Many years ago, while in college in Lucknow, I watched a street play. It was put on by students from a college in Bihar, and was performed in Bhojpuri, a language which I can’t speak but can understand owing to its similarity to Hindi. It was about Indian politics, where oily, slimy politicians came around begging for votes during the election, and afterwards expended a lot of hot air in political debate while doing nothing. And when the people rose up in anger, the so-called political opponents instantly joined hands against them.
I remember this play more and more often these days, almost twenty years after I saw it performed, because it depicts so wonderfully all that is wrong with India’s political system and its so-called “democracy”. I don’t actually call it a democracy, hence the quotes; for want of a better word, I’ll refer to it, in the course of this article, as an “electionocracy”.
Let me explain what I mean.
A democracy, by definition, is rule by the people, through their elected representatives, and for the people. So, we have two distinct conditions necessary for democracy to exist: the choosing of representatives by the people through open, free and fair elections, and followed by these elected representatives ruling in accordance with the wishes (and, one assumes, in the best interests) of the people who voted for them.
If either of these two factors is missing, therefore, democracy, by definition, ceases to exist.
So let’s see how it stacks up in this country:
First, we have the actual process of standing for election. By definition, an electorate should be free to choose whomsoever it wishes, and therefore anyone who chooses should be able to stand for election on an equal level. But does that actually work that way?
Of course not.
One of the positive things about the Indian electoral system is that it isn’t, as yet at least, a two-party toss of the coin where one is compelled to choose what one believes to be the lesser of two evils. However, it is mostly a (rather loose) two-alliance system, and though there are some other parties around, they are marginal at best. One can, actually, stand for election as an independent, but one’s chances of winning an election as one are slim.
Actually, the system works hard at discouraging “independent” candidates, on the plea that they aren’t serious. As of now there’s no law banning independents from standing for election, but the regulations for submitting their candidature have been made so rigorous that it’s rather difficult to stand as one unless you have the covert backing of one or other of the parties.
Why would a political party covertly back a candidate standing against it, anyway?
To understand that, you have to comprehend the simple fact that Indian society is ultra-heterogeneous. There isn’t space in this article to discuss the role of caste and religion in India; let’s just say that the political system treats voters as monolithic voter blocs, called “vote banks”, almost entirely on the basis of caste, religion or (where applicable) tribe. The idea is that, overall, people will vote according to their castes, tribes or religion and not on the basis of the party or candidate. As they say, Indians “don’t cast their vote, they vote their caste”. So if your candidate is of one caste, and your opponent is of another, if you quietly introduce an independent candidate belonging to the same caste as your opponent into the race, that might take away some of his votes. These candidates are known as “dummies” and some of them appear on the lists of every election for decades on end, without ever coming close to winning.
So, the space for true independent candidature is thin at best and shrinking steadily. I don’t think I’m wrong in stating that even in a multi-party system, if one has to submit to the ideology (and more of that in a moment) of one of the established parties in order to be a candidate, the electorate isn’t being allowed an open choice. That’s one thing.
Then, there’s the fact of money-power. More and more often, in Indian politics, candidates are big businessmen who are specifically chosen as candidates by parties on the basis of the amount of money they can spend on their election. The Election Commission of India, an independent and largely efficient and fair body, imposes restrictions on the amount a candidate can officially spend, but funds sourced from the parent party can be traced. Private funds, of course, cannot.
And this, logically, leads to a situation where a rich candidate is already far ahead in the race compared to one of more modest means; hardly a situation unique to India, but hardly democratic in any sense either. Rule by the rich is called plutocracy, not democracy.
But then even in the established parties, not just anyone can stand for election. The parties nominate people not on the basis of merit, but on far more questionable grounds. One of the biggest problems is that, except for the far left and some (but not all) of the parties of the far right, all Indian political parties are family-owned private firms. They have no real ideology but the interests of the party’s ruling dynasty, and the internal structure of the party is entirely feudal. In these parties, being given the nomination for an election therefore depends on (i) having brown-nosed the ruling dynasty enough to be in its good graces, (ii) being of the right caste or religion and (iii) having adequate disposable funds to be able to “invest” them in the electoral process.
