ElectionsInterrupted – III: Redefining Bipartisanship in Indian Politics

Image(Picture Courtesy: http://www.cartoonaday.com/images/cartoons/2011/01/bipartisanship-political-cartoon-598×334.jpg)

Welcome to the final piece of my 3-part series, where I have attempted to touch base on a few social issues, pertaining to the Indian political scene, in view of the recently concluded elections. It all started with a query posed by a dear friend, Jillaine, and as I end the trilogy of posts today, I must express my gratitude for the incredible responses that I’ve received from all over the world. I write this knowing that the observations I make are not unique to India, but strike a chord in many societies (Brazil being one, as Renato brings out), speaking as they do about basic human qualities and interactions borne out of them. What gives me the greatest satisfaction is the assurance that my voice finds resonance, at least in a small measure, with so many of my friends from all over the world. Thank you for your support.

Having focused so far on a few social and proximal factors shaping the decisions made by the electorate, it is but logical to end with an insight into some aspirations and considerations displayed by the peoples’ representatives. This brings me to the following query, suggested during the first post of this series: “What are the major strategic considerations that go into formulating election strategies by the political parties in fray and what role do social values play in these?”

In hindsight, the latter part of the question seems central to the first, recalling the proximity argument made using Maslow’s pyramid. To sum up, the ‘social factor’ takes centre-stage, given how India is witnessing a centrifugal churn tugging various strata of society away from its central core. And the quality of India’s polity has a lot to do with the way things have turned out, and where they’re headed.

The aim would be to tackle this sociopolitical question, then, without losing perspective on Thane Richard’s take on India’s moral breach, which set the ball rolling in the first place (http://qz.com/178362/india-crosses-the-moral-line-of-no-return-if-narendra-modi-becomes-prime-minister/).


Image (Picture Courtesy: http://static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Guardian/Pix/pictures/2012/5/23/1337796089250/mattkenyon-008.jpg)

In my opinion, there is one ‘over-riding’ concern that connects all Indians without exception, which is true not only of the candidates in the fray but for the entire diaspora – the anxiety over ‘status regression’. The question of Social Mobility is a perpetual cause of apprehension for the average Indian family. The demands of steady social ascendency results in, among other things, the high value placed on education (as a means to greater riches), the need to pick up a better paying secure job, the desire to marry within (at least) or above one’s station, and ultimately the penchant for publicizing accrued social success, however subtly, among social peers. The 3Gs symbolise this rather well – the Gaudy wedding, the Green card and the Greenback (nothing beats the USD paycheck).

On an aside, can this status-fanaticism be associated with the widespread maltreatment of women in Indian society? Domestically, women provide the essential social glue for the family unit to function (this probably explains why ‘working women’ is a relatively recent phenomenon in middle/upper class India). Social pressures on women may be responsible for them playing down acts of domestic violence and other forms of abuse, in the larger interest of family and its future.


With ‘hard cash’ steadily supplanting ‘intellectual aptitude’ and ‘ethical propensity’ as the currency of social prestige, it is but natural to see its influence grow in general. This effect has also manifested on the political scene. The statesmen of yore are no longer to be found in the melee. Their criminal backgrounds and their financial records all add up towards a stark observation regarding the quality of intellect and the moral attributes that modern day politicians bring to the table. While my first post in this series presents a statistic on these lines, I present another link that sheds further light on this phenomenon (http://carnegieendowment.org/2014/01/24/crime-but-no-punishment-in-indian-elections/gz9k)


The professions generally associated with the political class in India are described below.

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  1. The Others – I; their career path usually resembles the following: Students – Youth leadership – Activism – Politics. These have usually risen through the ranks, having achieved basic university-level academic qualifications in, generally, the social sciences – law is a favourite subject as is journalism/media related courses.
  2. Legal Experts; who, over the years have grown close to political parties, and are usually seen in the garb of spokesmen, currying flavour and subsequently occupying political office.
  3. Journalists/media representatives; come next, solidifying the relationships of the political parties with the media houses that pander to their interests, working essentially as PR reps in the media before graduating onto important portfolios.
  4. The Others – II (High status individuals); that contribute to the political cause either financially or via their personal image amongst the populace – corporate barons, film actors, sports stars, and the like.

While categories 2, 3 and 4 are more professionally qualified, they are less in number (in relative terms) and are usually latter-day converts to the political cause – signifying interests beyond pure public service. Category 1, on the other hand, are committed to the cause from the very outset, which has maybe resulted in their ‘burning down the other bridges’ that may have opened up other professional avenues, beyond the political life they seem to be wedded to.

The situation becomes more precarious when one considers a ‘category 5’ not included so far, the ‘Princelings’ of Indian politics. This category largely relies on its familial connections for political survival, and only a few of whom can actually strike it out on their own, in the unlikely event that they need to chart a non-political professional future. The following link signifies how serious this problem is: http://www.livemint.com/Politics/Zhf6XtYVBcHtClvJ7xe91H/The-importance-of-the-surname-in-Indian-politics.html.

