A peek into India’s democracy

In a startling statement, the Uttar Pradesh police have revealed that it has seized “Cash, gold, drugs worth Rs 11 crore’ ahead of the second phase” (Indian Express February 14, 2022). Besides, they recovered “2,053 illegal arms, 1,835 cartridges and 165 kg of explosives during the period”. Preventive action has been taken against flabbergasting 4.40 lakh hooligans who are likely to disrupt peace during the polls.

Seizures in past elections

India’s Representation of Peoples Act forbids politicians to possess, distribute or transport illegal cash, narcotics, drugs, liquor, gold and silver and a host of freebies and gifts among people to lure them to vote in their favour. Yet, 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections saw big seizure of drugs, cash, liquor etc. till date in any Indian election.

Such seizures are a recurrent phenomenon. Enforcement agencies let the offenders slip off with a slap on wrist. Election commission keeps issuing clean chits for all sorts of violations of the election code.

Between March 26 and May 20, Rs 841.11 crore in cash was seized. This amount is 180 per cent more than the total cash seized in 2014 (Rs 299.943 crore).

Comparing the seizure data for 2014 with the data for 2019, we find that the total quantity of liquor seized in 2019 surpassed the quantity seized in 2014 Lok Sabha election. In 2014, authorities seized 1, 61, 84,508 litre of liquor. The figure for 2019 Lok Sabha election is 1, 86, 00,000 litre. The quantity of drugs/narcotics seized so far (77,631.65 kg) is equal to the weight of 15 adult male Asiatic elephants and a calf. The liquor seized (1.86 crore litre) would fill nearly 7.5 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

According to India’s Election Commission, as on May 20, cash and goods (drugs, liquor, gold, silver etc.) worth Rs 3,456.22 crore were seized across the country. This comes to Rs 60 crore a day.

As on March 26, 2019, quantity of drugs and narcotics seized stood at 77,631.65 kg. Itwas354.78 per cent more than the total quantity seized in 2014.

Government expenditure for conducting 2014 Lok Sabha election was Rs 3,870.34 crore while authorities made seizures worth Rs 3,456.22 crore in the 2019 Lok Sabha election.

As on May 20, 2019, cash, drugs/narcotics, liquor, precious metal (gold, silver etc.) and freebies worth Rs 34,56,22,00,000 (Rs 3,456.22 crore) were seized. This amount almost (90per percent) equals official expenditure on holding the elections.

India’s Income Tax Department found a sack-full of banknotes worth Rs 10.48 crore stashed in a warehouse owned by a worker of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), a major political party in Tamil Nadu.

Comparison of 2019 seizures with that of 2014

The sum of Rs 2,99,94,30,804 (about Rs 300 crore) in cash was seized during the 2014 Lok Sabha election. This figure excludes 1, 61, 84,508 liters of liquor and 17,070 kg of drugs/narcotics (worth hundreds of crore of rupees) that was seized from different parts of the country. The quantity of drugs and narcotics seized was roughly the same as the weight of three adult male Asiatic elephants and a baby elephant put together. (An adult male Asiatic elephant weighs nearly 5,000 kg.). The liquor seized in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections could fill up six-and-a-half Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Observations *

Western notion of democracy maintains, among other things, an analytical distinction between formal democracy, which India fulfils adequately with its regular elections, and substantive democracy whose sine qua non are a corruption-free society, elimination of iniquities and human-rights violations.

Aside from the emergency-period interlude, elections are regularly held in India. However, repeated elections are no real test of a democracy. Money plays an important part in determining a poor voter’s electoral choice. Elections are marred by anti-democratic features like violence, en bloc voting, voting along religious and caste lines, and so on.

Political Life in India

The central and state governments in India do not necessarily represent rule by a majority. Through coalition politics a party with less than fifty per cent votes can form government at the centre or in states. There are several ways to determine the majority in an electoral system. In India’s system, whoever gets the largest number of votes is elected.

