The fact that our voters elect people openly referred to as mafia dons and dacoit leaders is a reflection on the way elections have served Indian democracy

Regular readers of this column will hardly be surprised when I say that a recent conversation I had with a cabinet minister of the Union Government, who was on a visit to New York, consisted of a lot of topics on which we had diverse opinions. However, what surprised even me was the one thing on which we agreed. The minister and I both lamented on the quality of political leadership in our country: Indians, we both felt, deserved better.

It helped, of course, that our indictment was neither aimed at the minister’s own Government, nor was it party-specific. Rather, our concern was systemic. Sociologists have analysed the class-composition of India’s legislatures and traced an important change from a post-Independence Parliament dominated by highly-educated professionals to one more truly representative of the rural heartland of India. The typical member of Parliament today, the wry joke runs, is a lower-caste farmer with a law degree he’s never used.

However, the fact that, particularly in the northern states, our voters elect people referred to openly in the press as ‘mafia dons’, ‘dacoit leaders’ and ‘anti-social elements’ is a poor reflection on the way the electoral process has served Indian democracy. The resultant alienation of the educated middle-class means that fewer and fewer of them go to the polls on election day.

The abstention of the highly-educated from the ballot is only a symptom of a more debilitating loss of faith in the political process itself. Only 25 per cent of Indians questioned in a Gallup poll in April 1996 expressed confidence in Parliament (whereas, in comparison, 77 per cent said they trusted the judiciary).

Defections and horse-trading are common, political principle rare. The spectacle of legislators in one state Assembly after another being ‘‘paraded’’ before a Speaker or a Governor to prove a contested majority, or—worse still—being ‘‘held hostage’’ in hotels by their leaders so they cannot be suborned by rivals until their claims to the majority are accepted, has done little to inspire confidence in the integrity of India’s parliamentarians. Don’t get me wrong: I am not some elitist lamenting the country’s takeover by the poor. The significant changes in the social composition of India’s ruling class, both in politics and in the bureaucracy, since Independence is indeed proof of democracy at work. But the poor quality of the country’s political leadership in
general offers less cause for celebration. Our rulers increasingly reflect the qualities required to acquire power rather than the skills to wield it for the
common good.

Too many politicians are willing to use any means to obtain power. Even the time-honoured device of the dodgy campaign promise has sunk to a record low: one leading politician, a former Cabinet minister, became chief minister of India’s most populous state by promising that, if elected, his first act would be to abolish an ordinance that prevented college students from cheating (the ordinance forbade outsiders from smuggling crib-sheets into the exam halls, regulated the examinees’ freedom to leave the exam hall and return to it and so on). He won the youth vote, and the elections with a landslide. He was as good as his word: within seconds of taking the oath of office, he withdrew the
anti-cheating ordinance.

Sadly, this politician’s willingness to elevate political expediency above societal responsibility is all too typical of his fellow politicians today. The profession of politics, for all the reasons described above, has to a great extent become dominated by the unprincipled, the inept, the corrupt, the criminal and the undisciplined. As the minister, I debated, their quest for power is unaccompanied by any larger vision of the common good. But they do get elected repeatedly; for one of the failures of Indian democracy has certainly lain in its inability to educate the mass of voters to expect, and demand, better of their elected representatives.

The minister I spoke to said that he had once made a proposal in the Cabinet that every politician should attend and pass a course in basic Indian history and civics before being allowed to contest a seat. The proposal was immediately shot down; but patronising as it sounds, there may be a case to revive it.

For, far more dangerous to Indian democracy than the deficiencies of its guardians is the fact that the combination of expediency and corruption, flourishing with impunity under the protection of the democratic state, discredits democracy itself. The institutions of the Indian democracy must be able to deliver what all citizens of democratic states expect, namely national security and economic prosperity. If corruption, maladministration and political failure results in a citizenry that feels insecure and deprived, the resultant disillusionment with the system can destroy Indians’ belief in the very system that sustains India. And that is something every Indian needs to worry about.

Source: Indian Express