Bernard Feng on the rot, both moral and structural, beneath India’s celebrated democracy

Democratic love-in: Manmohan at the White House

In the last year, WikiLeaks has gifted us ‘Collateral Murder’ footage in which Coalition gunfire is seen to kill a journalist along with severalcivilians, damning war files on what’s really going on in Afghanistan, alongside instigating diplomatic fallout with leaked cables revealing what countries truly think of one another.

Indian national newspaper The Hindu had access to India-specific cables, and came across something that could change the course of Indian politics. One of the choicest leaks involves drastic action taken by the United Progressive Alliance to retain power a year before the 2009 General Election. After the Communists backed out of the coalition following a nuclear deal with the United States, the Congress-led coalition had lost its majority, triggering a fight for survival. To survive the no-confidence vote, the UPA gained the support of several MPs belonging to small opposition parties, such as the Rashtriya Lok Dal, by paying them a total of Rupees 50-60 Crore (about 25 million dollars).

In a rare show of unity, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s right-wing National Democratic Alliance, along with the Marxist Party’s Left Front, have mounted a scathing assault on Manmohan Singh’s government, calling for the Prime Minister’s resignation. The bribery cable was one of many corruption charges levelled against a beleaguered UPA, with Lal Krishna Advani of the BJP claiming that the new revelations have tainted the image of the world’s largest democracy. What’s even worse, the leak was actually not the first the opposition heard of the bribery.

In 2008, straight after the no-confidence vote, the Opposition came across a tape from a news channel allegedly recording the transaction taking place. Several papers condemned the government for this, with Vinod Metha of Outlook magazine referring to the bribery as the ‘ugliest face of Indian democracy.’ The government managed to survive the allegations, but with the bribery charges surfacing a second time, one would think that the game is up for Singh.

Nope. Singh may be able to breathe a sigh of relief, as the country’s resounding victory in the Cricket World Cup, not to mention its defeat of its perennial rival Pakistan, might have snuffed out any potential fallout. There is also the apolitical temperament of the Indian people to consider. The BJP cannot hope to fight against the political dynasty of the Gandhis, several of whom have ruled the country at numerous points in its history, and who hold as much sway over the Indian public as Obama over unsuspecting young, latte-sipping Americans. With this strong household name – Sonia Gandhi remains head of the Congress party, and Rahul Gandhi is being groomed as a future prime minister – Congress faces no feasible challenge to its dominance in Indian politics.

India, like China, is a rising economy, steadily gaining global recognition after centuries of humiliation by foreign powers. But what gives India an edge over China is its familiarity to the West, as a democratic country whose population has more of a grip on the English language than their Chinese neighbours, thanks to the three hundred year colonial encounter with Great Britain. India is an ally America and Britain can count on, while China’s more bullish approach to the West and its adherence to its own secretive agenda make it more of a ‘frienemy’ if anything.

But there’s a major drawback in fostering a Westminster-inspired political system in a part of the world that is historically little tutored in democracy. There was a massive outcry about the poor quality of facilities in the run-up to the 2010 Commonwealth Games, India’s lacklustre answer to China’s 2008 Olympics. While India had received no savage criticism for suppressing human-rights groups and slamming its iron-fist down on unsuspecting residents, the poor, run-down facilities, such as accommodation for athletes, leaves something to be said about the plague of mismanagement in the country. Poverty is rampant, and while India may be excused for being a developing nation, eight of its states account for more people in poverty than twenty six of Africa’s poorest nations combined. An article by Somini Sengupta in the New York Times reports that 42.5 percent of children in India suffer malnutrition.

At the risk of sounding colonial, the political makeup of India looks as well put-together as a dilapidated shack in a Mumbai slum. Lant Pritchett, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, remarked that while India certainly is not a failing state, it is a flailing state, a state whose head is sound and functional but no longer reliably connected to the rest of its body. It is rarely flattering to compare the world’s second-fastest developing economy to a headless chicken. Moreover, despite the fact that it adheres to the tenets of Western democracy more faithfully than most other Asian countries, it nevertheless lacks the credentials of a proper democracy. Not only are a great deal of people uneducated and suffering from poverty, criminals are being allowed into the government – and the money, whether or not it is the tax-payer’s or that of a corporation tipped-off by the government, is dirty. The world’s largest democracy is undemocratic.


Bernard Feng