Sat, 15 May 2004

Elections in India still favor the rich, educated classes

Randeep Ramesh, Guardian News Service, New Delhi

In the grounds of the five-star hotel, the flashing lights and dull thud of Indian pop music spilled into the night. At the wedding of the niece of India's broadcasting minister last month, guests thronged the lobby, decked in swirling silk scarves and painted in blazing make-up, on their way to being served tumblers of imported liquor and pungent meat dishes.

Behind the black iron security gates, fruit is left to rot and wine to sour. Outside the gates, in the northern Indian city of Patna, the homeless sleep under plastic sheets, bonfires of rubbish provide the only light, and wild pigs sift through the dirt.

The flourishing and the withered -- as in most of urban India -- are just a few feet apart. Usually the daily lives and the actions of the poor pass unnoticed by the rich. But the country's elite are likely to be a given a rude shock by the masses in the general election, the results of which are out today.

A few months ago predictions were being made that the ruling coalition, run by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party, would sweep back into power on the back of India's booming new economy. Now exit polls suggest that, instead of swelling in numbers, the coalition will shrink -- giving no single block a mandate to rule.

What the last government had sold to voters -- a vision of India as a software superpower -- was palpably not true for most of them. No one knows the extent of India's middle class, but most accept that two-thirds of the country's one billion people live in rural areas where electricity, running water and usable roads are luxuries not necessities. The digital divide is such that the country, as investment bank Goldman Sachs observed, is home to "nearly a third of the world's software engineers and a quarter of the world's undernourished".

While this situation presents a paradox, it is not an enigma. India's development is one born of policies that have been skewed in favor of the rich and the aspirational since the country's independence. About four-fifths of healthcare spending in India is effectively private medicine.

Spending on universities rather than schools sees the country produce two million graduates a year and leaves more than half the country's women illiterate. As Pavan K Varma, an Indian diplomat and one of the country's most perceptive writers, points out in his latest book, Being Indian: "Ironically it is precisely this social callousness that has contributed in great measure to India's emergence as a possible global power in technology."

That is almost certainly the case, but it is also these disparities that mean every five years the political class faces a crisis of legitimacy. This is not a bad thing. India's democracy is a wonder of the modern world -- few other developing countries trust the voters as much as the state does in Delhi.

When voting took root in what we now call the developed world, more than 150 years ago, it was restricted to property-owning males, often with an unequal number of votes apportioned according to a person's "suitable" attributes, such as education and age.

Literally, a few good men determined a nation's progress. In India, political equity arrived long before any supposed social equity. This has required the masses to trust the country's leadership to do the right thing. That they do not is obvious for all to see.

For more than anecdotal evidence, consider the words of a former Indian cabinet secretary, TSR Subramanian. "Very few, if any, of the ministers had any interest in developmental matters or in the economic or social transformation of India. Genuine alleviation of poverty, and upliftment of the rural masses, was the last thing on their minds. Their only interest was their own future -- aside from feathering the nest."

The result is that India's upper classes live more opulently than the rich in America, while its poor are chained to poverty levels comparable to Africa's. The current model of growth -- dependent on the service sector, which is high on technology but low on job creation -- clearly has to be revised.

Democracy's greatest strengths, such as being able to disseminate information and argument before reaching a consensus, also need to be harnessed in India. Questions such as: "Should money be poured into roads or spent on providing clean water?", are rarely resolved in public.

Too much of the debate in the Indian parliament disappears before it reaches the ordinary person. That has meant that big global issues such as the environment or Aids, both of which should be core concerns to a rapidly growing economy like India's, do not appear on the political landscape.

Why this should matter to the outside world is that the future of the world's development will be decided in two nations: China and India. As they account for more than one-third of humanity, all the warm words produced at international aid conferences promising to educate every child and feed every family will melt away unless both progress.

While Beijing can luxuriate in the certainty of perpetual government afforded by dictatorship, India's politicians must wake up to the fact that their country needs them now, rather than being jolted briefly out of complacency every five years.