Is India Still the World's Largest Democracy?
The failure of Delhi’s political institutions is rendering collateral damage upon the country’s social institutions.
As a country of 1.3 billion people, more than 800 million of whom are eligible to vote, India takes pride in being the “world’s largest democracy.” India has often lauded its ability to transfer power peacefully every five years since the first general election of 1951 (except for Indira Gandhi’s experiment with autocracy in 1975). Most recently, even news of the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections is keen to point out that state elections in India are larger than the national elections of several European countries. However, while such self-aggrandizing statistics highlight the monumental task of the Election Commission of India, they do nothing to validate India’s success as a democracy. Rather, a superficial satisfaction with the size of India’s elections risks perpetuating ignorance of the underlying issues that plague India’s democracy.
The health of a democracy cannot be measured by the size of its voter base nor simply by the peaceful transition of power. Such standards of evaluation may be sufficient for nascent democracies struggling to implement the practice of universal adult suffrage (such as countries in the Middle East and North Africa that are experimenting with democracy in the wake of the Arab Spring), but not for India, which has a more mature democracy. India aspires to become a secular, liberal, global superpower and considers itself a counterweight to undemocratic regimes in its backyard. As such, voter participation is a necessary—but insufficient—measurement of how far the country has come since its independence and how much further it has to go to truly uphold the ideals of democracy. If much of India’s soft power (as well as its moral superiority) against China, Pakistan and other competing states arises from successful democratic tradition, then India must ensure a more complete understanding of the challenges its democracy is currently facing.
Even if India’s democracy was measured by the size and success of its elections, its efficacy is called into question by news of candidates bribing voters, using threat of force to sway voting behavior and otherwise finding ways to ignore or circumvent the principles safeguarded by the Election Commission. Even when elections are not overtly manipulated, electioneering that focuses on identity and caste politics promotes the selection of suboptimal candidates, without respect to their merit or the substance of their policies. This adulteration of the election process has a ripple effect leading to perverse outcomes through the rest of the democratic institutional machinery.
As India’s democracy continues to mature, an increasingly important indicator of its health will be the health of its constituent political institutions. The key political institutions responsible for executing the functions of democracy and protecting its founding principles of liberty, equality and justice constitute the legislative, judicial and executive branches of government. Not only is each branch of government important in its own right, but it is even more important that all three branches work in concert to check and balance each other’s powers. Institutions such as the Parliament of India, which function upon the principle of majority rule, are counterbalanced by institutions such as the judiciary, which are responsible for protecting the rights of the minorities against the potential abuses of the majority. Institutions of the executive branch fall within the ambit of both aims, as they are responsible for executing the dictates of Parliament, while also enforcing laws that protect minorities. If the health of India’s democracy were gauged by the efficacy of its political institutions, then it would likely be judged to be in a fragile, and perhaps dismal, state.
For example, the most visible of all democratic institutions, the Parliament, has largely lost the faith of the electorate. The election of Members of Parliament who are underqualified has eroded the Parliament’s ability to pass laws and be responsive to the needs of the nation. More than one-third of the current Members of Parliament have criminal charges pending against them. Though they are permitted to serve under Indian law (but face the risk of dismissal if they are convicted), such ignominious qualifications do not befit a role of national leadership. Furthermore, the inability of elected representatives and Parliament to think holistically (rather than for the narrow benefits of their caste and constituents) has led to a fractionalization of the political assembly that has rendered ineffectual and mired in gridlock. Representatives are either looking to fill their own purses, to satisfy the whims of their narrow vote banks, or to oppose the initiatives of the majority for the sake of opposition itself. As a result, Parliament often fails to pass meaningful reforms regardless of which political party is in power. Even the conduct of Parliamentarians, who are keen to employ feuds, foul language and hysteria on the floor of the chamber, has become an entertaining soap opera, but has eroded the public’s trust in this keystone institution. The nature of Parliament as a forum for thoughtful debate of issues facing the nation is clearly at risk, reflecting the endemic failure of the election processes, despite India’s claim to the title of “world’s largest democracy.”
The judiciary, on the other hand, has been host to a plethora of problems that are slowly becoming more dominant and frequently discussed. The backlog of court cases and the short-staffing of India’s judicial system has ensured that justice cannot be served in a timely manner, if at all. For those charged with a crime, securing bail is the primary objective, as it enables avoidance of jail time while the case languishes in the queue for years. Considering the large number of criminal cases pending against Members of Parliament, the court’s inability to serve as a timely watchdog is directly linked to the current deplorable state of Parliament. At the same time, while the lower courts remain hobbled, India’s Supreme Court has become more vocal recently on a wide-range of issues, and is now seen as an institution of action, in contrast with the never-ending gridlock of Parliament. However, this increasingly vocal institution has also begun to stray into issues that are constitutionally ambiguous or irrelevant, and is setting a dangerous precedent of overreach. This will weaken the public’s confidence in the institution as the final arbiter of law and justice, rather than a bully pulpit to enforce social and cultural values. The court’s authority must be used cautiously and sparingly, and it must not forget its mandate to protect the fundamental tenets of democracy against the excesses of the majority.
While the aforementioned institutions are political in nature (and therefore their problems may be perceived to be remote from India’s flourishing private sector), they are equally important to India’s economy and to its growth prospects. First of all, the erosion of the Parliament leads to a weakening of other institutions that are under the purview of the country’s elected representatives. Though organizations like the Reserve Bank of India, the Comptroller and Auditor General, and the Central Statistical Office (amongst others) are all supposed to be politically unaligned; governments in power have been able to exert pressure and influence to shape these organizations’ behavior to fit the dominant political ideology. Modi’s implementation of demonetization without due consultation with the Reserve Bank of India is one of several recent examples of the weakening of important institutions that have much broader implications than just “politics.” Furthermore, the protection of property rights, enforcement of contract law, the establishment of the bankruptcy code (amongst many other business-related regulations) and the protection of individual liberties (which help foster creativity and entrepreneurship) are responsibilities of India’s political institutions, but are integral to the functioning of the broader economy and the private sector. The protection and enforcement of these business regulations, and the adherence to rule of law more broadly, are critical prerequisites to attracting foreign capital and investors into the country. The adulteration of India’s political institutions is inextricably tied to the recent economic sluggishness, and it is unlikely that economic growth can be sustained over the long-term without more holistic reform of India’s political institutions. Leaders who are myopically focused on wooing investors with trips overseas and headline-grabbing “memorandums of understanding” will likely find limited success in translating this momentum into real development unless they can ensure a stable legal and regulatory environment to reduce the “risk premium” associated with investing in India.
The failure of India’s political institutions is also rendering collateral damage upon India’s social institutions, such as its civil society and free and vibrant media. In addition to the courts, a vigilant civil society helps protect the rights of minorities in a democracy (for example, it is often civil society that will take unjust legislation to the courts). It is incumbent upon Parliament and the judiciary to maintain the pre-conditions and enforce the constitutional morality that allow such social institutions to thrive. Such institutions are as important to the health of the country’s democracy as opposition parties in Parliament, both of which help challenge the excesses of the majority. Hence, authoritarian leaders are often tempted to curtail the freedom of the press, given that it has arguably become more potent than the opposition party as it is unconstrained by the protocol of parliamentary process. In today’s India, social institutions, especially those that seek to protect minority caste, religious and social groups, are being undermined by the unchecked weight of the majority. Given the important balancing role that these institutions play in India’s democracy, their marginalization will lead to further amplification of majoritarian chauvinism.