The World’s Largest Democracy is Under Threat

Corruption will go when the large number of persons given unworthily to it realise that the nation does not exist for them to exploit but that they exist to serve the nation.

                                                            Mahatma Gandhi

The heritage of India’s freedom movement and its leaders, particularly Mahatma Gandhi, provide ideals that are still capable of inspiring India and the world. Gandhi’s uncompromising moral strength and his tactics of non-violence have guided Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, Aung San Suu Kyi and many others.

But endemic corruption in the police and the judiciary, along with the capture of India’s democracy by elected officials facing serious criminal charges, is undermining the world’s largest 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.

India’s democracy is remarkable because of India’s diversity of religions, languages and ethnicities. India today is the third-largest Muslim country in the world, after Indonesia and Pakistan [1]. Given India’s religious diversity, its founders regarded a secular constitution as an essential precondition for the stability of the new nation. India can boast of having had a Muslim President, a Sikh Prime Minister and a Christian head of the ruling party, all sharing in the same governing coalition [2]. India’s secular constitution remains a model for the world.

India also stands out because it is 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 [3]. India demonstrates that, with sufficient safeguards, democracy can be made to work in poor countries.

Poverty and Promise

At the time of India’s Independence, on the stroke of midnight on 14 August 1947, many ridiculed the idea that a stable democracy could be established in so poor, vast and diverse a country.

Winston Churchill famously predicted that if the British left, ‘India will fall back quite rapidly through the centuries into the barbarism and privations of the Middle Ages.’ A senior British official, observing India’s first general election in 1952, echoed Churchill’s pessimism when he wrote, ‘A future more enlightened age will view with astonishment the absurd farce of recording the votes of millions of illiterate people.’

Over sixty years and sixteen general elections later, India’s democracy endures. Indian general elections today, with over 700 million voters [4] – larger than all the eligible voters in North America, Europe and Australia combined –constitute the largest political events in human history [5].

Economically too India has had some marked successes. In recent decades it has become one of the world’s fastest-growing economies and is widely expected to take its place among the world’s economic powers within the coming decades.

Despite recent economic successes, however, chronic levels of poverty continue to exacerbate the nations many problems. The persistence of poverty in India was illustrated in an analysis conducted in 2011 by The Economist magazine which matched each of India’s states with a country with a similar level of GDP per capita [6].  (GDP per capita is often considered as a measure of a country’s standard of living). On this measure, India’s large northern states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan have standards of living comparable to those in Kenya, Eritrea, Benin and Sudan respectively.

Indian historian Ramachandra Guha has been one voice among a growing chorus warning that the prevalence of poverty and inequality is fuelling violence and corruption and corroding the institutions of India’s democracy. [7]

A stream of recent international reports documents the extent of corruption in the country [8]. In 2014 India ranked 85 out of 175 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. World Bank surveys report that almost half of firms surveyed said that they had to pay bribes to public officials for everyday business activities.

Citizens too routinely have to bribe public officials for services that are free by law – such as access to healthcare and education, obtaining telephone connections or driving licences. Surveys consistently identify the police as being the most corrupt public service in India. India’s poor more often find themselves victims of the law rather than enjoying the protection of it.

Corruption is also corroding the impartiality of India’s judiciary. A former Director General of the National Investigation Agency, Radha Vinod Raju has spoken about how existing anti-corruption measures fail to deter wrongdoers – particularly those with money [9]. To begin with, few of the many allegations of corruption against the wealthy ever result in charges being filed because they can pay bribes to evade justice. In the rare cases which do make it to court, further bribes can prolong the period between initial charges and final conviction to a decade or more. Finally, low conviction rates and the failure of the state to pursue the assets of those found guilty, weaken the deterrent effect of India’s criminal justice system for wealthy and well connected criminals to vanishing point.

Most worryingly of all, India’s Parliament too has been corrupted.

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.[10],[11] One MP faced no less than seventeen separate murder charges, while a sitting Cabinet Minister was convicted of conspiracy to murder.

The situation has become even more serious since then. Following the 2014 Parliamentary election, 185 MPs had criminal cases pending against them. Of these, 112 lawmakers faced charges related to murder, attempt to murder, communal disharmony, kidnapping, and crimes against women.[12].

Despite the clear extent of criminal infiltration of Indian politics, the major parties – rather than acting decisively to remove the threat and protect India’s democracy – still refuse to bar those facing serious criminal convictions from standing as candidates in elections.

The Future of Indian Democracy

As the world’s largest democracy, India stands as an important symbol to the world. A strong democratic India has the potential to act as a voice for the poor in international fora, as a force for a more just world economic system, and as proof of the power of democracy to address the most pressing problems of the twenty-first century.

However the potential of India’s democracy can only be realised 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 the rise of criminal elites.


[1] Amartya Sen, The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian Culture, History and Identity, Penguin Books, 2006:118

[2] Ibid:302

[3] Ashutosh Varshney, ‘India’s Democratic Challenge’, Foreign Affairs, Volume 86, Number 2, March /April 2007:94


[5] Pavan K. Varma, Being Indian: Inside the Real India, Arrow Books, 2006:55

[6] Comparing Indian states and territories with countries, An Indian Summary, The Economist website, available at

[7] Ramachandra Guha, ‘Democratic to a Fault?’, Prospect Magazine, 25 January 2012

[8] Quoted in ‘Overview of Corruption and Anti-corruption Efforts in India’, U4 Anti-corruption Resource Centre, Transparency International and CHR Michelsen Institute, January 2009

[9] Radha Vinod Raja, ‘Fighting Corruption: How serious is India?’ Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies Issue Brief Number 158, New Delhi, December 2010

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

[11] ‘The House of Ill Repute’, Newsweek, 7/3/2009

[12] Association for Democratic Reforms, Lok Sabha Elections 2014: Analysis of Criminal Background, Financial, Education, Gender and other details of Winners, Press Release, May 18, 2014

1 thought on “The World’s Largest Democracy is Under Threat

  1. Pingback: The World’s Largest Democracy is Under Threat | No Psychos, No Druggies, No Stooges

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