Monday, November 12, 2012

India Struggles with Democracy

It is inevitable that India is compared with China as an economic and social entity. In all such comparisons China is perceived as being more efficient in addressing economic and societal needs, with the obvious exception of political freedom. Discourse emanating from the Western nations usually concludes that India, with its democratic system, will ultimately make better decisions than China and, inevitably, produce a better nation. Is this nothing more than wishful thinking? Is it possible for a democracy to be so dysfunctional that it is unable to address critical issues effectively? Could a democracy be so flawed that it is destined to fail? These are the questions raised by Sadanande Dhume in an article in The Wilson Quarterly: India’s Feckless Elite.

Dhume begins by reminding us that India has fallen into rather difficult economic times.

"Economic growth slowed to an annual rate of 5.5 percent in the first quarter of the current fiscal year, and few independent analysts expected it to top six percent in the rest of the year. For a country still at an early stage of development—in dollar terms, the average Indian earns about as much as the average Chinese did in 2004—this augurs ill. Most economists believe that India needs to grow by more than seven percent annually merely to keep pace with the 13 million new entrants into the job market each year."

"Flagging growth isn’t the only cause for concern. Foreign direct investment plummeted 67 percent in the first quarter of the current fiscal year, to $4.4 billion. The rupee has spent much of 2012 touching historic new lows. (By mid-September, it had lost 20 percent against the dollar over the past 12 months.) Though arguably a one-off event, the massive power outage in July that left 600 million people without electricity dramatized the parlous state of Indian infrastructure to the world."

Dhume illustrates the difficulty any government faces in trying to initiate reforms.

"In September, the government raised the price of diesel fuel and announced a rash of long-awaited economic reforms in the retail, aviation, and power sectors. For the first time, big-box retailers such as Walmart will be allowed to own a majority stake in their Indian operations. But it remains to be seen if even these limited reforms, eight years in the making, will take hold amid a firestorm of protest by both the opposition and allies within the ruling coalition. As protestors take to the streets and coalition partners threaten to bring down the government, they highlight the unpredictability of Indian democracy and foreshadow a chaotic alternative to the smooth arc of progress assumed by many."

Dhume defines his concerns:

"Are the country’s ruling elites up to the task of piloting a staggeringly diverse nation of 1.2 billion people, half of them under the age of 25, out of poverty and toward prosperity? Can economic reforms be pushed through in an era of dynastic politics, fragile coalitions, and powerful regional satraps? Can India’s institutions rein in resource grabbing of the sort once associated with postcommunist Russia or Suharto’s crony-ridden Indonesia? Can politicians rise above appeals to caste, religion, and language and begin to debate the country’s future in terms of ideas? In short, will politics, in the broadest sense of the word, enable India to achieve its potential, or choke it?"

While India’s democracy has been remarkably stable, in the sense of assured peaceful transfers of power based on elections, it has unique characteristics that are not healthy. When the British left, the country was in the hands of highly educated leaders. As the political system has evolved, competent, dedicated people who might wish to devote their lives to public service find it almost impossible to gain entry.

"Over time, the odds of an idealistic young man or woman acquiring a world-class education and aspiring to public life in India have become vanishingly small. Many of the most talented instead look toward the private sector or emigrate to the West. Indian elections are usually decided by an electorate that votes primarily on the basis of identity—caste or religion. Moreover, most political parties in India have morphed into family fiefdoms handed down from parent to child like an heirloom. In many ways, the parties resemble personality cults more than organizations of individuals motivated by similar ideals and policy prescriptions."

Such a political structure inevitably leads to the corruption that is now so wide spread.

"Lacking a culture of transparency, virtually all parties use slush funds for campaigns, which in many parts of the country consist of promising voters free kitchen appliances or laptops, or delivering cash-filled envelopes to them the night before voting. In the absence of intraparty competition, the party leader effectively controls both campaign cash and, when in power, the state’s goody bag of handouts. It’s hardly a surprise, then, that politicians have developed a symbiotic relationship with crony capitalists in mining and real estate, fields in which access to decision makers is the single most important element of business success."

"Today, nearly a third of state and national legislators have criminal charges pending against them, including serious ones such as murder, kidnapping, and extortion."

The influence of family on politics is best exemplified by the longevity of the "Nehru-Gandhi dynasty"

"Sonia Gandhi, the daughter-in-law of Indira Gandhi, is president of the ruling Congress Party and is India’s most powerful politician. Manmohan Singh, her mild-mannered and technocratic prime minister, is widely seen as a seat warmer for Gandhi’s 42-year-old son, Rahul. Should he become prime minister, Rahul Gandhi will follow in the footsteps of his father, grandmother, and great-grandfather. Should he fail to ascend to the top post, the party, conditioned by decades of loyalty to bloodline rather than ideas, will almost certainly turn to his 40-year-old sister, Priyanka."

"Two-thirds of members of Parliament under the age of 40 are ‘hereditary MPs’ from political families. In short, while the right name gives a politician a leg up in other countries, in India it’s more like two legs and an arm. Fifty-odd families effectively run much of the country."

India is developing growing middle and upper classes of relatively affluent and well-educated individuals. One would assume that such people would become the core participants in a healthy democratic system. Whether from despair over the low probability of making a difference, or from self-interest, these people seem to have chosen to withdraw from the political system, and, as much as possible, from the nation that surrounds them.

"Unlike in America, in India, the richer you are, the less likely you are to vote. In the richer neighborhoods in Delhi, Mumbai, and Bangalore, and in the gated apartment complexes springing up in satellite towns such as Gurgaon, outside the capital, people have chosen to secede from Indian democracy rather than to fix it. On-site generators provide power. Private guards take care of security. The kids study in private schools and visit private doctors. For the most part, politics belongs to a distant world, glimpsed on television news, gossiped about at parties, and, at best, participated in only when national elections come around every five years."

It is this retreat of the affluent that Dhume finds most disturbing. These are the people from which one would expect competent political leaders to emerge. It is not happening—at least not yet. Dhume’s one hope seems to be that the economy will recover and the affluent classes will grow to the point where sheer numbers will grant them political entry and power. Otherwise, the future is not promising.

Dhume concludes:

"If more politicians could think beyond the inherited template of identity politics and government handouts, they would see the enormous potential—for their parties and for India—of locking in the support of the middle class. In a properly functioning democracy, political arguments are won in newspapers and on television, and through orderly grassroots expressions of dissent. For India to join the developed world, it needs to drag its politicians into the 21st century. Or else, they may just drag India down with themselves instead."

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