India's phony tea party

Article Highlights

  • While India's parliamentary system has made significant achievements, there's a glass-half-empty aspect

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  • India's urban middle classes have long opted out of electoral politics--about 70% of India's voters live in villages

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  • For the first time since India's independence, the old politics of caste and religion faces a serious challenge

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Is the Anna Hazare movement a triumph of Indian democracy? To judge by the self-congratulatory air on Indian television, in the press and on social media, the answer would have to be yes. Where else would tens of thousands of peaceful protesters, led by the moral suasion of a 74-year-old hunger striker, force an arrogant government to promise to act on their demand for a tough new anticorruption body?

But step back from this dominant narrative and the Hazare movement looks less like an example of what's right with Indian democracy. In a smoothly functioning polity, the movement's leaders--mostly educated middle-class professionals--would participate in conventional politics or else back politicians who share their convictions. But those comprising "Team Anna," as the leaders are called, actually rail against political parties and elections.

"The consequences of this dysfunctional political culture become clear if you compare the Hazare protests with the tea party movement in the United States" --Sadanand Dhume

On the face of it, India's democracy looks remarkably similar to other parliamentary systems. The country holds regular elections and power changes hands peacefully. But while these are significant achievements--especially rare among postcolonial states--there's also a glass-half-empty aspect.

To begin with, India's urban middle classes have long opted out of electoral politics. About 70% of India's voters live in villages, and even in the cities the middle class tends to be outnumbered by the poor and semi-literate. Many working professionals--the backbone of democracy in advanced societies--believe they aren't a large enough constituency to influence policy and don't even bother to vote.

The consequences of this dysfunctional political culture become clear if you compare the Hazare protests with the tea party movement in the United States. In both cases, a large chunk of the middle class has decided that politics as usual is not delivering the right policies. But while the Hazare movement holds itself above politics, the tea party has quickly turned itself into a force in the Republican Party and thrown up a clutch of prominent politicians including Michele Bachmann, Rand Paul and Nikki Haley.

If the tea party had simply mocked politics as Mr. Hazare's followers do, its members would have contented themselves with only dressing up in revolutionary era costume and threatening to re-enact George Washington's famous crossing of the Delaware River unless Congress voted to lower taxes and balance the federal budget. No prizes for guessing which movement is more sustainable or likely to have a deeper long-term impact on policy.

Much of the blame for this kind of political culture in India lies with moribund political parties. They trawl for votes from a majority long conditioned to think in terms of caste, faith and government handouts rather than efficiency or probity, which the middle classes care about.

Worse, most parties tend to be fiefdoms whose leadership is passed down like a family heirloom, whereas the middle classes have prospered from and would hence prefer a meritocracy. If, as appears likely, General Secretary Rahul Gandhi takes formal control of the Congress Party from his mother, he'll belong to the fifth generation of his family to have done so. Nor is the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party immune to this disease. The most prominent young BJP members of Parliament are almost uniformly the children of politicians.

In a family-oriented society like India, a certain amount of dynastic politics is inevitable. And, to be fair to India's politicians, many of the lawyers, chartered accountants and journalists who decry hereditary rule routinely give their own underwhelming progeny a big leg up in their professions.

But if India is to get the world-class governance that its educated citizens believe they deserve, it must begin by fixing its parties. The challenge of Indian democracy is to ensure that today's protesters are tomorrow's voters.

Most observers agree that the Hazare movement has awakened the traditionally inward-looking Indian middle class to a public cause. Now the newly awakened need to go a step further and start voting, running for office, and backing candidates who embody their values. With economic growth and urbanization, the size and influence of this potential constituency will only grow.

For their part, India's stratified and lumbering parties need to see the writing on the wall. For the first time since India's independence, the old politics of caste and religion faces a serious challenge. The first party to grasp this will do both itself and the nation a favor.

Sadanand Dhume is a resident fellow at AEI.

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