In 1967, the Times of London carried a series of articles titled “India’s Disintegrating Democracy” written by their Delhi correspondent Neville Maxwell. This is how he describes the mood of the country: “the administration is strained and universally believed to be corrupt, the government and the governing party have lost public confidence and belief in themselves as well...[there is] a deep sense of defeat, an alarmed awareness that the future is not only dark but profoundly uncertain.” The more things change, the more they remain the same.
These words may well be used to describe the current mood of the country.
However, Maxwell got one crucial detail wrong. He concluded that, “while Indians would soon vote in the fourth — and surely last — general election, the great experiment of developing India within a democratic framework has failed.”
India remains an outlier amongst the democracies of the world- an unlikely candidate for the persistence of democracy. We continue to have large levels of illiteracy and poverty, the integrity of most of our government institutions has been compromised by successive governments (with the notable exception of Election Commission), corruption and populism is the norm in our public life and our society continues to struggle with divisions along the lines of religion, caste, language and gender.
The democratic promise of compensating inequality of resources with equality of voice has remained largely unfulfilled as successive generations of politicians have taken the public for a ride. To borrow a phrase from Joseph Stiglitz, the principle of “one person-one vote” has been replaced by “one rupee-one vote.”
The odds of history was certainly against us and the decision to trust a largely illiterate and poor population with universal adult franchise in 1947 was, as Ramchandra Guha calls it, “an act of faith” on part of the framers of our constitution. These fears have been repeatedly expressed since our independence- that an unstable and hierarchical society with large levels of poverty and illiteracy is not suited for the flourishing of democracy. Take for example Indonesia, another developing country that is going into national elections simultaneously with India. Although it received independence in 1945, it became a democracy only 16 years ago with the fall of Suharto’s dictatorship.
Our electorate has repeatedly proven these naysayers wrong by coming out to vote in large numbers. The record turnouts in the third phase of the current elections, which happened in some of the most backward regions of the country, have yet again vindicated the wisdom of our forefathers. Orissa saw 67% voting (which was more than Delhi) and Jharkhand had a 58% turnout, an increase of 3% and 8% respectively.
Even the disturbed regions of Jammu and Kashmir, Mizoram, Chhattisgarh and Assam had a healthy turnout and relatively peaceful voting. In Bastar, a Maoist stronghold, more than 1 out of 2 registered voters came out to reaffirm their belief in democracy. In Jammu and Kashmir, disregarding a boycott call by separatists, 66% of the electorate turned up to vote in the third phase, an increase of almost 20% from the general elections in 2009.
Mukulika Banerjee notes in her article Elections as Communitas that the most enthusiastic voters in Indian elections are not the well-educated urban middle classes but those who are the poorest, most discriminated against, and least educated, mainly living in villages and small towns. Paradoxically, the biggest defenders of democracy have been those whom it has failed in the most spectacular way. However, they choose to respond with the ballot instead of the bullet.
Banerjee offers several explanations for the puzzle of democracy’s success in India- a visionary constitution that acts as a bulwark against authoritarianism, the inclusive social policies of successive governments that have tried to integrate the disadvantaged sections of society, levelling impact of election campaigns where the high and mighty are forced to step down and plead with the voters, the festive atmosphere on election day that makes voting a sacrosanct and an egalitarian experience where people across caste, class and religion stand in one line waiting for their chance to vote, the civic pride of being able to flaunt the black ink on your finger once you have voted and so on.
Personally speaking, one of the biggest factors in developing and strengthening our democratic DNA has been the outstanding integrity and efficiency of the Election Commission, starting with the legendary Sukumar Sen (who famously described the first general elections as “the biggest experiment in democracy in human history”).
The overall voter turnout rates in India are comparable to the mature democracies of the West. However, unlike our Western counterparts who are suffering from voter apathy, the voter turnout continues to show an increasing trend even though voting is not compulsory. The 2010 general elections in Britain saw a turnout of merely 65% and even the watershed 2008 American elections that gave the presidency to a black man witnessed a turnout of only 62%, a mere 2 % more than our 2009 general elections.
From Middle East to Eastern Europe and Africa, there is a great political churning happening across the world as people’s movements are forcing regime changes towards democracy. The persistence of democracy in India must serve as an inspiration for newly democratic countries like Egypt and transitional countries like Libya. Our success is proof that illiteracy, social instability and poverty do not disrupt the practice of democracy. One doesn't need a Ph.D or a six figure salary to identify and punish a corrupt leader.
Charles Barclay Roger, a researcher at London School of Economics, says that electoral participation in western democracies shows a sharp decline in the aftermath of corruption scandals due to disillusionment with the political class. Not so in India, where scandals like the Bofors in 1989 or the ones under UPA-II, warrant an overwhelming response from the public.
I am angry with what has happened in my country over the last five years. What insults my intelligence as an ordinary citizen of the country more than the corruption, is its brazenness and scale. However, my cynicism with politicians doesn’t automatically translate into a cynicism with politics. I shall vent to my anger and remind the arrogant political class that I exist, by travelling 1500 km to cast my vote on 24th April. Meanwhile, Mr. Neville Maxwell can go take a walk.