IN THE spring of 1947 the leaders of India’s independence movement reached a fateful decision. The right to vote in the soon-to-be-born Indian republic, they agreed, would no longer be restricted as under the British Raj, but open to every adult citizen. The move created the world’s largest democracy, and also burdened it with a colossal challenge. As Ornit Shani, an Israeli historian, deftly explains in a new book, the logistics alone were daunting. With more than 170m eligible voters to register—some 85% of them illiterate back then—it took tens of thousands of workers two full years just to compile the rolls for India’s first general election, conducted in 1951. At the time Rajendra Prasad, a politician who was to become the country’s first president, made a back-of-envelope calculation. Bound in one volume, he reckoned, the voter lists would be 200 metres thick.
Today that “phone book” is five times thicker. At India’s next general election, to be held sometime in the coming year, more than 900m people will be eligible to vote. But after seven decades of practice, the toughest challenge for Indian democracy is no longer logistical. It is that players have grown increasingly skilled at gaming the system. Just as Indians habitually vote at local, state and national elections, they also habitually moan at the skulduggery of Indian politics, which can seem a constant parade of horse-trading and bald-faced influence-peddling. Suffice it to note that about a third of MPs in recent Indian parliaments have had pending criminal cases against them.
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Even for a public inured to garish politics, events of late have proved worrying. Take the election held in May for the legislature of Karnataka, a southern state with a population the size of Britain’s. As many had predicted, the vote split three ways, leaving a hung parliament. Blithely ignoring an agreement between two of the parties to form a majority coalition, the state’s governor instead tapped the third party to rule, granting it an unseemly two weeks to cobble together a majority.
Unseemly, because in practice this decision gave the anointed party, which happens to be the governor’s own Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—also the party in power in Delhi—a full 15 days in which to bribe, threaten or otherwise cajole enough newly elected opposition legislators to switch sides and join it in government. Amid stories that ministerial posts, and sums of up to 1bn rupees (around $15m) had been offered as lures, the opposition allies corralled their legislators into three hotels to shield them from outside influence. Only after India’s Supreme Court intervened were the two parties allowed to form a majority coalition, which the governor shamefacedly accepted.
This was hardly the first occasion when a party had locked its politicians in purdah to preserve their chastity from a predatory rival. What was disturbing this time was the abject failure of the governor—a centrally appointed official with few powers—to act impartially, as well as the scale of the bidding war which the BJP appeared prepared to mount. Given the party’s hold in Delhi as well as in 20 other Indian states, and the fact that, by official reckoning, it has far more money than all its rivals put together, this grab for power in Karnataka looked unsporting even by the standard of Indian politics.
The BJP is not alone in such games. When voters in the state of West Bengal cast ballots in May to choose members of village and regional councils, they found that more than a third of the thousands of seats had already been claimed by the All-India Trinamool Congress (TMC). More accurately, they found that no other candidates had dared run against the TMC, supporters of which have a reputation for thuggish tactics. Not surprisingly, the TMC waltzed home with three-quarters of the seats.
Again, using street muscle to squash opponents is nothing new in Indian politics, just as the BJP’s thinly disguised efforts, in recent elections across the country, to whip up prejudice against the Muslim minority have a pedigree. What is new is that traditional checks against such tactics, such as exposure in the press, or intervention from the courts or election bodies, seem to have grown less effective. Some of India’s media have venal inclinations, making them prone to bribery by those who want to use them to get their message across.
Even those most unsullied of India’s institutions, the Supreme Court and the Election Commission, have lately come in for knocks. In January four Supreme Court judges took the unprecedented step of holding a press conference to question the impartiality of their own boss, India’s chief justice. This added to widespread perceptions that he may be too beholden to the party in power. As for the Election Commission, its reputation for staying above politics has been dented by, among other puzzling moves, a decision last October to delay voting in the state of Gujarat for several weeks. This allowed the incumbent BJP, faced with an unexpected surge in backing for the rival Congress party, to shower the state with a pre-election windfall of government spending. The result: a slim victory for the BJP.
Given the dismaying accumulation of such embarrassments, it is not surprising that Pew Global, a polling group, last year found Indians to be less enthusiastic about democracy, and more drawn to having a strong leader or even military rule, than citizens of any other democracy surveyed. But India did try dictatorship, briefly, under Indira Gandhi in the 1970s, and did not like it. Much like India’s crowded and creaky railways, its democracy may sorely need an overhaul—but not because it has actually stopped working. Messy as it may be, India’s political system may be credited with some great achievements. It has helped hold a huge and almost impossibly diverse country together. It has kept the army out of power. And it has upheld civic freedoms that, for all their fragility, remain the envy of many of India’s neighbours.