There have been demands – many demands – in the recent past to provide the voters with a “none of the above” option in the vote, but this is something the parties are united in opposing. I’ll stick my neck out and say that they are afraid of this option because that would show the world how little actual legitimacy their candidates have.
In fact, there was an unofficial way to reject candidates when we used to use paper ballots. One could stamp an invalid vote by marking the paper in multiple places or in the wrong place. But now, with an electronic voting machine, one can’t even do that. One’s options, if one wishes to register protest, are either not to vote at all or – and this is what I do – vote for someone one knows is sure to lose.
Therefore, one cannot choose candidates on the basis of free choice, and therefore the election system in India is not democratic.
The first of the two pillars of democracy, therefore, is already defunct.
Now let’s look at the second of the two points I mentioned above. Do these elected representatives work for the people?
As I already mentioned, the basic fact of Indian politics is feudal fealty to political dynasties; ideology not being a factor (except in the really, really far left and the equally really, really far right) the parties don’t feel any particular reason to do either of two things:
They don’t feel any need to fulfill the pledges they made when standing for election, because those were just a way of getting to power. I realize that hardly any party worldwide fulfils its promises once elected, but these don’t even try. Once in power, alleged “ideological enemies” from across the spectrum will quickly join in coalitions whose incompetence is equaled only by their rapacity and corruption; the current coalition (mis)governing the nation is a classic case.
Then, since ideology is not a factor, there’s really little or no difference between parties. Thus, in order to win elections, they’re willing to do anything – not “almost” anything, but literally anything – to get the votes. One of these things the parties do is to develop their own private armies of criminals, strong-arm enforcers and goons whose function is precisely the same as that of the SA in the early stages of Hitler’s Germany.
Recently, there was an election in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, whose capital is Lucknow – the same place where I watched the street play I’ve mentioned. In this election, there were four major competing forces. One was the chief minister of the state, Mayawati, a megalomaniac whose primary activity in the last five years when she held power was to put up statues of herself and get weighed against monetary “gifts” from her “admirers”. Another was the “socialist” party of the former chief minister, Mulayam Singh Yadav, now represented by his son Avishek. The third was the Congress, whose chief campaigner was the nation’s Crown Prince-designate, Rahul Gandhi. And the fourth was the Hindunazi party, the BJP. All these four were contending against each other and Avishek Yadav’s Samajwadi (“Socialist”) Party won a complete majority, more because people were sick of Mayawati than anything.
Now, what happened was that the Congress, which had been wiped out in the election (it won only 28 seats) immediately set out to co-opt Avishek Yadav; and Yadav himself said he’d rein in his goons. But the goons were already running amok, and still are. After five years of being out of power, the Samajwadi Party is in a hurry to get into the profit making game.
Similarly, three years ago, the so-called “Communist” government of the state of West Bengal (comprising a coalition led by the Communist Party of India [Marxist], one of the two major Indian self-styled “communist” parties) took agricultural land at gunpoint from farmers to hand over to a notorious right-wing capitalist baron, well known to be extremely close to Hindunazi parties, in order to set up a car plant. It was certainly not due to the so-called “communists” in power that the deal ultimately fell through; it was due to a violent revolution on the ground. The “communists” were voted out of power last year, but the new “centrist” government of the state (led by another female megalomaniac, Mamata Bannerjee) has already proved itself even worse.
A choice that makes no difference is the same as no choice at all.
Therefore, the second of the two pillars of democracy also fails, and unless the mere holding of elections counts as democracy, India isn’t a democracy but an “electionocracy”.
But let’s look further at the actual effect this “electionocracy” has had on India; has it been of any real use?
I remember this incident some time ago when an official said, talking about the high incidence of illiteracy even now amongst Indian children, “But we can’t force parents to send their kids to school; after all we are a democracy.”
It’s exactly this kind of mind-numbing stupidity that is so characteristic of India’s electionocracy; where “democracy” is turned into an excuse not to do things, where it’s, in fact, turned into a millstone around the nation’s collective neck. Then there is the pandering to “vote banks” (the caste/religion based voter blocs I mentioned a while ago in this article). That pandering, of course, leads to rampant tokenism like making some caste leader’s birthday a holiday, or building a temple somewhere; utterly empty gestures void of meaning, gestures which detract attention from real problems which need actual solutions.
