Column : The big election question

Apr 24 2009, 01:05 IST
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SummaryIndia is a prodigy when it comes to electoral democracy, confounding the traditional view that democracy in a poor country is unsustainable. With so much criticism of the Indian state, the long-term performance of the institution of elections is a happy reminder that parts of the state do work well, and this in an area providing a real public good to all.

India is a prodigy when it comes to electoral democracy, confounding the traditional view that democracy in a poor country is unsustainable. With so much criticism of the Indian state, the long-term performance of the institution of elections is a happy reminder that parts of the state do work well, and this in an area providing a real public good to all. There must be lessons for other parts of the state.

But the theme I want to explore is different. While the institution of elections is a long-term triumph, this is accompanied by an aura of anticipated disappointment. There is immediate excitement over who wins where, but no-one is expecting a transformative moment. In this, India is not unusual: many, perhaps most, elections bring disappointments. Barack Obama’s election in the United States did bring exceptional excitement, bred of the combination between a collective desire for real change and the symbolism he brought. Most elections fall short of this.

In an era of hard-boiled realism this may not be surprising. But I think there is a puzzle worth exploring. For in India’s case there are surely massive, obvious and agreed challenges: just in the economic and social domain, this would at least include dramatic improvement in general prosperity and serious resolution of profound inequalities of opportunity. Now this may be harder to achieve than before the global crisis, but there’s a lot that would make abundant sense to anyone: raising rural productivity, getting decent quality of schooling and health care to all, having a big push on economic infrastructure and so on.

This seems even more relevant given the growing sophistication of the electorate: no longer primarily intent on throwing the existing rascals out, and increasingly showing a more complex response to performance in office, at least at the state level. Surely they won’t be fooled by populist promises of handouts?

Unfortunately the electorate may choose handouts now, especially if the alternative is no handout and no credible promise of change. Yet I think it is worth exploring this further. Here are three plausible reasons for the contrast between the vivid need for transformative change and low expectations that such change will occur. First, there may be genuine differences in ideas, over how to tackle India’s developmental challenges, for example over the form of capitalism. Second, there can be genuine distributional struggles, with different groups fighting for different shares of the pie, and the possibility of unproductive stalemates in the fights. And third, there can be political distortions, in which the political market fails to reflect the preferences of the population and to manage differences.

Of course, all these matter: ideas differ, distributional conflict matters, and political processes are imperfect. But the centrality of politics is an underlying thread: for it is in the arena of political interactions that differences in ideas and conflicts should be resolved. It is fashionable—and not just in India—to blame the political classes: politicians are accused of being self-interested, short-sighted, economically or politically corrupt, or generally venal. This may often be true, but it is doesn’t answer the question. For politicians are products of the system, of the incentives for political behaviour. In a social and economic system such as India’s (and India is not unusual), that is thick with opportunities for personal gain through control of resources, there will be strong incentives for patronage, fights over the existing pie, and the private pursuit of capture of parts of the state that dispense privilege. And the other side of this can be exclusion and violence.

Yet change can occur in inauspicious circumstances. Take Colombia, a country infamous for violence, clientelism and the sharing of political spoils between two entrenched parties. A constitutional change to provide direct elections to cities in the early 1990s started to bring in a new breed of politicians, and new forms of politics, into some places. The capital, Bogotá, was one. Outsiders broke through the party system, and introduced responsive and accountable government, in which provisioning of public goods was valued and rewarded. Violence dropped sharply, taxes rose and basic services improved substantially.

Politics is both unavoidable and central to the human condition. And since revolution is not a good alternative, transformation will have to come through change of the existing system, strengthening the value of citizenship both in elections and non-electoral processes, getting more information into the public domain on political finance and politician behaviour, and ensuring accountability of politicians to their constituencies, parties to their members, and the state to their clients.

The formal outcome of the election will be truly engaging. It will again be remarkable in scope, and probably disappointing in immediate outcome. But hopefully the real excitement will lie in the longer-term deepening of the political process in ways that steadily lead to the transformation of behaviours throughout the social and political system.

The author is at the Harvard Kennedy School, the Institute of Social & Economic Change, and the Centre for Policy Research

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