Posted by: John Elliott | December 9, 2008

State elections prove Indian democracy works

If anyone doubts that India’s democracy works – and many foreign critics do – yesterday’s assembly election results from five states surely proves them wrong. Voters in three states kept governments (and assembly members) who had done well, while those that had not performed were thrown out.

In Delhi, Congress won comfortably, led by Sheila Dikshit who has made history by being chief minister for three terms – assuming Sonia Gandhi approves her name, which she must do (she kept Dikshit waiting ten days before confirming her last time). Dikshit has performed well in a horribly difficult post, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) put up a poor candidate to oppose her. The BJP also traded too heavily – with a blood-spattered advertisement carrying the words “Fight Terror: Vote BJP” – on anti-national government sentiment that followed the Mumbai terrorism.

I don’t think this negates the significance of Narendra Modi, the controversial BJP chief minister of Gujarat, being picked in a Mumbai opinion poll last week as the best national leader after the terrorist attacks (see my last post). The BJP’s Delhi candidate was weak and elderly, and its message was too negative, whereas Modi gives constructive leadership and hope to his supporters.

Congress also won in Rajasthan, where the aristocratic BJP chief minister Vasundhara Raje, failed to run an effective government and connect with the people. This result was also significant in terms of terrorism because Jaipur, the state’s capital, was hit by a series of bomb blasts in May.

And in Madhya Pradesh, a mild-mannered BJP chief minister, who has a good developmental record, defeated the bitterly divided Congress Party.

The results challenge one of the most over-stated generalisations (and simplistic lazy media reporting) of Indian politics – that elections are usually dominated by an “anti-incumbency” wave that throws out sitting governments. What these elections have shown is what in fact usually happens – good governments and political leaders win and bad ones lose. The expectation that anti-incumbency will dominate election results is based the depressing assumption that most governments in India are bad.

The Congress Party, which leads India’s coalition government, did much better than expected, especially after being criticised heavily for the Mumbai attacks. The problem now is that many of its leaders may mis-interpret the polls and feel less impelled to sharpen up their act. That would be a mis-reading of the polls, which rewarded performers and threw out those who failed.

Meanwhile Mayawati, the Dalit (low caste) leader of the Uttar Pradesh-based Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), increased her minority stakes in some states. This will encourage her ambition to make the BSP a national party, catering for all castes, alongside Congress and the BJP.

Some politicians are good!

The NDTV 24/7 tv channel ended one of its news programmes last night with presenters laughing about a remark by a politician that “some politicians are good”. They were trying to explain how there had been high turnouts in the elections, despite the anti-politician mood that followed the Mumbai attacks.

It was a nice sign off line – especially when one of the politicians on the programme laughed that he “wasn’t sure” when asked to endorse the remark.

The emphasis of course was on the word “some”, which always means “not many” when said with a certain inflection.

Rahul Gandhi “getting into his stride”

One of the least noticed quotes of the day came from Digvijay Singh, a veteran Congress Party general secretary, when he was asked what contribution Rahul Gandhi, Congress’s anointed prime-minister-in-waiting sometime-in-the-future, had made to electioneering when his mother, Sonia Gandhi, had been kept away by ill health. Singh acknowledged that Rahul had made a contribution and then, as the camera turned away from him, smiled mischievously and said “he is getting into his stride”.

Lessons for the general election

No-one can sensibly draw conclusions from these results about how the general election, due by next March or April, will turn out. Nationally, Congress will have a problem because of the economic down-turn and security worries. But the BJP will need to put up constructive policies to cash in on those failings. Regional parties, which ultimately could decide who leads the next coalition government, also need to note that success breeds success.


  1. Perhaps I misunderstood you and just as a clarification there is nothing personal meant in my posts – but inefficient, slow and cacophonic as a necessary element of Indian democracy (which is what I get from your original post) is, in my opinion, really not getting it right. Besides to the best of my understanding, rationalization and resignation are two different things. I do not think you have expressed resignation to the way things stand. I do believe there is some rationalization.

    Of course there are people in India working in their own spheres of influence to make changes for the better for ordinary people – their efforts have just not brought on systemic gains in my understanding and experience because of lack of truly democratic processes being in place in governance as should be in a democracy.

