'The biggest failure of Indian polity is on the poverty front'

In less than six months from now, more than 700 million voters in India will exercise their voting franchise to elect the country’s next government.

The 2014 elections will be a major test for the governing Congress Party, which has battled a series of corruption allegations and heavy defeats in recent state assembly elections. Battered by a failing rupee and a struggling economy, India’s dreams of becoming a superpower do not look bright. In this politically and economically uncertain climate, Vishnu Varma of INYT spoke to Ashutosh Varshney, a professor of political science at Brown University, to understand how factors like caste and religion will shape up ahead of national elections.
Varshney was in New Delhi last week for the India release of his book “Battles Half Won: India’s Improbable Democracy,” which sheds light on the country’s democratic challenges. Varshney spoke at great length about the rise of Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial candidate for the BJP, and why caste can never completely disappear from Indian electoral polity.

What are the basic democratic challenges of India? And why do you call them ‘battles half won?’
For a long time, it’s been clear that India’s democracy is a great electoral success, and each election has only affirmed the view that electoral democracies are deeply institutionalised. But what happens between elections is where Indian democracy has not done well. Every now and then, there has been a moment when scholars like me felt that the quality of the democracy would improve, and another such moment has arrived with the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party. But it’s clear now that battle in India is for deepening of democracy, and democracy’s existence can be taken for granted. That’s one part of ‘battles half won.’ Six decades are not enough for democracy to produce results that it’s supposed to be. But the biggest failure of the Indian polity is on the poverty front. At least 22 per cent to 36 per cent of India is below the poverty line or just above the poverty line. And the assumption at the time of independence was that because so many people were poor, if you gave them the right to vote, that would force the polity to respond to the needs of the poor. And that assumption turns out to be wrong. Only in the last 15 to 20 years, poverty in India, with the embrace of market forces and rise in growth rates, has been attacked vigorously. So the battles half won are about these objectives and the quality of democracy.
Would you say that the quality of India’s democracy would be better if these challenges are met to an extent?
As the more successful pursuit of these objectives is also likely to improve the quality of democracy, a greater attack on poverty and delivery of social justice is also important. Essentially, anything which is electorally relevant, the system begins to handle well. Things that are not electorally relevant, but hugely important, they get sidetracked by the system.

So who decides these issues must come up on the agenda?
Ultimately, how public opinion was formed is partly the result of what people think is important, and partly the result of mobilisation. That’s how issues become significant. As people begin to feel the effect of pollution or unclean rivers, environmental issues become significant. These are hugely important issues but elections do not turn on them. Therefore, the system neglects them.

Unless, there is a catalyst…
Yes, unless there is a catalyst that mobilises or there is an environmental catastrophe of some kind that generates consciousness. It turned out the Aam Aadmi Party took up a lot of these issues, from their manifestos, clean water, electricity, waste removal and cleaner air. They turned these issues into a significant electoral platform.

Do you think that the BJP is moving toward moderation as it may believe that only moderation can help it win the national elections next year?
When BJP came to power, instead of playing an ideologically pure card, they had to play an ideologically moderate card. And that’s how they could come to power and form the NDA. (National Democratic Alliance) Now, if you look at Narendra Modi’s election campaign rhetoric since his anointment as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, it has been strikingly free of anti-Muslim rhetoric. His speech in Bihar compared the issue of Muslim welfare in Bihar to that of Gujarat. It was about what kind of economic policies would benefit Muslims more. These are moves which can only be defined as moves toward a moderate rise, as opposed to moves toward Hindu-Muslim polarization. You could say that the democratic constraints of Indian polity are moderating Modi.
In India, Hindu-Muslim polarization also almost inevitably means riots. If riots begin again in a big way, the gains of UP might be substantially neutralized by losses elsewhere because a number of people are attracted not to the Hindu nationalist Modi, but to the governance Modi. A very large part of India’s middle class is attracted to the governance promise of Modi and his performance in Gujarat.

Do you think caste is something that can be removed from Indian electoral polity?
The more urban India becomes, the less caste-ridden its polity will be. Caste will not disappear. Such a deep-rooted social category does not rapidly disappear. But it will acquire a very different meaning. In India, caste might become something like an interest group, something like how businessmen want to extract a policy or resources from the state. We are not talking about the disappearance of caste, but about the erosion of basic fundamental values, which has been happening in urban India.

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