You see, there does exist a major contradiction here in terms of professional aptitude versus personal aspirations.

For the majority, the category 1 candidates, an exit from political activity would mean professional hardships combined with a drastic fall in social status. For the others, such an occurrence would still be socially damaging. This fact has been internalized rather well, across the broad political spectrum, an observation made on the basis of the long political tenures enjoyed by the political class. It may be concluded that politics in India is not as much about public service as it is about private gain – as a career, or rather, a family business. And this brings me to THE vital strategic calculation that forms the bedrock of political life – the issue of survival.

On an aside, the Chetwode motto at the Indian Military Academy goes like this: “The Safety, Honour And Welfare Of Your Country Comes First, Always And Everytime The Honour And Welfare Of The Men You Command Come Next Your Own Safety, Honour And Welfare Comes Last, Always And Everytime.”

The essence of these wordings are the sine qua non of public duty, however, many in political office seem to prefer reading it backwards – personal survival, party benefit and finally the welfare of the public. I base this observation on the fact that while India continues to wallow in need and poverty, the lack of improvement in the quality of governance (even alluded to by Modi) seems to have had no visible effect on the political careers of Indian leaders. In fact, their financial health only seems to be improving at the cost of the Indian taxpayer. Here are a couple of interesting links that highlights this privileged life enjoyed by a few while ‘austerity’ is thrust down the throats of other servants.

1. http://infochangeindia.org/governance/features/the-cost-of-indias-mps.html

2. http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/politicians-enjoying-vip-treatment-at-airports-dgca/1/341021.html


Political survival remains the KEY calculation amongst the Indian political class. And it is through the lens tinted by this inescapable reality that political maneuverings or election strategies need to be studied. All one has to do to make a grand success of a career in Indian politics is to survive. Squeezing all kinds of favours when in power, when out of it, there is only a waiting game to be played, for, the ‘brand’ can survive literally till ‘death do it apart’, and usually even beyond the grave. For dynastic lines have ensured political success for successive generations, as the article referred to above highlights.

To take a recent example, Priyanka Gandhi, who according to (http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Govt-has-no-plans-to-withdraw-Priyanka-Gandhis-privileges-at-airport/articleshow/36236927.cms), is an individual deserving of the highest level of security in the country, (owing to the fact that she happens to be the daughter of the Congress Party President), along with her husband who is further removed from the political scene. They continue to enjoy privileges bestowed by the Home Ministry (under the control of the political opponents of India’s first family) at the cost of the taxpayer. Reading between the lines, one comes away with the feeling that it is not really the Gandhi clan’s survival that is at stake here, but the security of the public that is of concern, given the violent backlash that India may witness in case something untoward were to befall the first family of Indian politics. (The Congress Party-incited violence that followed the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984 comes to mind). In power or in opposition, India’s politicians straddle their dual roles with aplomb – whether as legally empowered leaders, knowingly or unintentionally subverting the political process (PC Pathak, a former Coal Secretary in the Government, in his “Crusader or Conspirator”, provides ample evidence of this) or as mafia bosses controlling vast swathes of territory through mob support.


While the bigwigs control the political machinery, there has also been ample ‘capital’ support from the corporates and other ‘unknown’ entities whose anonymity remains protected under current laws. Industry stalwarts have always curried flavor with political bigwigs. The names are not important; these are replaceable depending on the corporate climate prevailing in India. What is important is the technique of ‘buttering both sides of the bread’.

However, if one were to quote an example, the public spat between the Ambani brothers of the Reliance group (involving lengthy legal battles from 2004 onwards) renders credibility to this theory. After all why would a nation’s Prime Minister and its Finance Minister attempt to encourage a truce between two corporate entities? The argument that the health of Reliance Group was instrumental in affecting the investor sentiment towards India poses a further question – well into the age of liberalization, how did a corporate entity manage to grow into a monopoly in the first place (“Gas Wars: Crony Capitalism and the Ambanis” authored by PG Thakurta gives a compelling account of the corporate-political nexus prevalent in India).

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As the above pictorial depicts, ‘money’ recognizes no divisions amongst the Indian polity. The same entities pump money either side of the political divide with grave implications on the value of the ‘vote’. With corporate barons pressing the right buttons as far as ballot politics go, it is but natural for them to trump the vote of the electorate. As is alleged in F1 racing, winning is but incidental – the real actions happens behind the scenes among the people who really matter – the ones with the money.

