mandate and suspended civil liberties, particularly to religious minorities like Muslims and Sikhs. While India grew more powerful as a world political and economic power during this time, Indira's policies widened age-old religious tensions, fragmented the INC and she was eventually assassinated by her own body guards, who were Sikhs; Sanjay would die not too long after in a mysterious plane crash. It would take Sonia Gandhi, a white Italian national and the wife of Indira's son Rajiv, to reconsolidate the Cong and lead India into the new millennium. She is hip with the kids too, she bought the rights to the Slumdog Millionaire theme song and made it the Cong's campaign song.

Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi. The most powerful Italian woman in Indian politics.

Sonia Ghandi's party has a big responsibility in its hands: reforming one of the most corrupt political systems in the world at a time when India is poised to flex its growing political and economic muscle on the world stage. This responsibility is further complicated by the fact that many Cong officials are complicit in rampant bribing, vote stealing, extortion and a number of other crimes. It is not just Cong officials complicit in defrauding the Indian voter, everyone in Indian politics seems to have their hand in the cookie jar, even avowed criminals. Corruption in Indian politics is reaching comical heights. In my five weeks in India, a number of candidates for parliamentary seats were caught on tape and indicted for handing out money at political rallies. It is instances of political malpractice such as these--amongst a number of other factors--that have contributed to growing separatist movements in the north eastern territories and by Maoist "Naxalite" guerrillas in the east.

The Loyal Opposition

The controversial and divisive Varun Gandhi

Corruption is the overarching and invasive issue, but it has not been helped by a rise in the politics of hate. Where the Cong's nebulous and inclusive platform have preserved its political dominance, the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) bread and butter are divisive and exclusive Hindu nationalist rhetoric and policy. Varun Gandhi, the son of Sanjay Gandhi and nephew of Sonia Gandhi, has made it his mission to break his aunt's stranglehold on Indian politics by taking the BJP's strategy to great extremes. India has struggled with religious tension since well before the recent Mumbai attacks. Hindus are the majority, but would they be if all the Muslims hadn't have been shipped to Pakistan and Bangladesh? Nevertheless a brittle equilibrium has been reached by Hindus and Muslims and this delicate balance is pushed to the tipping point everyday. So it certainly was not in the best interest of consensus and peace when Varun Gandhi made a religiously motivated speech for the purpose of gaining radical Hindu votes. Given the highly polarized environment in which Indian politicians operate, it was hard for Varun to justify the things he said, thus his defense proved to be less convincing than his threats and the Indian Election Committee sentenced him to prison for his violation of an Indian statute that prohibits hate speech. Varun's mother, Maneka Gandhi appeared on Indian television the next day, furious that her son was in prison and "had not received a home cooked meal in days!"

So Many Problems, so Little Dime
Maneka Gandhi's nationally televised tirade on behalf of her son's belly would become indicative of the way I would grow to see Indian politics. I see Indian politics as symbolized by a vast, jagged, rocky crevasse. On either side of the crevasse are two precipices. On the first precipice stand more than one billion people and on the other a handful of bureaucrats and politicians. The one billion people scream and shout and long to reach the well-dressed, Oxford educated group on the other side of the canyon, but their voices bounce off the canyon wall and smack them right back in the face. This great, corrupt disconnect between India's electorate and its ruling elites is perhaps the saddest failure of democracy in the world. The Cong and the BJP are the two parties that battle for control of one of the fastest growing economies in the world. However, the two parties often seem to forget that they are also fighting for control of a country that has one of the highest poverty, disease and illiteracy rates in the world. All is far from lost, but all is also far from salvation. More altruistic, albeit equally corrupt, provincial political parties (i.e. the communist party in West Bengal) attempt to improve living conditions for their constituents. A growing number of NGO's are beginning to affect change in small increments as well, but India is indeed at a crossroads. Will it continue to ignore its lower classes? As one software engineer we met on a train to Agra said, "India needs a natural disaster or famine, it needs many people to die." Or does it just need a reformed education system? But as many American's know, education reform is easier said than done, particularly when it is a country as large as India we are talking about.

For an even more terse and cynical look at Indian politics check out Aravind Adiga's 2008 novella The White Tiger, a brilliantly written sociopolitical satire.

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