The multiparty system allows not only a plethora of political parties, but also individuals to contest elections. If votes get divided among different contestants in a constituency, a candidate with less than 50 per cent votes can win. To avoid this situation, some countries require that a candidate should get 50 per cent of the votes cast to be declared a winner.

Caste-Influence and Communalism

Caste influence has always been predominant in secular India.  Khushwant Singh says, ‘Yet, strange enough, Gandhi obliquely supported the Hindu-caste system’. Peter Myer  points out ‘importance of caste in the election of candidates’ and ‘caste-based factionalism’ is a significant factor in campaigning. The importance of caste politics has also been highlighted in Selig Harrison’s India: The Most Dangerous Decades. Rasheedudin Khan points out “India’s State structure is democratic, but not all aspects of the political system’.  The social structure and equipoise of the traditional polity legitimized ‘the power and control of land-based jatis (castes) over a disaggregated and alienated mass of the landless, the bonded labourers, low castes and sudras’.

Ever since independence, the politicians made no serious effort to reduce influence of caste on elections.  They continued to hoodwink masses with buzzword-subsumed themes of ‘removal of poverty, illiteracy and disease by bridging the gulf between the rich and the poor, between the urban and rural, through industrialization, spread of education and building of an egalitarian-cum welfare state’.  The slogans brought no change in condition of scheduled tribes (girijans), scheduled castes (harijans), castes (jatis), religious communities (dharmic sampratya) and language communities (bhashai sampratya).

Noble laureate Amartya Sen, delivered a lecture on “Democracy and its Critics”, organised by the United Nations’ Foundation in New Delhi on December 16, 2005.  While discussing success and failure of Indian democracy, he said, “The rise of caste-ist politics was a failure”.

Caste Influence in the Military

Stephen P. Cohen points to ‘slow expansion of military influence within the Indian political system’, ‘ institutional anomaly of caste-based units recruited on a “martial races” basis, ‘the great social distance between  officer and jawan (soldier) ’even though they come from  the same class background.  Cohen regards ‘army’s expanded role in governing states as a ‘challenge to democratic values’. He expresses disgust at ‘forty millions Indians living under military rule, if not military law, making India one of the world’s largest military-dominated states while it was simultaneously the world’s largest democracy’.  Cohen also refers to ‘the bypassing of the para-military forces in quelling riots’, irregularities in senior promotions, controversy over caste recruitment to the army’.

Non-Representative Parliament

Honest men like even Acharya Narendra (the doyen of Indian socialism) and Acharya Kirplani got rejected at the hustings.  The people have now realised that repeated elections are no real test of a democracy. India’s democracy accepts the right of cheats and bullies to rule.

Financial Contributions to Parties and Candidates

Corporate contributions, up to five per cent of a company’s net profits to political parties are legal.  In reality, huge funds are collected from individuals and companies by extortion or as a consideration for past or future favours.

Political corruption has become integral to India’s governance process. The disclosure norms are very feeble and un-enforced. Most expenditure is illegitimate.  It is spent on buying votes, distributing liquor, transporting voters, bribing local power brokers, bribing polling agents, payoffs to police and polling personnel in several places and hiring hoodlums for rigging and booth capturing.

Most major parties no longer attract voluntary party workers motivated by principles and goals. They hire them at great expense during elections. Large mobilisation of poor people for election meetings, spending enormous sums for lorries, and bribes to the hired audiences, and ostentatious campaign in the form of large fleets of cars and jeeps, huge cut-outs, banners, posters, tents, and loud speakers account for other expenditures .

Unity in Diversity?

Rashtraya Swayem Sevak Sangh (National Voluntary Service Party), Bharatya Janata Party, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Bajrang Dal combine influences elections. India is no longer an epitome of unity in diversity.  It is now a cauldron of ‘religious, communal or caste conflicts in every nook and corner of the country’. The net result of separatist movements by ethnic, religious or ethno-religious minorities is a demand for sovereignty which threatens India’s territorial integrity. 