Image(Picture Courtesy: http://www.business-standard.com/article/politics/87-donations-to-national-parties-corporate-adr-114010801714_1.html)

It doesn’t end here, though. The above figure represents donations made by ‘named donors’, amounting to 8.9% of the total funding made to political parties between 2004-05 and 2011-12. In a land where black is the preferred color for money, 75% of their total funding comes from ‘unknown’ sources. The following report delves deeper into the issue: http://www.livemint.com/Politics/vKaQPbE0TN7SOg3G29mCSP/Political-parties-got-75-income-from-unknown-donors-report.html?ref=dd. Existing law only requires parties to name sources who contribute more than Rs. 20000/- towards party funds. The ‘loophole’ created by this clause enabled the 6 major political parties of India to amass as much as Rs. 3,674.50 crores without any accountability during the mentioned period (It is also interesting to note that 5/6th of the above amount went into the pocket of India’s largest political parties – Congress Party and the BJP, suggesting a bipartisan reorientation of political forces). Further, the refusal by political parties to open up their fund details to public scrutiny (by conveniently placing themselves outside the purview of the Right to Information Act) signifies the ‘big business’ that politics has become over the years. Political Survival needs to be understood in this regard – staying in the game is the actual objective. Everything else – ‘winning’ or ‘losing’ included, is but incidental.


There may be a positive side as well to this spirit of survival. That irrespective of ‘ideology’, all political parties when voted into power gravitate towards the ‘centre’- this provides the most room for maneuver, permitting the political patriarchs to sway with the sands of time, almost becoming a permanent fixture of the landscape, but never drawing undue attention, never committing to any ideal, irrespective of the interests of the electorate. True, the ‘coalition’ card is worth considering and so is the ‘regionalism’ that is increasingly influencing the Indian Political Scene. But all things said, when a handful of people can derail the political process, as was usually the case with the parties belonging to the ‘left’, the question becomes not of decision-making by ‘consensus’, but of the credibility of the majority power in Parliament. Inaction, or errant action, in such cases becomes a convenient course, which has ultimately led to the astounding mandate given to the BJP this time around.

Not that the BJP is any better, having its ‘Hindutva’ ideology rejected by the voters. But then, that is anti-incumbency for you, in a world of the two-party system (INC and BJP being the only two genuinely ‘national’ parties) that is represented by the Indian Political Scene. All those who believe that there is more variety in the Indian Political scene would do well to refer to the funding patterns described above. The ‘centrist’ view that politicians prefer to take, may in fact be detrimental to society, not only because it showcases a lack of ‘ideology’ but also because it is reflective of ‘apathy’ towards a wide set of issues that India continues to grapple with. Maybe this explains why problems keep languishing over decades, and this brings me to a small observation about the Naxalite case-study I discussed in my first post of this series.


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I had earlier argued that the Naxalite issue is predominantly a socioeconomic one rather than a law-enforcement related one, abetted by decades of exploitation of the indigenous people of the region. The present day manifestation can very well be equated with the ‘resource curse’ that has afflicted so many countries, richly endowed but poorly governed. Corporatization of Indian politics needs to be viewed in this context. This nexus helps one appreciate how people responsible for the various pogroms across India, over the years, and coincidentally from across the political spectrum, manage to get away scot-free every-time. Omission/apathy/lack of capacity is simply not an excuse anymore – especially with redistribution becoming a much-hyped issue in Indian Politics.


Modi has over-reached once – and having bounced back from the edge of oblivion as many would suppose (I personally don’t think his political future was in any danger, considering how ‘survival’ is ingrained in the political ethos of India), he is unlikely to bloody his hands again, so long as he manages to play to the electorate’s desperate need to ‘believe’… essentially being able to ‘better’ the sales pitch vis-à-vis his opponents, however superfluous it may seem. Considering the amount of impoverishment and discontent around, it is not that difficult to make the public fall in line with the designs of one political party or another, especially when monetary ammunition is available in plenty.

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Survival trumps performance ….. and the political opposition knows it just as well. The empowerment of the electorate, exercised every 5 years becomes a non-starter. This model has worked brilliantly so far. After all, with problems galore, one can’t expect people to be really in tune with the political shenanigans day in and day out. Short memory of the electorate struggling with the vagaries of everyday life and the politicians’ expertise at obfuscating matters (the media, doesn’t seem to be adept at probing and exposing deficiencies adequately) all play into the hands of the political class, who, once ensconced in their gilded thrones, choose to set about securing their permanent space in the world of Indian politics, constituents be damned.

After all, whether we speak of the ‘Ruling Party’ or the ‘Opposition’, it is all incidental, really. In the search for better governance, a model of corporate-sponsored bipartisanship bridging the political spectrum, as described above seems to go against the essence of democracy – posing more moral, ethical and legal questions rather than solving the basic needs of humanity.

I end this 3-part series with the following quote by Christopher Hitchens:

“The whole point about corruption in politics is that it can’t be done, or done properly, without a bipartisan consensus.”


In La’kech.