San Francisco – As the US reaches the last two days of the Presidential election, it is impossible not to have some nostalgia for the Indian elections and experiment in democracy.
The framers of India’s Constitution met on December 9, 1946 (coincidentally the date on which Sonia Gandhi was born — a welcome or unwelcome coincidence depending on which party one favors). Stalwarts of the freedom movement were present, including Bhimrao Ambedkar, Maulana Azad, Sarat Chandra Bose, Kriplani, Shyama Prasad Mookerji, Nehru, Rajagopalachari, Jagjivan Ram, G.B. Pant, and Patel.
The chairman called upon delegates to look to the Philadelphia Convention of the framers of the US Constitution, which he noted had been justly regarded as “the soundest, and most practical and workable republican constitution in existence.” The fact that Americans had thrown off the British Imperialist yolk was the inspiring commonality of which the framers of the Indian Constitution were acutely aware. Sovereignty, as in the US, was to be derived from the people, as was the assurance to the people of justice, liberty, equality and fraternity for all.
In the Indian context, this secular vision of India was particularly challenging and continues to be so today with centuries of caste, class, religion and ethnicity-based social divisions. The principle of federalism was adopted from the American example, but given India’s history and prevalence of fissiparous tendencies, the country was framed as a unitary system with a federal bias or, if you will, a federal system with a unitary bias.
In deference to the secular inclusivity of the new republic, Bharat was chosen as the name for India in preference to the narrow more sectarian term Hindustan, which defined India as a land of Hindus.
After careful reflection, the Indian Constitution’s framers settled on a parliamentary democracy, rather than an American style executive presidency. Earlier, as author Patrick French notes in his gripping tome India – A Portrait (Alfred A. Knoff, New York, 2011), Churchill and even FDR had expressed skepticism of India’s adoption of universal franchise, unsure how democracy could coexist with illiteracy and acute poverty and a nation loosely strung together with disparate distinct units consisting of states with ill-defined boundaries and countless traditionally feuding royal principalities.
Unfazed but prescient, presenting the final draft of the Constitution to the delegates in November 1948, Ambedkar wisely noted, “No constitution is perfect,” and went on to say, “I feel that it is workable, it is flexible, and it is strong enough to hold the country together both in peacetime and in wartime.”
He also warned, “If things go wrong under the new constitution, the reason will not be that we had a bad constitution. What we will have to say is that Man was vile.” Both he and his generation of leaders were aware that India was taking a gamble on democracy.
Overall, while it has imperfections, the experiment India launched in 1950 when the Constitution was enacted has remained unbroken, barring the exceptional period when the emergency declared by Indira Gandhi suspended the Constitution and all the rights it had guaranteed to the citizenry. Vileness of which Ambedkar warned us, equally in our men and women political leaders, has played havoc with the Indian democratic experiment’s integrity.
The one saving grace has been an enlightened military that has consistently stayed away from intervening or assuming the mantle of king-maker, enabling India to escape the tyranny of military ruled democracies, as in many of India’s neighboring countries.
Thanks to the ballot power, Indians have gone to the polls repeatedly to elect leaders they feel will benefit them or their country, and thrash and evict those who fail to live up to their promises. When the first election was held in 1952, no other country or population had ever tried a voting exercise on such a large scale. As French points out, the Election Commission had to make two million steel ballot boxes and get the parties to adopt symbols to enable a largely illiterate populace to choose for whom to vote.
Elaborate voter lists had to be drawn up and reluctance of people to come forward with their names and details had to be overcome with reassurance that such information was essential and would not be misused. Even then, India observers both within and outside India were not confident of the elections’ sustainability. Yet, as French avers, “Somehow it happened, and since then the elections have kept on coming, fifteen so far since 1947. Amazingly,” French continues, “no one has yet managed to fix an Indian general election.”
Certainly booth capturing, vote buying, voter intimidation and other malpractices occur, and in some cases could swing the verdict for or against a particular candidate, but by and large, Vox populi has held firm. A mechanism to capture elections at the national level is simply not feasible and therefore unlikely.
French in fact has determined that Indian general elections are self-regulating. In his book, he cites a West Bengal candidate who claims “You can pay money for a certain district, but you are never sure if the neta will deliver the votes. I would say that for election rallies, about two-thirds of the money you pay to mobilize people gets wasted. They promise 10,000 farm workers will turn out, and you get 3,000.”
Voter resilience is also impressive. Even when bribes are offered and accepted, the final vote delivery remains uncertain and a mystery. Years back, I had interviewed some domestic workers in Delhi, one of whom confidently asserted that while she was happy to receive a sari from one of the contenders, she felt no obligation to go with that particular candidate.
After all, as she noted, her vote was secret, and she would go where her inner voice guided her without fear of retribution. In that way, bribery works, albeit somewhat conversely, as voters end up fleecing the aspiring candidate rather than the other way around!
Even so, election costs are getting prohibitive, and even obscene. To win a constituency, candidates can hardly get by with the officially allowed expense of $55,000 and usually end up closer to $2-3 million. The returns on being elected are equally astronomical. Mayawati, a leading Indian political player, declared her assets when she ran for office in 2010 in excess of $18 million. Her pre-political occupation was teaching – still one of the least paying professions in India. She is hardly alone in achieving spectacular success in asset building.
With money playing such a decisive role in elections, both in terms of investment and return on investment, it is not difficult to conclude that Indian elections, like their counterparts in the US (especially in the wake of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision) and elsewhere, are becoming hostage to money owners and lenders. In India, with its history of royal families leading the pack, there is a growing risk of power shifting subtly, not only to the moneyed, but also to the class that French refers to as hereditary. (A key example of the hereditary presence in Indian politics is the virtually unbroken leadership of Nehru-Indira Gandhi-Rajiv Gandhi-Sonia Gandhi and eventually Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi, their children and children’s children and so on). Even as the elections become more vibrant and transparent, French rightly asks, is “Indian national politics becoming hereditary, with power passing to a few hundred families?”
He in fact refers to this cadre of elected parliamentarians as HMPs or hereditary members of parliament. According to him, of the 545 MPs in the 15th Lok Sabha (Lower House), 28.6 percent had a hereditary connection. Of the two leading parties, BJP had 19 percent HMPs, while 37.5 percent of Congress MPs were HMPs. The balance of MPs in both parties come from a background of business and student politics, and their entry or rise in politics could be due to personal ambition or ability.
Strangely, the hereditary factor becomes more prominent among MPs of younger age than among the older group of MPs. Among MPs below 30 years of age, 100 percent were hereditary, while among MPs aged 51 to 80 years, about 47 percent were hereditary. Predictably, many of the latter group had risen from a grassroots background or from their own effort. In that way, politics in India is slowly but surely becoming a family business, and to the extent it is, Indian democracy faces a real threat of being co-opted by the entrenched wealthy and powerful.
The sovereignty of the people to which our Constitution’s framers pledged us is eroding. Once again, India is being ruled by the few, rather than the many. Alas! Not too different from the USA!