Criminals in parliament

According to the Association for Democratic Reforms, a research group, a record 43% of mps who won seats in the 2019 general election had been charged with a crime, with 29% booked for grave offences such as rape and murder. This represented a 109% increase over ten years earlier.

Crime seems to pay: analysis shows that a candidate with a criminal record is three times more likely to win than one without. Similarly, one with declared assets of more than 50 million rupees ($670,000) is six times more likely to succeed than one with less.

Bonds and donations

Donations introduced in 2018, ostensibly as a reform to weed out illicit cash, the scheme allows for unlimited, opaque financing of political parties. It is well nigh impossible to trace links between a billionaire whose fortune ballooned after securing lucrative deals from the government, and his or her donations to enabling politicians. The sole indicator of political funding that is now disclosed is the total amount received. In 2020 the BJP’s declared assets of $655m surpassed those of the next 51 political parties combined. More striking, its wealth rose by 443% in just five years.

Election cost

Some 814 million voters speaking 1,652 languages voted in 900,000 voting centres across India over 35 days in the 2019 national election. India’s April 2019 elections cost parties a flabbergasting Rs30, 000 crore or $5 billion.

Preposterous Expenditure Ceiling

Individual candidates can spend only Rs70 lakh ($120,000) on his campaigns. This amount is too little to meet even poster printing costs in important contests. Key candidates spend between Rs75-300 crore ($12-50 million). Lesser stars spend between Rs15-50 crore ($2.5-8.25 million) and marginal candidates between Rs1-10 crore ($600,000-1.8 million).

Mammoth rallies where half a million people cheer candidates cost upwards of Rs3 crore ($500,000). Every major party holds at least one major rally or counter-rallies a day. Add to it the cost of sending thousands of workers out in cars, trains,  planes, rickshaws, bicycles, bullock carts, tractors, camels, horses, and boats to woo voters with speeches, street plays, and songs.

Financial Contributions to Parties, Candidates

Corporate contributions, up to five per cent of a company’s net profits to political parties are legal. In reality, huge funds are collected from individuals and companies by extortion or as a consideration for past or future favours. Political corruption has become integral to India’s governance process. The disclosure norms are very feeble and un-enforced.

Concluding reflections

Persecution of religious minorities and the so-called untouchables (who prefer to call themselves dalits) is endemic to the social and cultural systems that circumscribe the Indian polity. A four-year-old girl, named Surjo, was boiled in a tub and then beheaded to please gods as part of a religious sacrifice.

In a country where sons are sold for paisa 25 and women are thrown into the fire to please sati, goddess of chastity, such events cannot be foreseen or forestalled. The solution lies in state funding of elections. Reforms suggested in Tarkunde Committee, Indrajit Gupta Committee, and Dinesh Goswami Committee and N. S. Gehlot could not be implemented.

Hindutva supporters want to convert India into a centralised state for the Brahmans only. The rise of the BJP from a marginal Hindu nationalist party of the 1980s to the majority party in parliament in 1999 vindicates the ascendancy of Hindutva trend. Obviously, India is the largest democracy in form but not in substance.

India, the world’s largest democracy, stands divided into two worlds, the affluent and the poor Half of India’s population lives below the poverty line (US$ one or two a day). The poor are prone to be influenced by cash doles, booze, and freebies. Money plays an important part in determining a poor voter’s electoral choice. Historically, the richer party wins. 

Bulk of money goes to media advertising. The BJP spent over one-third of its funds on advertising. Political parties shun paupers and nominate candidates with hefty wallets.

Amjed Jaaved
Amjed Jaaved
Mr. Amjed Jaaved has been contributing free-lance for over five decades. His contributions stand published in the leading dailies at home and abroad (Nepal. Bangladesh, et. al.). He is author of seven e-books including Terrorism, Jihad, Nukes and other Issues in Focus (ISBN: 9781301505944). He holds degrees in economics, business administration, and law.