Democracy, as Abraham Lincoln famously declared in his Gettysburg Address, is supposed to be “of the people, by the people and for the people.” In India its definition is being rewritten. It remains by the people, but whether it is still of the people, or even for the people is a moot point.
The trend was first noticed in Karnataka where the mine barons of Bellary began to gather attention, though in all fairness, the sugar lords of Maharashtra have been influential in politics for a long time. Last week, in these columns, Bharat Bhushan has detailed the way things are going in Andhra Pradesh. Now we are hearing about Haryana where an NGO says that the average worth of a Congress candidate is Rs 5 crore and that of an Indian National Lok Dal and Haryana Jan Congress candidate around Rs 3 crore each.
Ever since it became mandatory for candidates to declare their wealth the realisation has dawned that our representatives are not quite like us; to paraphrase Hemingway’s comment to F. Scott Fitzgerald, “they’re richer.”
India is regressing from a democracy to a plutocracy featuring the disproportionate presence of the wealthy in our governance systems and the capture of political machines by their families.
This is the end of the grand experiment launched by our founding fathers when they decreed in 1950 that every Indian would henceforth be entitled to a vote. Considering that most people were illiterate and poor, this was a stupendous act of political faith. This was a time when countries like the US, Switzerland and Australia did not have universal adult franchise.
There was a heady atmosphere in the country about its future. And, the founding fathers were certain that India would take a unique developmental track, one imbued by the values of the freedom struggle and its leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Bhimrao Ambedkar.
We have a very good idea of how well it worked. When the first prime minister of the country, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, died in 1964, his will was made a public document. He gave away his sole fixed asset —the Anand Bhavan in Allahabad to the nation. The only thing his daughter inherited were the royalties from his books.
The wills of our leaders are no longer public documents. Given their affluence, which in many cases follows a spell in public office, there is every reason for them to keep such a document secret.
The Association of Democratic Reforms and the National Election Watch have calculated that some 15.5 per cent of the candidates in this year’s Lok Sabha elections were worth more than Rs 1 crore. Not surprisingly the largest number were in the Congress followed by the BJP, but even the humble Bahujan Samaj Party had a substantial number of them, as did the avowedly socialist Samajwadi party.
Some 61 per cent of the candidates had not submitted their PAN cards, so we must also take into account an additional percentage of undeclared millionaires who keep their properties in a benami (nameless) fashion.
According to the NGO, as many as 300 crorepatis were eventually elected to the Lok Sabha, a 94.8 per cent increase over the previous house. The Congress may not have a majority of its own in the house, but the millionaires do.
There is nothing wrong in rich people participating in politics. Indeed, there are many who argue that a greater participation by the middle and upper-middle class professionals would work wonders for the Indian political ambience. Well off people are often not just creators of wealth, but good managers and stewards of it, and they would definitely be assets for any government or legislature.
The problem arises when the rich who enter politics use their background and managerial talent to enrich themselves, and to skew the institutions of the state for their own benefit. Instead of acting like the representatives of the people, the richer individuals seek and get favoured treatment from institutions like the government and the judiciary.
This explains the coincidence of the phenomenon of criminals entering politics. Where politicians once used criminals to win elections, now mafia dons have themselves become netas. There has been a steep rise of criminals in our Parliament and state assemblies. The study cited above noted that 16 per cent or 909 of 5573 candidates had criminal records, of which 402 were charged with heinous crimes.
Criminal-legislators manage to get “better” justice because they are able to subvert the police and administration with impunity. The record shows that even if they are convicted of heinous crimes, they are able to persuade the politicians to let them off the hook by misusing the power of commutation and pardon.
Actually in India the plutocracy is degenerating into something even worse — a kleptocracy. Most democracies suffer from the vice of greed and corruption. But the great virtue of democracy — indeed its greatest — is that it has a self-correcting mechanism. But in India those mechanisms are not working. The police and administration have teamed up with the politicians and constitute the plutocracy.
Bad money has succeeded in driving away the good. Representatives of the subalterns like Ms Mayawati and, before her, Lalu and Mulayam Singh Yadav decided to enrich themselves in the name of social justice. As a result all face “disproportionate assets” charges, while the lives of those that they claim to lead remain unchanged.
The existence of a plutocracy offers an explanation for the persistence of illiteracy and poverty in the country sixty years after independence. Tens of thousands of crores have been spent on public health centres, irrigation systems and schools, yet, 40 per cent of Indians remain illiterate, 80 per cent rely on private healthcare systems, the highest in terms of proportion in the world, and the bulk of our agriculture continues to be rain-fed.
This is not because of the incompetence of government managers or their venality, but structural issues. In other words, the plutocratic system requires people to remain illiterate and poor.
Is there any remedy? Or are we doomed to wallow in this slush forever? There are some obvious ways and means to make politics cleaner — keeping out those charged with heinous crimes legally, or introducing a transparent process of election funding. Structural changes like introducing a proportional representation system, too, could help in ending the zero-sum political outcomes.
But any change requires the agency of good men. It is not that the system is without them. Our Prime Minister, for example is known to be incorruptible. But, he also tends to be pusillanimous and compromising on issues like structural reform of the bureaucracy, one of the bigger causes of the problem.
Our real problem is the silence of good men, or to be precise, their passivity.
This was published in Mail Today October 8, 2009