Supportive evidence comes from the fact that Indian courts are becoming more proactive, issuing orders that clearly intrude into the executive field and is therefore out of their purview; but these orders have widespread public support, simply because people feel the politicians aren’t doing what they’re supposed to do, so the judges have to.
I’ll once again stick out my neck and say that, going by the actual experience of Indian politics, this nation is incapable of a true democratic system. I’ll even go so far as to make a generalization: true democracy can only work in nations with relatively small, homogeneous populations with roughly equal income levels. That is to say, only among peers can there be democracy.
Now, India is anything but a nation of peers; the inequalities are staggering and growing literally by the day. Anyone who’s been reading me regularly will be aware that the so-called “economic miracle” is a lot of hot air; it’s just “empty growth” without real income level rise, and India’s Human Development Index remains amongst the worst in the world. It is also a nation so ethnically diverse that it’s not so much a country as a confederation of nationalities which exists as a political unit only as a result of two centuries of British colonial rule. Even formerly homogeneous societies, like tribes where most property was held in common, are now socially layered with deep inequities and intense resentment.
Also, for democracy to work, one needs a level of knowledge among voters; they need to be informed, in order to make a choice. That’s why it’s called an informed choice. But that, equally, means the voters have to be educated. I don’t mean handed out degrees, but made politically aware. However, that is not happening in India. Education, here, falls into two distinct sub-categories: the poor people in the villages have a completely dysfunctional system with schools that exist on paper and “literacy” where the child can barely write its own name; and the college graduate whose education is so compartmentalized that he or she knows a lot about one subject and absolutely nothing about anything else. Such people aren’t informed; they are as ignorant of facts outside their immediate training as the illiterate villager, and maybe more so. These are the stalwarts of the Great Indian Muddle Class who revel in their own ignorance and actually reject knowledge; they literally do not want to know.
Add to that electronic and print media which have sold their souls completely to money power and openly back particular political parties, which means that the “information” they disseminate is indistinguishable from propaganda, and there’s little hope to be found there, either.
In such a situation, democracy on any level is simply not possible.
I know that at this point the question a discerning reader will ask is, “What then? What system do you think will suit this country? Do you advocate a military dictatorship?”
Frankly, while I have nothing per se against a military dictatorship – it can’t be worse than an electionocracy – going by the type of generals we have in our army, about whom I’ve written earlier, and going by the type of generals who have ruled Indian-offshoots Pakistan and Bangladesh, they won’t be any better than the politicians. Not worse, for sure, but not better.
In any case, unfortunately, I have no solution to offer. What I do have is a prognostication I made a couple of years ago, in an essay titled Thoughts On An Indian Revolution: 
…(A)s every single Indian knows, all that Indian “democracy” really means is holding elections, said elections being meant only for one purpose: to decide who is going to loot the nation until the next election comes along…elections in India are now an exercise in cynicism, no more.
Food riots… are only a matter of time. Crime levels will certainly escalate. Water and power supply will continue to be worse than poor. People will increasingly look for someone to blame.
At first, the blame will go to the migrant, whether from the villages or from other cities…We’ve already seen this in many parts of the country.
When this happens, the villages might well retaliate by blockading the cities, and cutting off food supplies, railways and roads.
The next stage… will come with the creation of virtual city states, each zealously protecting itself against theft of its food, water and electricity by others. Once this happens, de facto balkanization is only a matter of time, with each of these ministates forming its own economic policies and its own understandings with the hinterland. And once that stage is reached, the fiction of India will fully be exposed.
I can’t predict what will happen after that, whether the Maoists will roll over the country (chances slim) or, as is much more likely, the nation will dissolve in anarchy and random violence. But at the end of it, this old order will go. India, as it now is, is doomed, and there’s nothing this feudal system can do to stop it.
Today, more than ever, what I wrote then stands true.
You can read more from Bill The Butcher @ http://bill-purkayastha.blogspot.in