India is the world’s largest democracy. With a population in excess of one billion and an electoral franchise that extends to all citizens above the age of 18, the General Elections that is conducted every five years is indeed a grand spectacle. Moreover, considering the broad diversity of language, culture and religion within the population, the successful execution of electoral exercises deserves much appreciation. The United States, whose public representatives proudly proclaim their country’s democratic credentials at every given opportunity, is the second largest democracy in terms of voter count. Yet, the U.S. could not claim the same degree of representation and plurality that India can. In this respect Indian democracy can be said to be more functional than the more publicized democracies of the western world.
But this is not to say that real-politic does not exist in India, or that political campaigns and policy-making are fair and just. In independent India, there were numerous instances of misuse and abuse of power. Even the once-revered Congress Party (which was once led by the great Mahatma Gandhi) has now reduced to yet another power broker, having lost its aura and initial sanctity. (Cohen, 2000, p.32) The latest sign of its deviation from founding principles is its close alliance with the United States of America, whose imperialist agenda is well documented and blatantly expressed. And recent Indian governments have projected America-led neoliberal capitalist ideology as something benign and progressive in garnering electoral consensus.
“Numerous American officials already used the term “irreversible” to describe the course of Indo-U.S. relations. No U.S. president visited India between January 1978 and March 2000, when President Clinton made a historic trip to the Subcontinent. Cabinet-level exchanges have since become routine, and President Bush’s planned visit in early spring 2006 will reflect an agenda that has come to encompass shared global interests and concerns ranging from Iran and China to nuclear cooperation and biotechnology. Some have begun to see Bush’s visit to India as similar, in both intent and consequence, to that of Richard Nixon to China in 1972–which transformed Sino-U.S. relations and the global balance of power for the next three decades.” (Khanna & Mohan, 2006, p.43)
The Congress Party, which has a history going back 115 years, is not only the oldest but also the most successful political organization in the country. In the six decades of post-Independent democracy, the party has nearly monopolized power through consistent electoral victories. But the Congress Party of today (run under the leadership of Sonia Gandhi, the widow of Rajiv Gandhi) doesn’t follow the same ideology as that under Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru, having studied law at Harrods and much inspired by Bertrand Russell and other progressive thinkers of the time, belonged to a different era and espoused a different set of political values. Since his time, the condition of the party has undergone steady decline and it has now become power-hungry and devoid of content and ideals. In its early days, the party stood for such noble principles as secularism, egalitarianism and moderation. But today, this ethos is completely lacking. (Charlton, 1997, p.265)
A reflection of the Congress Party’s lost stature is its electoral performance in the last two decades. Ever since the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi (the grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru) in 1991, the party could not manage to win a majority of parliamentary seats. As a result, it is dependent on coalition partners in holding onto power. In the 2004 general elections, for example, the Leftist parties such as Communist Party of India (CPI) and Communist Party of India (Marxist) gave outside support to the Congress-led coalition government. Interestingly, it was the pressure exerted by Leftist parties that led to constructive social measures and policies during this tenure. The NREGA (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) that was enacted and implemented during the term was largely due to pressure from the political Left in the coalition. This program was very popular among the rural masses, a key factor in the Congress-led coalition’s re-election to power in 2009. It shows that socialist ideology (and policies reflecting this) still resonate with the Indian electorate. But, what this also shows is that the Congress Party as a political unit has lost its ideological relevance that it once possessed. (Sardar, 2006, p.31) This assessment is borne by the fact that it had to depend on the goodwill generated by Leftist policies to generate consensus.
Since women constitute half of the population, it is interesting to study their role in the consensus generation process. Women as a social group in India are only beginning their march toward empowerment, and to this extent their political power is not fully expressed. In the West, women have advanced socially, politically and economically, thanks to brave demonstrations on part of suffragettes and women’s rights activists. In India, while women as a group have the potential to leverage their political power, so far they have been held back by entrenched patriarchal norms. For example, “in the years following India’s independence, it was mainly elite women who were visible in public life. Even today, there are at least three women leading major national political parties. But, for the vast majority of women, the triple burdens of gender, class, caste, and religion, overlaid with the power of patriarchy, make the constitutional promise of gender equality seem more symbolic than substantive.” (Jayal, 2008, p.92)
One area where both the Congress and its leading opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seem to converge is in the realm of economic ideology. And both parties have used it in recent elections to gain popular support. Since 1991, when the Congress government under the leadership of P.V. Narasimha Rao started the process of economic liberalization, the economic policy framework of all subsequent governments has been markedly right-wing. So, the propaganda machinery of both parties has projected the dream of ‘India Shining’ to garner votes. This tactic has given mixed results – in the 2004 election campaign, this was BJP’s slogan, but it backfired. This is so because in the two decades since India embraced neoliberalism, numerous social and economic issues have cropped up. Since the country is still largely agrarian, with more than 60 percent of the population living in rural areas, the neoliberal ideology has not gone down with this constituency. As a result, peasant protests against Multi-National Corporations (MNCs) have risen in frequency. These protests articulate agrarian interests through and against both national and transnational idioms…and their targets include corporations such as Monsanto, Cargill, Rhone-Poulenc Agro, and KFC franchises and institutions such as the WTO, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), and the World Intellectual Property Organization. (Roy & Borowiak, 2003, p.57) Further,
“At one level, these protests mobilize post independent critiques of political economy, aligning government-funded commercial and technological agriculture with statist conceptions of national development. At the normative level, they appeal to a politics of cultural identification centring on the notion of “indigeneity.” The history of this identification designates the development policies undertaken by the post-independent state to be “borrowed” From the West. In this way, questions of distribution and social justice are couched within the idioms of postcolonial cultural politics: the material interests of peasant protestors are thus specified through the image of a denationalized, urban elite–a hegemon whose moral authority is ultimately derivative of, or imported from, the historical power of the “West.”” (Roy & Borowiak, 2003, p.57)
Indian politics is so unique that to comprehend power equations within the system, one has to take into account factors such as class, caste and religion. Caste is a uniquely Indian concept and it can loosely be equated to the politics of ethnicity seen in other countries. Of course, polarizations among the population on lines of class and religion are more familiar. But what typifies India’s move toward political right is its close alliance with the United States of America. Being the leader of the neoliberal world order, the American polity (which is heavily under the influence of MNCs) has made several strategic moves toward stronger trade ties with India. A consequence of this is the simultaneous rise of religious fundamentalism in the country – comparable to that of the Christian Right in the U.S. The BJP and other organizations affiliated to the Sangh Parivar are at the heart of this growing constituency. (Bhatt, 2001, p.23) But its ideology is based on reactionary religious fervour, which can prove dangerous in the multicultural Indian society.