India: No Country for Strongmen | Book Excerpt


There may be much to despair about India, from its broken state to endemic corruption, but after chasing its raucous election campaigns for more than two decades, Ruchir Sharma has come away with deep optimism that democracy works in India.

What else explains the fact that India tosses out its governing class more often than any other country? At one level, political power in India is supreme. No business person will dare speak out against the ruling party, hundreds of sycophants constantly surround the country’s major leaders and for all the glamour and intrigue that Bollywood actors, Godmen and astrologers bring to Indian elections, they are just accessories to the political stars. India’s bureaucrats may lord over the people but in the end even they serve at the mercy of politicians who can transfer them to the boondocks on a whim. A recurring image from his two-decades on the road chasing election campaigns across every major state is that of voters stretching their arms skyward by the thousands, as if to reach up and touch their chosen leaders descending by helicopter to the rally ground. It is a constant reminder that real power in India resides with the political class.

And yet, for all their clout, the odds are against Indian politicians holding on to their offices. In theory the seated government has big advantages, starting with the fund-raising capacity to meet the ever-growing expenses involved in fighting an election. It can dole out favours and contracts, so business donors typically steer the bulk of their contributions to the ruling party to keep it happy. Yet incumbents don’t usually win, challengers do. Voters, though glad to pocket expensive campaign gifts, still vote their own minds. Ultimate power resides, then, not with the candidates or their moneybags, but with the Indian voter.

India became a democracy when it was still very poor, and perhaps more than the rich, the poor cherish the vote as a great leveller, their memo to the powerful reminding them who calls the shots. We have often heard this undertone of Schadenfreude from Indian voters, relishing the moment the powerful incumbent will fall. Even if many toppled leaders stage a comeback, the fall is a chastening experience. Indian political power is hard won and fleeting.

For some political analysts, there is something inherently dysfunctional in the way Indian voters keep flipping governments. In many states, dozens of parties compete in the elections and the winner often needs only about a third of the vote to take a majority of the seats. Falling short of that, they find themselves scrambling for allies to help form a government. Small shifts in the vote, or the allegiance of one small alliance partner, can make or break state or national governments. The whole thing looks like a recipe for instability.

But minority governments, built on compromises among rival parties, are not a special problem of Indian democracy. They are a standard feature of parliamentary democracy, particularly in countries that were formed by merging autonomous principalities into a unified state—as India was. A multiparty parliamentary democracy can produce serial political and economic crises, as it has in Italy, but also long-term success, as it has in Germany.

Have weak minority governments hurt India’s development? History suggests not. The economy limped along at the so-called ‘Hindu rate of growth’ under mostly strong Congress governments until the 1980s, then started to reform and pick up speed under the weak coalition governments that followed. India’s complex polity may make it impossible for any single leader to mobilize the entire country behind aggressive economic reform and double-digit growth, the way China has. But states from Bihar to Gujarat have achieved this feat, and more will. Together they are likely to keep the economy developing at a respectable if sub-miracle pace.

India has so many parties because it has so many different communities, separated by caste, religion, tribe or language and each one wants its own representative. This is a fitting arrangement for a democracy encompassing the ‘Many Indias’. While in some opinion polls Indians express a growing desire for a strong leader, unshackled from an often gridlocked parliament, the electoral reality is that the country rebels against domineering political bosses.

Ever since Indira Gandhi imposed the Emergency, and fell in the backlash, no prime minister has been able to gain political momentum without triggering fears that they were growing dangerously strong, and inspiring the fragmented opposition parties to unite. Indira, Rajiv, Vajpayee—all of them were undone by an alliance of normally squabbling opponents. Modi may face a similar obstacle.

Supporters praise Modi for raising India’s stature in the world. But more than once we have seen Indian leaders—from Manmohan Singh to Chandrababu Naidu—lionized by the global elite from Mumbai to New York, only to be thrown out by Indian voters who care more about the government’s impact on their daily lives than about such cosmic concerns as India’s image in the world. The more time you spend outside cosmopolitan cities like Mumbai and Delhi, the better your chances of understanding how India really functions. We got the 2003 election wrong in Rajasthan because we didn’t get out of the big cities; if you miss the rural campaign you are likely to miss the story entirely.

Impressions gleaned on the road are inherently skewed by the route you choose, the voters you happen to meet, and the much larger pool of people and places you miss. Ruchir was by then well aware of that, so and ensured that he followed a carefully researched route through the most important swing constituencies, and the most important states. On his twenty-seven election trips to date he typically covered between 1000 and 1500 kilometres over about five days. In total he and his team have driven a distance nearly equal to a lap around Earth. They have been to more than half of India’s twentynine states and to the ten most populous and politically important ones more than once.

Voters in all these states express impatience with the pace of progress, and anger at the unresponsive bureaucracy, but not all take it out on politicians with the same intensity. Over the last three decades, among the ten most populous states, UP and Karnataka have never given a chief minister consecutive terms. Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu have done it only once. Alongside these hotbeds of anti-incumbency are states like Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh, which have been less hostile to seated leaders. At the far end of the spectrum lie Gujarat and especially West Bengal, which have given their chief ministers and ruling parties extended runs in the halls of power.

Excerpted with permission from Democracy on the Road by Ruchir Sharma published by Penguin Random House.

Democracy on the Road is now available in stores, offline and online.

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