    I remember going into tribal areas in Maharashtra as a volunteer many years ago when just like you I was in college in Mumbai, and the approach of the powers that be in local political and bureaucratic establishment was to patronize and feel great about themselves for giving a handout, if at all – the effort was never to empower with input and consideration in decision making for people who are most affected by those decisions and their implementation – to the best of my understanding that is pretty much the approach even now.

    If one is not well-connected and/or has the ability or willingness to bribe – one does not count, and by and large the first and perhaps the only concern of the powers that be in how and the type of decisions they make that affect everybody is what is in it for them personally, whatever may be the platitudes to gloss over that fact.

    There is no disagreement if by best system you mean that democracy as such is the best political system, and I agree with you as I did in my last post that we should demand better to receive better – but it is really important to know what that better is. The idea on my part is not to criticize but to take a step back and try to understand what needs to change systemically and in our own mindset so that the Indian system starts working for the ordinary people in that they have true input in their own governance and benefit from it – which is what my understanding of democracy is.

    I guess we are not on the same page as to what a working democracy is – so I didn’t understand the statement in your original post, which initially prompted my response, that “Indian democracy always works” – works for what and whom, to what purpose and what effect. Some thought to these questions leads me to conclude that the Indian system as it stands today is not a working democracy.

    In any case, if I am misreading you, may be you can outline the specific praiseworthy aspects of the Indian system that make it a working democracy in other words a democracy that works or at least your sense of what democracy is and what it is supposed to accomplish.

    I am always open to learning, although I firmly believe that the ritual of often rigged elections every five years or more often if the power brokers so desire or our ability to gripe about this or other ills in society without effective avenues for making gainful, systemic changes is in anyway indicative of a working democracy. These are not in my opinion practices that make for a democracy.

    It is necessary for democracy to have integrity in the electoral process or at least an understanding that that it important and not just elections. It is necessary for democracy that free speech rights be substantive where what people have to say and how they are allowed to express- all of the discontent with corruption and so on and so forth – can go beyond venting to affect real, substantive changes. In my very frequent visits back home, I haven’t seen that happening in India.

  2. “I have never heard anybody say in the United States – be as Guatanamo may – that is how democracy in the United States must function. It is a blot, and there are people working to do away with it because of principled beliefs about how a constitutional democracy must function.”

    Are you implying that there aren’t people working in India to do away with all the blots on the landscape of our democracy?! That is so far from the truth. You seem to think we have no civil society watchguard…

    I never at any point said this is how democracy must be and we shouldn’t question it. This is once again assuming praise for any aspect of our political reality stems from a reluctance to look at the many elephants in the room. If you read my post closely, you’ll notice I’m saying that we have to demand more of our establishment. In fact, I wonder where the politicial activism of my university years in Bombay has disappeared to in the last decade. But to use our failings to say we’re not a democracy makes no sense to me.

    As for the argument I made about western democratic credentials, you seem to have misunderstood the point of that comparison.

    When I say this is the best system there is, I mean the best political system, not the most ideal political reality. But it is the best kind of system to have and we have to make it accountable. There’s a reason I call it a political experiment…it is a process that needs constant work.

    I think we agree with each other, but you seem to be eager to read praise for the things we do get right as an act of ‘being resigned to or settling for less.’

  3. I agree with you that we need to demand better to receive better. I am also not advocating a single person rule of the nation – even though the current national administration comes close, nor in my critique I am in any way to resigned to the idea that all we can be is arm chair revolutionaries just dumping on the system.

    My issue is with what I see implied in your statements – that inefficient, slow and cacaphonic – that’s how our democracy must function, as a result of economic inequities or whatever else between states or that “it’s what we’ve got and its the best alternative” – what we have got is not the best alternative.

    Rationalizations are not a way to make things better – as long as we keep doing that there will be no way to even identify, let alone establish effective avenues to make gainful changes for the better, and all we will have for all the time to come is the ritual of elections and the right to vent. (which is essentially – say what you want as long as it does not seriously threaten the status quo – often mistaken for free speech).

    I have never heard anybody say in the United States – be as Guatanamo may – that is how democracy in the United States must function. It is a blot, and there are people working to do away with it because of principled beliefs about how a constitutional democracy must function.

