If you examine the panoply of former British colonies, the case of India is exceptional for its liberal and democratic institutions. The vast majority of British colonies either did not emerge as democratic states or quickly succumbed to the temptations of authoritarian rule. Consider states such as Kenya in East Africa, Malaysia, or even Sri Lanka, which remains nominally a democratic state but, in reality, has become an ethnocracy, privileging the majority community. India’s twin, Pakistan, has undergone long periods of military rule and has not seen democratic consolidation even when brief democratic openings have appeared.
Even today, the military in Pakistan remains primus inter pares, or first among equals. When President Asif Ali Zardari visits Washington, D.C., directly behind him is General Ashfaq Kiyani, the chief of staff of the army. This is something that would never happen in India. When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visits, he does not bring a military entourage with him, because he does not need the military’s consent to govern. The differences between Pakistan and India could not be more striking, and, yet, both of these countries emerged from the same colonial experience.
The Power of the Vote
Steven Weisman, former Washington Post’s bureau chief in New Delhi in the late 1970s, tells the following story. Indira Gandhi, India’s Prime Minister from 1966-1977 and 1980-1984, often declared a state of emergency to save her political career. She then called elections because her sycophants told her that “Madame, everybody loves you.” The poor turned out in droves, however, and essentially put her out on her ear. Weisman covered this election. He traveled about 50-60 miles outside of New Delhi to a dusty little village in Uttar Pradesh, one of India’s most benighted states, with 120 million people now (larger than France and Britain combined). There he met a wizened old man, who was barely literate. This man said to Weisman, “I want you to write this down. The lady told me to shut up. I’ve told her who has to shut up.”
This story epitomizes the power of the ballot—that the poor in India may have little else. They are maltreated by the police. Often they cannot approach the bench because they lack resources. Class privileges lead people to treat them as subhuman. But when they step into that booth, they recognize that they wield the power to throw out rascals and bring in new leadership. This is why Indian elections are so powerfully contested now, because you can no longer predict how the poor are going to vote.
Indeed, in the last couple of elections, highly sophisticated pollsters engaged in what is called the “fallacy of composition.” They polled people in urban areas, and said, “Oh, there’s going to be a landslide victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party.” However, nobody polled the rural poor. When they did, the poor who dread anybody coming from the urban areas routinely dissemble. They tell the pollsters what they want to hear, and consequently draw a completely invalid picture. Only in the post-election polls do we understand how people actually voted.
An organization in New Delhi called the “Center for the Study of Developing Societies,” now gives us a kind of an electoral map. This map shows that, unlike in the United States, where the middle class vote is disproportionately high, in India it’s exactly the opposite. It is the poor who are voting in droves. The middle class says, “Life is pretty good. Why bother voting? What difference does it make?” Whereas for the poor; it does make a difference. It makes a difference whether you’re going to get a strip of road built or whether a schoolhouse will be constructed. Consequently, they use the power of the ballot to punish incumbent governments.