Decline of a Centralizing State
Changing Nature of Political Power in India
Jawaharlal Nehru University
India adopted a democratic parliamentary system of government with universal adult franchise at a time when there was around 35% literacy rate with more than 50% people living below the poverty line. Much of the effort since then has been to empower the people to exercise their franchise effectively – raising
literacy rates and reducing poverty levels. The discourse on democracy also centered round the core western liberal concepts of individual rights, freedom and equal opportunity. It is in making evaluations against these ideals that we often hear desperate accounts of how democracy is not functioning well in the Indian context. The decline in the quality of public life and state‟s incapacity to meet the growing demands of the people is attributed to the pathology of the democratic political system. Indeed, India faces a paradox. There is a rise in social conflicts, the economy has been passing through difficult phases and democratic institutions are continuously under strain in trying to stem the tide of protest and violence in the country.
Democracy, on the other hand, seems to have deepened and widened its reach. The proportion of socially and economically deprived people coming to vote their own choice has risen in recent years. If there is so much turbulence at the level of electoral outcomes, one of the fundamental reasons for it is that the participatory base of electoral democracy has expanded since the 1990s. The odds that a socially and an economically deprived person will vote are much higher today than when the country started on its path of democratic governance. (see for elaboration Yadav, 1999)
This kind of democratic experience has severely strained the system of governance particularly after the democratic participatory upsurge in the last two decades. The difficulties were compounded by the pattern of economic development that took place in the country. While economic growth and removal of poverty continued to dominate the development discourse, the actual outcome of policies was far from the ideals set. Population growth has continued to hover around 2-2.5% per year; the rate of per capita income growth has been a little less than the population growth, thus having not too substantial impact on poverty levels. Illiteracy rates have come down but a little less than
half the population still is unable to read and write. There has been economic development but it is highly skewed. Some regions and states have done much better while a few states with large populations have lagged behind considerably. The dilemma of increased political participation within a system of restrictive economic benefits is the major challenge that the policy maker‟s face as the
country enters the second millennium.
The Congress Party and Its Decline
For a long time the Congress party served as an umbrella party, ironing conflicts and creating consensus on issues that threatened to be divisive otherwise. This was the party that was in the forefront of the national movement for independence and under the leadership of Nehru formed the government after independence. Among all the parties, this party has towered over all others and has remained in power except for brief periods from 1947 to 1995. It has been reduced to a minority in opposition in the last few years.
The process of consensus building was the most important characteristic of the party. Nehru‟s personal domination of the party and the government did not
overly constrain inner party democracy. Internal democracy was maintained at least for two reasons. First, Nehru took his role of implanting parliamentary and democratic institutions on to the India soil rather seriously. Secondly, his colleagues-both in government and party-were those with whom he had personal relationships from the days of the freedom struggle when they were also companions in British jails. They could advise him candidly without threatening his leadership. Thus dissent was expressed openly and accepted in that spirit. The organizational structure of the party was also such that it allowed for elections at every level from local base upwards and parliamentary and organizational wings working together.
This structure helped in creating conciliatory machinery within the party at various levels, which prevented local conflicts from becoming issues of national moment. As Manor (1988) points out, the management of resources – at which
many in the Congress excelled – was essential to achieve reconciliation, to
mediate in factional disputes, and to influence political decisions at state and district levels. Manor further described the Congress party as a giant system of „transactional linkages, a mechanism for the distribution of spoils in return for
political support and organizational loyalty. The main integrating ideas were opportunism, self-aggrandizement, the impulse to enter patron-client relationships, and to forge deals. As a consequence the role of the party in policy-making gradually diminished while its place as an integrating mechanism in society came to be strengthened.
During the 1960s observers attributed much of the success of the Congress party to its ability to forge widespread patronage networks which provided critical linkage between local demands and central responses (Weiner, 1967; Kothari, 1975). These naturally helped to solve a variety of power conflicts. Gradually, however, these links were destroyed. No elections were held within the party after 1972 as Mrs. Gandhi started to appoint persons to both governmental and organizational positions for personal loyalty and not for their ability to articulate grass-roots demands. These appointees did not have the capacity to influence local behaviour and could not mediate between social and political conflicts. As a result, Congress lost its pre-eminent role in the political system. Rajiv Gandhi referred to its decline when he called it a party of brokers of power and influence that had converted a mass movement into a feudal oligarchy.
The party of 1970s onward unlike its previous incarnation- became a centralized organization owing loyalty to single leader. It lost touch with real issues and was interested in government only so long as the flow of patronage continued. Loyalty to a leader was also based on the ability to ensure this flow. The result was that it fell prey to internal bickering and factional fights that were more personal than policy related. People oriented parties that were regional in nature and that responded to sectarian interests multiplied and have become major partners of coalition governments formed in 1989 and after 1996. Congress party itself has got reduced to one among many in contrast to the hegemonic position it occupied in the political system earlier.
