Democracy in India – 6

The BBC is doing a fine job in India reporting events that compel readers to think about the broader implications of the story.

We had earlier picked up a story about the threat by purists to mixed religious communities. The post (Hindu-Muslim or Muslim-Hindu?) has become quite popular on the blog suggesting that readers enjoy being engaged by challenging questions.

Now the BBC has reported on the goings-on preceding the July 22 vote of confidence in the Indian parliament. This too raises some interesting questions about the nature of democracy in India.

The story itself states very clearly: “When India is described as ‘the world’s biggest democracy’ it remains strictly true.” A story like this in Pakistan would most likely have found the reporter on the first plane out of the country. So there is no doubt that in relative terms governance in India has a much better record than other countries in South Asia.

Still, a student cannot be content with the broad generalization that India is a democracy. The more interesting aspects pertain to understanding exactly what kind of democracy it is and what are its peculiarities. This is what the story helps to explore.

But first, the story itself.

Delhi notebook – deals and jailbirds

By Chris Morris, BBC News, Delhi, Published: 2008/07/18 16:20:55 GMT

It’s been one of those weeks when the dirty innards of Indian politics have been on display in glorious technicolour.

There’s nothing like the prospect of a close vote in parliament to get the political pulses racing, and in Delhi’s sweaty summer heat a parliamentary vote of confidence in the government, due on 22 July, is likely to go down to the wire.

White Ambassador cars with flashing red lights have been zipping around the leafy boulevards of official Delhi with more urgency than usual.

And, all of a sudden, obscure members of parliament and minor political parties have found themselves at the centre of attention.

Both the government and the opposition have been trying desperately to woo them with promises of largesse, influence and plumb jobs.

One party leader much in demand, Ajit Singh, was offered a rather unique carrot when the cabinet approved a proposal to rename the airport in the city of Lucknow after his late father, Charan Singh, a former prime minister.

“Better late than never,” was the gist of Mr Singh’s response, as government officials insisted with perfectly straight faces that the timing of the decision was completely coincidental.

Other wavering members of parliament have been busy speculating in public about what kind of job might persuade them to vote one way or another. The Ministry of Coal, perhaps, or the office of Chief Minister of the state of Jharkhand.

That’s politics, you might think. But a more serious allegation came from a communist leader, AB Bardhan, who suggested this week that the Congress party was trying to buy parliamentary votes for about three million pounds (six million dollars) each.

The accusation was angrily denied. It’s a little rich, replied a Congress spokesman, coming from a party which has been financed from abroad for years. It’s not about money, he said, it’s about doing the right thing for the country.

Jail release

One thing is clear: every vote will count. And that’s why six members of parliament have had to get special dispensation to attend the debate.

Normally they’re in jail, serving time for crimes ranging from extortion and kidnapping to murder.

The Indian constitution allows them out on bail to attend important parliamentary votes. But the sight of convicted murderers entering the parliamentary chamber won’t be the most edifying of spectacles.

The most notorious of the six prisoners, Mohammad Shahabuddin, won his seat in Bihar at the last general election even though he was already in jail. His opponents say his political strength is based on fear.

If he’s allowed to stand again, don’t bet against another victory.

Point of principle?

In the midst of all this political theatre it is easy to forget that the vote of confidence was forced upon the government by a point of principle.

Communist and other left wing parties who’d helped give the Congress-led alliance a parliamentary majority withdrew their support in protest against the controversial nuclear deal with the United States.

If you listen to the Congress party the nuclear deal is about preserving India’s energy security in the future. If you listen to the communists, it’s about selling out to the Americans. Both see it as a matter of preserving the national interest. And the deal will stand or fall with the government.

But there are other issues at stake here as well, which are raising the stakes. India is in an era of grand political coalitions – no single party can ever hope to win a national majority on its own.

So the machinations of the last few weeks are also about getting on the right side of the political aisle in advance of the next general election. Even if the government survives this vote of confidence, it has to go to the polls by next May at the latest.

And that may be why it is struggling to win a majority in parliament now. Why, many MPs seem to be calculating, support a government that could be doomed to defeat shortly afterwards?

When India is described as ‘the world’s biggest democracy’ it remains strictly true.

But stitching together a national coalition, in a country where caste leaders and regional parties have more and more proven electoral appeal, is a desperately difficult task.

Plenty of messy deals have to be done in the backrooms, a long way from the prying eyes of the voters. Politics can be an ugly business. In that, at least, India is not unique.

End of Story 

The questions that one can ask based on the story are the following:

  1. Why are the innards of Indian politics dirty?
  2. Were the innards of Indian politics dirty from the very beginning? If not, why and when did the deterioration begin? Will this deterioration be reversed? If so, what will trigger the reversal? If not, where will things end?
  3. Is the buying and selling of votes acceptable in a democracy?
  4. Are the votes of convicted criminals acceptable in a democracy?
  5. Why do voters elect convicted criminals?

Some readers might recall an earlier post on the blog (The Degeneration of Politics) that covers some of this ground. The post was based on Ramachandra Guha’s book, India after Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy. We had made the point that while the book was ostensibly written to celebrate the miracle of Indian democracy, an ironic subtext was the lament that the nature of Indian politics continued to degenerate.

We would welcome answers to the questions from readers.

This post is a response to a request from reader Suvradip Dasgupta. See his comment on the post Democracy in India – 1.

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1 Comment
  • Vikram
    Posted at 21:03h, 11 February Reply

    1) The innards are dirty for two principal reasons, campaign finance and an easily satisfied electorate. Much has been written on campaign finance in India, legally it was not a transparent process until recently and of course, in reality that remains the case even today.

    Also, Indians in general are not very demanding, a result of the fact that the mass of the population was condemned to a religiously sanctioned servility. This has changed quite a bit in Republican India, examples are the Periyar movement in South India and now the rise of the Dalits in North India. Urban Indians are also becoming more demanding.

    2) They were definitely not as dirty as they are today. The real decline started during Indira Gandhi’s tenure.

    3) Depends on what the Consti says. Say if someone was convicted due to a biased law, he/she should have the right to vote for someone who says he/she will do something about the law.

    4) You might want to see this post by Prabin for somewhat of an answer, my conclusion from that discussion was, “it probably comes down to the fact that the poor cannot afford the campaign money to buy a ticket and stand for election. So these thugs who have made money through unscrupulous means are the ones that have the resources to finance campaigns.”

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