India's political institutions are buckling, yet voting and standing for political office are more popular than ever in the world's largest democracy. As India goes to the polls again, Sunil Khilnani asks why its electoral behaviour conforms to none of the western modelsby Sunil Khilnani / May 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in May 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
There have been many efforts to explain why Indians vote as they do: package tours through India’s castes, religions and languages seek to explain the pattern of democratic politics. But the more basic question-why do Indians vote at all?-is rarely asked. It is worth a moment’s reflection, as an electorate of 590m goes to the polls over the next few weeks (the country’s hottest) for the 11th general election since 1947.
There are many disincentives for the individual voter. Parliamentary constituencies are huge-there are only 545 seats for a population of 900m. (While the electorate has grown from 173m in 1952 to 590m in 1996, the Lok Sabha, the Indian lower house, has expanded by only 50 seats.) With barely half the population literate, most voters cannot even read the names of the parties, let alone their manifestos: parties are identified on ballot papers by graphic symbols, not names. In a society which has always consigned politics to a marginal if spectacular role, elected politicians remain remote, holding court at their colonial bungalows in Delhi. Most national parties, the Communists apart, do not represent clear social groups, and voters have little reason to show long term party loyalty. Voting can even be fraught with physical danger, and corruption is often a more effective way of getting one’s interests represented.
Yet Indians do vote. Indeed, the most indisputable fact about Indian politics is that participation rates are rising. Electoral turnouts have averaged around 60 per cent in the eight general elections since 1962. While the institutions of political representation seem to be crumbling, elections have gained a new vitality.
Most accounts have portrayed Indian democracy as either a passion play or a bazaar. On the latter view elections function in India-as in the west-like a market: traditional hierarchies have simply grafted themselves on to democratic politics. Politicians emerge as brokers and “fixers,” ideologically plastic entrepreneurs who bargain with each other and with voters, buying and selling votes in return for goods and services. The Congress party, winner of all but two of India’s 11 general elections, was long seen as the most skilled in this task, functioning not as an ideological party but as a distributional machine.