Indian Flag Flies
The India flag flies. The new Indian budget imposes increased excise duties expected to drive up the cost of automobiles. Reuters

A few months ahead of what promises to be a pivotal and chaotic national election – largely pitting the incumbent Congress Party against the conservative opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the very existence and sustainability of the “world's largest democracy” has been called into question.

During a recent lecture delivered in Chennai, T. S. Krishnamoorthy, the former chief election commissioner of India, declared: “India is undeniably one of the strongest democratic countries in the world but there are forces of threat, too.” Krishnamoorthy further noted that an upheaval like the 'Arab Spring' revolutions could never occur in India – but he cautioned that for democracy to strengthen and thrive, greater public participation must be encouraged. “It is high time that locals participate and build a transparent and healthy democracy,” he told the audience. Another speaker at the same venue, M. R. Ramalingam, vice-president of the Chennai Friends Forum, warned: “Freedom is something we have already got from the British. But the right focus is to feed people, to make them useful for society that will give us good democracy.”

So, is India, a huge nation wracked by immense poverty [30 percent poverty rate as of 2010], still-high illiteracy rates [about 25 percent as of 2011], massive social inequality and a deep culture of political corruption, really a functioning democracy?

Jamie Chandler, a political scientist at Hunter College in New York, said that India has a strong multi-party electoral system which allows new parties to emerge to address issues otherwise left off the table by the dominant parties. “Elections keep India's democracy alive, but it's a tenuous situation,” Chandler stated. “Its democracy requires much improvement -- particularly in strengthening government institutions, curtailing repression, and lowering income inequality. If these trends continue, instability could put democracy in jeopardy.”

In a book entitled “Beyond A Billion Ballots,” author Vinay Sahasrabuddhe boldly states that democracy is fragile and decaying in the country. "Democracy in India is more impressive in form than substance," he said. "People no longer believe that politicians pursue politics for some great cause.” Part of the problem lies with deeply-entrenched and unmovable leadership in the top rungs of party hierarchies. Indeed, of the more than four-dozen officially recognized political parties currently operating in India, only three – the right-wing nationalist BJP and two far-left parties, Communist Party of India (CPI) and Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) – are not controlled by dynastic rulers or dominated by one charismatic leader.

Thus, as M.R. Narayan Swamy, executive editor of the Indo-Asian News Service (IANS), wrote: “Ideology has been pushed to the periphery; personal ambition is the sole motivating factor for most party workers in most parties.” Consequently, Indian politicians – whose image has sunk to all-time lows after a seemingly endless stream of corruption scandals – appear to have sacrificed ideology for personal gain. Aside from parties with extremist or well-defined ideologies (that is, the far-right and far-left), the other organizations are virtually indistinguishable from each other in terms of policy.

Sahasrabuddhe suggests that India adopt a 'proportional representation' (PR) system, in place of the existing 'first-past-the-post', i.e., 'winner-take-all' program. "PR is likely to help improve the quality of democratic governance,” he said. “PR is more capable of challenging moneyed and patronage politics. PR will provide greater political stability and more certainty [to] the schedule of elections." Sahasrabuddhe further warned that reforms to the political system may not come before frustrated Indians succumb to massive social unrest. "Sooner than later, India needs to unlock its democracy - now chained to the archaic, outdated aspects of the system," he added.

However, Dr. Michael Kugelman, Senior Program Associate for South and Southeast Asia AT Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, believes India is indeed a functioning democracy. “Certainly India is afflicted by all kinds of problems, including widespread political corruption, yet despite all this it remains a country that is run by elected civilian officials,” he said in an interview. “And despite widespread inequality and sectarianism, it is a nation where pluralism and the rights of minorities are respected--at least relative to many other countries (including democracies) in India's neighborhood. Democracy is both imperfect and ugly, and this unseemly side is always on full display in India.”

Sumantra Bose, a professor at the London School of Economics (LSE), asserts that democracy in India has actually been empowered by the emergence of regional parties and decentralization. "For all the flaws and vices of many of contemporary India's regional political figures, the regionalization of India's politics is a democratic outcome that has emerged through the dynamic evolution of India's democracy over six decades," Bose told the Press Trust of India (PTI). Bose's new book "Transforming India: Challenges to the World's Largest Democracy," points out that the country's political structures have now matched its vast cultural diversity.

