Indian politics, both sour and sweet
By Swaran Singh (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-04-22 07:49

April 16 is the first day of the five-phase polling for India's 15th General Elections. To begin with, the youngest scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family, Varun Gandhi, was jailed under the special National Security Act for his sectarian and provocative speeches in Uttar Pradesh. Given that this province is ruled currently by the Third Front constituent, the Bahujan Smaj Party, this arrest has suddenly turned Varun Gandhi into one of the most visible candidates in parliamentary elections and an emerging star in the opposition Bhartiya Janata Party.

Meanwhile, intelligence agencies have been reportedly hinting at a sudden increase in infiltration of militants from across the Kashmir Line of Control. This is said to be a result of well-coordinated efforts by various radical outfits now working together to disrupt India's general elections.

To top it all, there remains a recent incident now called the "shoegate" incident, in which a Sikh journalist hurled a shoe at Home Minister P C Chidambaram at a press conference last Wednesday. The journalist was protesting against the minister asking for more patience regarding final investigations into two senior Congress Party leaders who are prime suspects in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, which had followed the assassination of then prime minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. What made it so explosive was that these two leaders had been fielded by the Congress Party as their candidates for two of New Delhi's seven parliamentary seats.

The shoe hurled had clearly missed the minister, the journalist immediately apologized for his emotional outburst and the Congress Party sought to underplay this episode by pardoning him without any punishment yet, but this led to widespread protests by the Sikh community in New Delhi and across Punjab province.

Several senior Congress leaders have already showed their discomfort with this dangerous turn of events and media commentaries described it as threatening a widespread anti-Congress swing in elections. The anti-incumbency factor (in which the ruling party has the disadvantage of being open to scrutiny for its record) remains a proven swing-factor in India's elections. Congress later decided to withdraw candidature of these two controversial stalwarts.

These are only representative media reports that reflect the flavor and the list is not exhaustive. What these underline is the changing tenor of political debates and they can be seen as part of the criminalization of politics.

That is why even small incidents often see a disproportionate response and repercussions that further complicate things. Driven by mad competition among TV channels and the press, the media hype over such events only adds spice to this hotpot of political antics and blunders. But since no publicity is considered bad publicity in politics, only few seem to mind this rising activism of the Indian media.

Moreover, this rising, aggressive tenor and panic in electioneering has also began to appear very normal if one is aware of how the criminalization of Indian politics has already been a well-known phenomenon since the early 1980s. Way back in October 1993, the Indian government had set up a committee under former home secretary N N Vohra to study this nexus among criminals, politicians and bureaucrats.

While the full report has not been made public yet, this did bring to light how criminal gangs enjoyed political patronage across all political parties. Criminals have only since begun to directly contest elections instead of remaining subservient to politicians in their campaign to win elections. This has often been described as the politicization of criminals, eluding to the gradual rise of muscle power in Indian politics.

According to former chief justice of the Delhi High Court and former president of the Peoples Union for Civil Liberties, Rajinder Sachar, the 12th Lok Sabha or lower house of the Indian parliament had about 40 members with criminal backgrounds, with some of them facing trial on charges of murder and extortion.

The number had reportedly reached about 125 legislators or 20 percent of the members of the 14th Lok Sabha. These included people from almost all political parties. While few of them have since been acquitted, charges have generally not been proven. This partly explains why they seek to wield political influence. To some extent, these charges also remain politically motivated.

Since money continues to be the tool for buying muscle power, the EC has also been successfully implementing income and assets disclosure by candidates. This has allowed the electorate to know much more about their political leaders. But in some cases, this has also led to witch-hunting - investigations against disproportionate possessions that is often politically engineered or motivated.

But to ensure that these revelations serve their purpose, the EC has also deployed officials from the Indian Review Service. Above all, the electorate has shown repeatedly how, despite all these threats and seasonal allurements for procuring votes, they can still dethrone the most powerful political parties.

All this means a gradual maturing of "Indian" democracy, where the fact that each new initiative remains somewhat vulnerable to manipulation has not discouraged constant innovations to make them as fair and objective as possible.

In a lighter vein, it is perhaps normal in a democracy to have criminals having representation in the national legislature. From this perspective, this rising tenor of criminalization represents a drift away from the so-called dominance of the "civilized" elite (read imperial) and the rise of a mosaic of multivariate communities and classes of Indian society. This clearly indicates a gradual Indianization or indigenization of the Westminister model of liberal democracy. It now tastes like Indian curry, both sour and sweet.

The author is a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

(China Daily 04/22/2009 page9)