It’s almost election time in the world’s largest democracy. Next month more than 700 million Indians will go to the polling booths and cast their vote, in what will be the biggest exercise in the democratic process anywhere on earth in recent years. The result will be interesting, as no single party is likely to win outright, but for many Indians, considering the state of Indian politics today, the elections will be a largely meaningless affair. Audacity of hope? Life will be the same as usual for most Indians after these elections.
Since the ‘golden era’ of Indian democracy in the first two decades following independence, Indian politics has become increasingly populist and chaotic. Today there are many, many parties at the national and regional levels, and central governments are usually coalitions. Gone are the days when India’s grand old party – Congress - ruled virtually unchallenged across the breadth and depth of the country. This broadening of democracy reflects the diverse nature of the Indian population, but along with this increased political pluralism has been a distressing corruption of the entire system.
Around a quarter of India’s politicians are facing charges of serious crime including murder, armed robbery, kidnapping and rape. Many politicians thrive on the use of muscle power, but this nexus between politics and crime only weakens the rule of law. The legal process is so slow and ineffective that it only facilitates the further criminalization of politics. How can one expect a parliamentary system infiltrated by criminals to serve the people, let alone uphold the rule of law?
Corruption is so endemic in public life that to get anything done one has to pay a bribe. A report by Transparency International India (TII) estimated that the total sum of bribes paid to access public services by poor people in India was more than 9 billon rupees. The protectors of the law, the police, topped the services accounting for the most bribes being paid, followed by housing services and land administration. Bribes are routinely paid for gaining admission to schools, to get a bed in a public hospital, or to get the electricity turned on. India is currently ranked 85 in a list of 180 countries worldwide for corruption by Transparency International.
There has been much praise for the rapid economic growth India has enjoyed in recent years. Certain sectors of the economy like IT, biotechnology, and pharmaceuticals have indeed experienced tremendous growth, but the effects of this economic growth are failing to trickle down. In the latest United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Index, India is ranked a low position of 132 out of 179 countries, falling far behind other large countries such as China (94) and Brazil (70) with similar sets of challenges, and it has not improved its position for years.
Among two of the main failings of successive Indian governments have been the inability to make basic education and health care available to all its people. When India embraced free market reform in the early 1990s, with its elitist concentration on higher education, a semi-literate population was poorly prepared for a widely shared economic expansion. The situation is not much different today. The contrast with China couldn’t be greater. Chinese governments, even before China turned to capitalism in 1979, went for massive expansion of education, and later of health care too. The result has been that China has reaped the benefits of free market reforms much better than India.
India is, of course, a very diverse country and there are large variations in living conditions across different regions. The poorer states, mainly in central and northern India, such as Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and Bihar, have living conditions not much different to the most deprived countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Here there are high levels of illiteracy, infant mortality and undernourishment. Meanwhile Kerala, in the southwest, has almost total universal literacy and good health care facilities. The result is that people in Kerala live longer, in smaller families, and they are less likely to suffer from acute poverty.
The Indian electorate has the uncanny ability to surprise political pundits. In the last general elections, against all odds, Italian born Sonia Gandhi led her Congress party to an unlikely victory over the incumbent right wing Hindu nationalist BJP party. Following her surprising victory, she stepped aside for the soft-spoken Oxford University educated economist, Manmohan Singh, who initiated India’s economic liberalization in the early 1990s. This year the newly formed Third Front, a grouping of secular left wing and regional parties, could possibly play the role of kingmaker.
There are huge challenges that lie ahead for the next government including poverty eradication, overpopulation, and an increasingly unstable neighbourhood. It is difficult to see how a coalition government, constrained by compulsions to please its internal partners, will be able to meet all these challenges. However, as Kerala has shown, the provision of basic education and health care, achieved without too much government expenditure, can lead to tangible social benefits in the long run. The next government must address such fundamental issues; otherwise, for many Indians, life will continue to be a misery and elections a meaningless affair.