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Thu. February 09, 2023
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The Sins of the Indian Democracy
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As the poll fever catches up round the world with Presidential primaries in the US, Presidential elections in Russia, Parliamentary elections in Iran and the upcoming Presidential vote in France, media seems abuzz with excitement. However a closer look at election results often throws up uncomfortable questions as voters never fail to surprise political theorists with the kind of choices they make, often at odds with the modern liberal principles that democracy espouses in theory. This is all too apparent in India in the just concluded elections in its largest state, Uttar Pradesh (UP). Given the size of the state, UP elections are considered critical and often touted as the semi finals to the national elections. They represent all the colors and hues of democracy as it plays out in reality in India. A star campaigner here was Rahul Gandhi, the crown prince of the Congress dynasty. However, his clean image and promise of transparent governance could not take the party far, as these are not really the factors that weigh heavily on the Indian voters’ minds. Another star whose charisma faded in these elections was the incumbent Chief Minister, Mayawati, a lowest caste dalit woman and a political outsider who swept the previous state elections. While in the news for her megalomaniacal excesses like erecting her own statues all over the state and also corruption, she still is emblematic of the dalit pride. Her rise to power represents all that is good about democracy, such that even the most marginalized and victimized of communities, that dalits unfortunately are in India, can find representation and political say. However dalits comprise only about 20% of the populace and she could not really muster electoral support from other caste segments even though she had managed to improve the law and order in the violence prone state. The elections were swept this time by Mayawati’s arch rival Samajwadi party that ruled the state before her tenure and was notorious for “rule by crime” and yet the voters did not seem to consider that a mighty flaw. The “crime connection” is indeed an integral part of the Indian democracy. While the national parliament itself has about 29% elected members facing criminal charges as serious as even rapes, murder and robbery, in UP this percentage was even higher for the candidates contesting the 2012 elections at about 35 – 38%. It is not as if the candidates’ criminal antecedents are hidden from the voters; most candidates’ criminal records are widely publicized in the papers but it would seem the voters are indifferent to it while casting their votes. A good proportion of these alleged criminals make it to the assembly over candidates with far cleaner image and record. Why is that so? The answer lies in the factors that propel voters to choose a candidate. The biggest factor today in the Indian elections is the “caste dynamic”. Parties differentiate themselves primarily along caste lines, aligning themselves with this or that caste segment or a cluster of many. They lure the vote blocs with promises of exclusive benefits like reservations in jobs and educational institutes. This cuts across the entire caste spectrum from lowest to middle to higher castes and a party’s ability to mobilize such sentiments and loyalties is core to its success in the elections. As is often said in India, you don’t cast your vote but vote your caste. In essence democracy has become an instrument of deepening and reinforcing caste divides rather than challenging the medieval caste system as such. The state also has a large proportion of Muslims and they too became an important vote bloc for some parties while mobilizing the Hindu majority became a means for some others. These divisions mainly along the caste but also religion and language lines are reflected in almost all elections throughout the country. On the positive side, Electronic Voting machines are widely used and electoral violence, once common place and inevitable in all democratic elections has been curbed to a large extent. UP, a state otherwise notorious for violence particularly against lower caste segments as well as women, has seen the recent elections pass with hardly any major incident of violence as used to be the case in the past. This is a significant progress and march forward for democracy and is mainly on account of the pain staking electoral reforms that India has undertaken in the last two decades which truly empowered the office of the Election Commission. These initiatives are worth emulating by other developing world democracies as well, given that election rigging and violence is a serious challenge before them too. Overall the Indian democracy is a mixed bag. While it has granted political rights and representation to a marginalized caste segment, caste fissures seem to have only deepened in the society. Instead of fostering any kind of awakening to get rid of the archaic and unfair caste system, democracy is fast becoming a tool of reinforcing the same. Almost all parties use this divide and rule formula to win elections making it a cardinal sin of the Indian democracy. The criminal infestation of the state and the national parliaments further undermines the “ideal” of a democracy, as it ought to have been. Given that the voters themselves chose candidates based on the caste or religious identity dynamic and are indifferent to the relative criminal background of candidates, it is not clear then how the Indian democracy would absolve itself of these sins and awaken (if ever) to pursuing the intended “democratic ideals” of an equal, progressive, unified and peaceful society. About the Author Anuradha Kataria is the author of the book Democracy on Trial, All Rise! which is a critique of democracy in the developing world. She is at present staying in Delhi NCR, India. Email: anukat3@gmail.com Website: www.anuradhakataria.blogspot.com

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Fri, April 27, 2012 05:28 AM (about 94556 hours ago)
What about other identities not based on race, language or religion? i.e. identities based on sexual orientation, gender, or environmentalism? And is urbanisation affecting the lockhold that traditional identities have? Just curious.
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