Once dominated by the Nehru-Gandhi-dynasty-controlled Congress Party, India has, in the past two or three decades, witnessed the spread of smaller regional political parties that can address local issues directly and more effectively. Bose cites as an example, the YSR-Congress, a party that splintered from Congress in the state of Andhra Pradesh and is named after former Congress Chief Minister Y.S.R. Reddy. "The party is led by the deceased leader's son, who faces serious criminal charges of accumulating vast [amounts] of money and assets through blatant corruption during his strongman father's term in office," Bose wrote. Nonetheless, YSR-Congress has gained enormous electoral support in Andhra Pradesh at Congress' expense, thereby granting it a powerful mandate. "The emergence of [an] increasing number of [a] wide variety of parties representing various kinds of segmental identities and interests has resulted [in] a huge spectrum of ethnic and sub-ethnic, caste and sub- castes, linguistic and sub-linguistic permutations and combinations on India's political landscape,” Bose said.

Bose proposes that regional parties should exploit their local, concentrated power by taking on larger responsibilities. "It is crucial in the early twenty-first century for regionalist leaders governing the states to break out of and transcend the boundaries of caste, religion and political partisanship," he said.

Indeed, a blogger named Atanu Dey indicated that in India, all interests are regional interests, in stark contrast to the U.S., which has long been dominated two enduring national parties, the Democrats and Republicans. Also, U.S. voters directly elect their representatives, from local councilors all the way up to President. “[But], the [Indian] people vote for MPs and not for governors or chief ministers or for prime ministers,” Dey wrote. “People vote for either the parties... or for some local MP.” As a result, the Prime Minister of India (that is, the leader of 1.2-billion people) is not directly chosen by the public.

Dey further noted that, despite the fact that Indians vote in large numbers, their actual engagement with politics largely remains absent. “Indians vote and then forget about it,” Dey commented. “But Americans get more into the process — both the width and depth of the process. The U.S. voters participate more actively in all levels of the institutional structure of governance.”

Kugelman noted that as Indian democracy follows the Western European parliamentary style of government more than the American presidential variety. “[This] parliamentary democracy... model. tends to promote a more volatile type of politics than presidential democracy, given that governments must often be formed by coalition and tend to be fragile – leading many of them to fall,” he said.

Another key difference between U.S. and Indian democracies relates to political dynasties. While it is true that certain American families have had high profiles in national politics – e.g., Kennedys, Bushes, etc. – they have not ruled the nation for decades on end, like the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty of India. Dey likened the Congress Party elites as “imperial.” “Imperial rule often involves a family succession,” Dey wrote. “[Jawalharlal Nehru's] daughter [Indira] was next in the imperial rule line. Then came her son [Rajiv]. Then the son’s wife [Congress leader Sonya], who is the 'first Italian to rule India.' Next will be the son [Rahul] of the Italian who rules India.” Thus, Dey opines that India is still under “imperial rule.” “The government still holds all the major cards, and therefore [there exists] the intense struggle to get into the government,” Dey added.

Crucially, in the U.S., the executive and legislative branches of government are distinct and operate independently of each other. In India, such a separation does not really exist. A lack of transparency in India also breeds excessive corruption.

Perhaps one of most vexing obstacles to establishing a true and fully functioning democracy in India relates to innumerable ethnic, racial, linguistic and caste issues across the sub-continent. In 1950, India's constitution guaranteed universal voting rights – in a country that had lived under severe, strict and codified class, caste and ethnic divisions for centuries. B.K. Ambedkar, the leader of India's Dalits, the long-oppressed 'Untouchables,' noted this dramatic contradiction. "In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality,” he said during a constitution assembly in 1949. “How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we do so only by putting our political democracy in peril."

Now, in 2014, corruption is the greatest challenge Indian democracy faces. “The fact that it [corruption] has penetrated India's entire political fabric has troubling implications for any democracy,” Kugelman said. “This is not to say democracies aren't corrupt; rare is the democracy that doesn't suffer from it. Yet India's scandals seem to be so much bigger – involving more money and abuses of power – than seems the norm. Such corruption helps explain why politicians are so unpopular in India, and in the long term – if not addressed – this systemic corruption could imperil the social contract between people and state that is meant to embody democracy.”

Chandler concures that corruption jeoopardizes democracy in India, along with poverty and a weak court system.

“Corruption is undermining governmental institutions, and also impacting economic growth potential, since corruption leads to favoritism,” he warned. “The court system has been plagued by corruption, and it also has a very slow process of adjudication, which politicians benefit from. Poverty creates wide class divisions, and offers little upward mobility. Poor segments of the population have the possibility of radicalizing, and engaging in destabilizing activities via protest and violence.”