    This is not to say that the Indian system must be fashioned after the United States to the last detail – but democracy universally is supposed to be a system that is meant to be – by the people, of the people and for the people – and once one understands and experiences its application in practice with far reaching positive impacts on the daily lives of citizens – there is no denying that this basic principle of democracy is no more than a cliche in what you call the amazing and unmatched political experiment – as long as we do not acknowledge that as a collective – it will always be business as usual.

  4. Ranu, the right to vote and the right to vent may not alone make a democracy but you can’t have a democracy without those two practices either.
    They remain essential. Acknowledging that or giving credit where it’s due is not an obstacle to finding a solution. It enables one to think constructively.

    It is unproductive when faced with instances of political failings to dismiss an entire system: that’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

    We can say we are a democracy with flaws that need to be overcome, but we cannot claim we’re not a democracy.

    Is America no longer a democracy because of its practices in Guantanamo Bay? is France not a democracy anymore because those who live in its suburbs feel alienated and disenfranchised? Is the Netherlands not a democracy anymore because many Muslim immigrants can’t get home loans because of their last name? Are European democracies no longer democracies because they have low voter-turnouts (ergo they don’t inculcate a sense of citizenship responsibilities in their people)?

    As a citizenry we make few demands of our politicians. No one in their right minds can absolve select politicians of blame, but do you really make any demands? Or do you simply say : ‘this is how we are and we won’t change’? We make demands and have high standards when it comes to the private sector, and we perpetuate a certain efficiency by doing so. We need to do the same with those who govern us.

    This national pastime of ours of saying “the system sucks” is counter-productive. It’s what we’ve got and it’s the best alternative; now we need to demand that it work better for us.

  5. My question to Sudha:

    Is a system a democracy – Indian or Western – if it does not bring good governance to serve the interest of the people, protect their constitutional rights and inculcate in citizens a sense of citizenship reponsibilities?

    The right to vote in often fraud and voter supression wrought elections, and the right to vent, however colorfully, publicly or in privacy of living rooms – to dissipate discontent, don’t make a democracy – they might just create a perception of it.

    I do not mean to berate but let us stop fooling ourselves. Honestly acknowledging a problem is usually the first baby step to finding solutions.

  6. Indian democracy has always worked. It’s just that western observers expect it to look and sound like a western democracy. If the European Union were one country, with varying levels of economic development across the Union and a democracy, imagine how inefficient and slow and cacophonic that would be. Well, that’s how our democracy must function. It has many failings and must seriously work on delivering good governance, but it is an amazing and unmatched political experiment.

  7. thanks Kaustuv, but you’re really arguing with yourself not me – and my analysis is not flawed, though your reading of it might be:

    I merely noted Sheila Dikshit won and did not say it was a victory for the dynasty, nor that it set a new trend. Nor did I say it indicated how people would vote in the general election – indeed in the last para I said just the opposite.

    Nothing in your Rajasthan para makes what I wrote “flawed”.

    And I did mention Madhya Pradesh.

    Always good to hear from you but more constructive if you read carefully next time before commenting!

  8. on a more serious note, this is a very flawed analysis and a classic case of misplaced hopes.

    Delhi – the elections were a referrendum for com sheila dikshit, not for the nehru gandhi clan. in teh lok sabha elections, there will be no sheila factor, all votes will go the bjp way. this is not a new trend. even past election trends confirm that delhites vote one way for in state elections, and the other in the center.

    Rajasthan – Vasundhara Raje was facing anti -incumbency, in fighting, ticket distributuion problems, etc. still the congress failed to secure a simple majority! Pathetic! bjp lost because of local issue. they will make a comback in teh lok sabha elections as its ging to be based on national issues.

    Madhya Pradesh – the most decisive victory, which you surprisingly fail to mention. congress paod the price of harassing hindi sadhus and sadhvis very dearly.

    Chatisgarh – Bjp’s clean and effetive governance sealed congress’ fate

    Mizoram – does it matter?

  9. i think indian democracy should be disbanded, and crown prince rahul gandhi should be declared the king.


  10. That government is bad in India is not a depressing assumption – it is the everyday Indian’s depressing experience making just the business of going through routine daily activity a struggle. I am not sure where or how the author lives – but it certainly does not seem to be in the world of the regular Indian.

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