India: Protecting the World’s Largest Democracy

India Commemorates Independence

This month, India celebrated sixty seven years of independence from British rule. Almost seven decades ago many ridiculed the idea that a stable democracy could be established in so poor, vast and diverse a country. A senior British official, observing India’s first general election, reflected the views of many in the British establishment when he wrote, ‘A future more enlightened age will view with astonishment the absurd farce of recording the votes of millions of illiterate people.’

As Indians mark their 67th Independence Day, they have much to celebrate. Not only has the world’s largest democracy endured, but it appears that strong economic growth has at last begun to make a real dent on India’s chronic poverty. Although disputed, the latest government figures suggest that poverty has been cut by a third since 2004.

Despite this recent success, however, chronic levels of poverty persist. In the public imagination the image of a starving child is most frequently associated with Africa, but in reality it is India which is host to the worst under-nourishment in the world. The level of poverty can be seen in an analysis carried out by The Economist in 2011, which matched each of India’s states with a country at a similar level of economic development. India’s large northern states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan were shown to have living standards comparable to those in Kenya, Eritrea, Benin and Sudan respectively.

Many, including renowned historian Ramachandra Guha and Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen, are now voicing concerns that such high levels of poverty and inequality are fuelling increasing levels of violence and corruption, and corroding the institutions of India’s democracy.

Poverty as Psychopaths Path to Power

Widespread poverty, and the absence of properly functioning systems of law and democracy, provide ample opportunity for people with dangerous personality disorders to acquire positions of power. Corrupt and ineffective courts mean that there is little to deter the powerful from committing violence and theft. Corruption among politicians means that election to public office is seen by the unscrupulous as an alluring road to wealth. And flagrant social and economic injustice means that many voters are open to the populist appeals of corrupt political candidates, regardless of the candidate’s personal ethics. All of these factors are present in the world’s largest democracy. As a result, India’s institutions of government are, literally, being taken over by thugs and thieves.

The scale of criminal infiltration of India’s political system became clear for the first time in 2004 following an order from the Indian Supreme Court that all election candidates must disclose their criminal history. These disclosures revealed that of the 543 MPs elected to India’s Parliament in the 2004 elections, 128 faced criminal charges, including eighty-four counts of murder [1]. One MP faced charges of human trafficking after being caught smuggling a woman and child on board a flight to North America, while a sitting Cabinet Minister was convicted of conspiracy to murder. One MP faced no less than seventeen separate murder charges.

The 2009 Parliamentary election was even worse [2]. Following that election, the number of MPs with criminal records increased to 150, of whom seventy-two faced serious criminal charges. Following that election, both of the main parties – the Congress Party and the BJP – had over forty sitting MPs facing serious criminal charges.

Protecting the World’s Largest Democracy

One reason that India’s democracy stands out from Western democracies is because it is predominantly a democracy of the poor. In Western democracies, the more affluent a person is the more likely they are to vote in elections. In India, the opposite is the case: the lower the caste, income, and education of an Indian, the greater the likelihood that they will vote. But the persistence of poverty shows that democracy is not delivering for India’s poor.

With recent economic development, there is hope that this may be about to change. Recent research reported by Anirudh Krishna shows that something new is happening among India’s poor [3]. Education is spreading fast among poorer and more rural communities and a new generation of educated younger peasants and educated poor people in cities is now emerging. As Krishna reports, the illiterate peasant is fast becoming a thing of the past. Support for democracy is particularly strong among this new generation, who see democracy as a means to afford them the choices their parents never had. This generation of educated poor is already beginning to demand the cleaning up of democratic institutions – such as political parties, the rule of law, the police and civil service – which can then deliver on the fairer and more equal society they crave.

The potential of India’s democracy, and the aspirations of India’s poor, can only be realised however if people of integrity hold positions of power. Allowing criminals without conscience to gain access to government is a recipe for disaster, and a failure of democracy to secure its primary purpose – that of protecting the nation from criminals in power. Indians today express anger at the fact that the more corrupt people are, the more likely they are to get promoted, or elected. Many Indians, particularly women, cannot walk the streets safe from fear of violence and sexual assault.

Defeating the Criminal Elites

Historically, India has played a critical role in the development of democracy. India’s 1951 Adult Suffrage Act, which granted the right to vote to all Indian citizens regardless of gender or religion, was the largest single act of freedom in human history. At a stroke, 350 million people became participants in their own future, with the right to decide how they would be governed. India’s democratic progress at that historic moment stands in stark contrast with its giant neighbour, where just two years earlier Mao Zedong proclaimed the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, doubling the number of people worldwide living under the tyranny of communism.

Democracy remains our principal means of protecting ourselves from thugs and tyrants. When it works, it enables us to rise from poverty and develop to the best of our abilities in peace and freedom. But just as a new generation of India’s educated poor begins to assert its strength. India’s leaders are failing in their primary duty of protecting India from falling under the influence of dangerous pathological thugs. For India’s citizens, the fight for Independence did not end in 1947. That fight continues today as Indians struggle to win their democracy back from the hands of criminal elites.

[1] ‘Engaging India: Murder most foul’, Financial Times, 6/12/2006

[2] Analysis of 2009 Lok Sabha Winners based on criminal and financial background, National Election Watch (NEW) Press Release, May 16, 2009

[3] Poor People and Democracy, Anirudh Krishna, in Poverty, Participation and Democracy, Cambridge University Press, 2008

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