The Most Populous and the Most Powerful Democracies

By Kollengode S Venkataraman


It is election season again in India. Recently, the Indian English Media obsessed with how they stack up against the US, came up with this stat: In this elections, the Centre for Media Studies in New Delhi estimates that Indian political parties will spend a whopping Rs 300 billion in the campaign, equivalent to $ 5 billion. They are gleeful they are catching up with the US, where, in 2012, the political parties spent $7 billion.

So, it is time to compare the ground realities of the electoral system in the two countries going beyond the constitutional hyperbole of one-man-one-vote banality and vox populi vox dei embellishment.

India’s democracy is unique. It is a Dynastic Democracy. His socialist liberal leaning notwithstanding, Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of Independent India, praised by the West as the architect of modern India, was no George Washington. Nehru sowed the seeds for dynastic politics in India. He  kept  his daughter Indira Gandhi as his personal secretary and de facto chief of staff when she was barely 30, giving her political exposure nationally and overseas. He made her the president of the Congress Party when she was 42. Her Congress cronies ensured her the premiership. She thrust her sons — first, her son Sanjay, and after his untimely death, her second son Rajiv  — as yuvarajas (princes) making sure her retainers would put them on the throne after her. Sanjay died in a reckless and illegal plane joyride when his single-engine craft nosedived in downtown Delhi. After Rajiv’s untimely ghastly assassination, his widow Sonia, despite her ambition, did not dare to ascend the throne because of her Italian citizenship. But her Congress cronies made sure she became the de facto empress holding court, with Manmohan Singh, the nominal prime minister, doing her bidding as her compliant diwan. Simultaneously, Empress Sonia has been grooming her son Rahul for the throne keeping her daughter Priyanka as the back-up, just in case.

•   Once this pattern was set, regional parties replicated it in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Andhra, Maharashtra, Odisha, Rajasthan…   In regional parties, old timers rule the roost grooming their sons and daughters, modeling themselves after Congress. In their defense, everything in India is hereditary from Bollywood onwards to professional careers to the corporate world. Even though opportunities are nominally open to all, established parents — the likes of the Bachhans, the Kapoors, the Khans, the Ravi Shankars, the Lalgudi Jayaramans, the Ambanis, the Tatas, the Birlas — make sure their wards get huge advantage over others.

•   Intra-party democracy is unknown in Indian political parties except perhaps among the Communists and in the Bharatiya Janata Party. India’s Leninist or Maoist Communists are like rare biological species that have become extinct in their natural habitat, but survive on some marooned islands. China and Russia, the patron saints of Indian communists, have abandoned Marxism while communism limps along in India with Indian communists making political alliances with anybody but BJP.

•  In the absence of primaries and intra-party democracy, despotic leaders of regional parties nominate candidates for all elections. Cronyism, personal loyalty overriding integrity, personal wealth and family connections are the factors for the selection, not talent or fresh thinking.

•  The last factor that makes the India democracy ineffective is the absence of runoffs in elections. As in track events in sports, the first-past-the-finish-line wins. Political parties have perverted elections by placing “dummy” minority candidates in districts having significant minority  population to scatter the votes. In Mumbai’s Matunga or Delhi’s Karol Bagh where South Indians live, you will find a Ramakrishnan or a Mudaliar on the ballot; or in Sowkarpet in Chennai where North Indians live, a Bhogilal Luthra will be an independent “dummy” candidate. By siphoning off minority votes this way, established party’s candidates get elected.

The scenario in the US has its own version of a Pedigreed Democracy, if not a Dynastic Democracy. The Bushes, the Gores, the Clintons, the Cuomos, the Kennedys, the Rockefellers are well-known names. Our US senator Bob Casey Jr. is the son of Bob Casey Sr, a state governor. It is not anywhere as bad as it is in India, thanks to the primaries, but the slate is not clean either.

•   In the US, electoral maps are redrawn every ten years. State legislatures redraw the districts. Since the majority party in the state legislature appoints the committee for redistricting, the committees redraw the maps giving maximum demographic advantage to the majority party.

Pennsylvania’s case is illustrative here. In the 2012 elections, this is how the votes split in state-wide ballots (numbers in %):

President:                     52/47 Democrat/Republican

US Senate:                    54/45 Democrat/Republican

Attorney General:     56/42/2 Democrat/Republican/Independent

Auditor General:        50/46/4 Democrat/Republican/Independent

State Treasurer:         53/44/3 Democrat/Republican/Independent

So, one would expect that Pennsylvania’s 18 Congressional districts would be split 55/45 with Democrats having a slight edge over the GOP — 10D to 8R, or 9D to 9R.  But in the 2012 elections GOP won 13 seats and Democrats only 5. That is how the gerrymandered redistricting perverts elections in the US.

•  Further, in the US Congress with 435 seats, in 19 of the last 25   biennial elections, over 90% of incumbents were re-elected. In 15 of the 25 elections, over 94% were reelected. That is how strong the hold of incumbency is in the US. The Congressmen representing the highly partisan gerrymandered districts have no obligation to respond to national crises, or make reasoned decisions on various big issues. They are answerable only to their districts’ highly partisan voting blocks.

•   Yet another corrupting factor is the Super PACs funded by rich individuals having personal likes and dislikes for candidates; or business interests with large bank accounts determined to defeat candidates whose policies may be good for the public, but bad for their businesses. These Super PACs with their secret list of donors (some of them overseas) pump money to congressional districts or states of their choice to tilt the elections in close contests.

•   Also, defeated/retired congressman/senators become lobbyists and use their connections trying to maintain the status quo.

•   Yet another mischievous trick is Republicans trying to block poor, rural and elderly citizens from voting by creating the bogeyman of voter fraud where practically none exists. Remember Penna GOP’s Mike Turzai’s famous quote in the 2012 elections? “Voter ID [Law we passed]… is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania…” Luckily, the courts stopped this corruption and Romeny lost in Penna.

So, in both the most populous democracy (India) and the most powerful democracy (USA), vested interests have spread their roots deep and their tentacles wide. It is very difficult to reform the electoral system to resemble what the original architects of the countries intended.

In China too, in recent years, communist political bosses have badly corrupted even the single-party political system to give enormous political and monetary advantages to their sons, daughters, and clan members. Similar is the story in Iraq, Egypt, Greece, Pakistan… …

No wonder, political changes in the world — even radical upheavals and revolutions — eventually end up with rearranging of the deck. The old system native to the culture, and often even the same old faces of power brokers of the land, reincarnate themselves becoming part of the new system. Along the way, they morph and mutate slightly along the edges here and there.   ♦

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