The Congress Party‟s unquestioned dominance in the 1950s and 1960s rested in part on the prestige it retained from its role in India‟s independence struggle, and in part on an intricate patronage network that stretched from Delhi to India‟s tens of thousands of villages. (Kohli, 1996:118) The old patronage system weakened due to various reasons. An important reason was the decline of the Party organization. The entire structure that linked the villages with the highest decision making bodies lost its salience as no democratic elections were held and all powers were usurped by the central leadership. The party began to depend on a charismatic leader who relied on a group that was loyal to her. The institution of a „high command‟ emerged which was supposed to take all
decisions and enforce them on the basis of loyalty among its followers. This was true of Mrs. Indira Gandhi and her successor son, Rajiv Gandhi and so also of Narsimha Rao who unsuccessfully tried to revitalize the party. After 1996, the Congress has not been in power, but it continues to depend on a central leader without creating spending adequate effort to create grassroots strength.
The decline of the Congress party can also be attributed to the spread of democratic ideas and intensification of competitive politics in India particularly after the defeat of Congress in 1977 elections that gave a verdict on the
emergency imposed by Mrs. Indira Gandhi. Many social groups that routinely accepted the manipulations of political leadership now began to assert themselves and began to struggle for their equal rights under their own organizations and leaders. Leaders, in turn, also found new opportunities to mobilize the deprived and competition in Indian politics sharpened. An important factor that influenced the sharpening of competition was the acceptance of the Mandal Commission that resulted in the introduction of reservation in government jobs and educational institutions for the „other backward castes‟. Together with the scheduled castes and tribes who had been
constitutionally provided these privileges, was added another group that essentially consisted of castes working on land and some of whom had done well in the aftermath of land reforms and green revolution.
The Democratic Upsurge
This had a major consequence for the election system. If earlier, the Congress party dominated the election scene the period from 1989 onwards saw a radical change. There were twenty-two political parties in the Lok Sabha in 1984. This number had grown to 40 in 1998. The voter‟s choice has expanded not only because of the multiplication of parties but also because of their changed nature. The rise of Bahujan Samaj Party is an example of a political formation that represents the Dalits, came to power in one state but has acquired influence in some other states and also attained a national presence in the Lok Sabha. There are state parties that exercise greater influence at the state level but do not shed their ambition of acquiring national recognition. As Yadav (1999:2395) points out, their political presence is state specific but their political vision is not. These are parties like Samajwadi Party or the Samata Party today that go out of the way to claim that they are a national party.
There is also greater participation in the elections. This is not merely in terms of high turnout in Lok Sabha and state assembly elections. What is remarkable is that the underprivileged and the deprived are coming out to vote in greater numbers. The odds that a dalit will vote are much higher today than that of an upper caste. There has also been an increase in women turnout for voting and the ratio was 61.0 percent in 1998. (for data see Yadav, 1999)
Democracy is maturing and with increasing awareness galvanizing the deprived people into joining political activity. Indeed, intense politicization has taken place over the last decade and those who are participating in the new democratic upsurge carry the ambition to use the democratic process to mould policies to their advantage. There is a realization among them that they can capture the instruments of state in the way the upper groups had done so far and use them for their own advantage. As the realization has spread that the state, which
controls a great many resources in a very poor society, can be captured if the support of enough new groups is mobilized, such efforts have intensified. (Kohli, 1996:120) There have been several consequences of this upsurge. There has been multiplication of parties and the domination of a single party has broken down. The diverse and a plethora of politically assertive groups have made consensus hard to achieve. Another consequence is the emergence of an era of coalitional politics. The regional parties are interested in controlling the Center to pursue state interests. Strong regional political leaders have emerged articulating local issues, joining a central coalition with limited national vision. The journey of economic reforms and the buffeting that each policy receives is an ample illustration of attempts by the states to control the Center for their own benefit. The loss of a single party that commands a presence throughout the country like the Congress also has meant the erosion of what can be called a national vision and consensus.
Such fragmentation has come to stay and coalitions do not necessarily mean instability. What it means is that the content of political discourse is changing and demands a new basis of consensus and agreement. Ultimately this may lead to some changes in desirable directions of making democracy and state institutions more open and transparent.
Planning for Economic Development
India‟s democratic experience is embedded in the strategy of planned economic development. The problem of development was viewed in technical terms and was largely seen as a problem of correct policy and design. The Nehru-Mahalnobis strategy that became the hallmark of the 1950s and 1960s was dominated by the discussion of prioritization of investment allocations, trade and industrial strategies, etc. It is not too much to say that the India development strategy was remarkable in the use of planning models, the sophisticated development that planning engendered, and the extensive utilization of such models with formulation of plans. (Byres, 1997:14)
The successive five-year plans took it for granted that their rationale would be accepted and that the people would behave accordingly. If difficulties arose, they would merely be difficulties of implementation. The development policy design was regarded as technically correct, while failures were seen a result of social and political constraints and problems of poor administration. A vast machinery of controls emerged that attempted to restrict or promote production and consumption of commodities and services according to the priorities laid
down in the plan. When the priorities were not achieved, responsibility was laid at the door of the implementation machinery and few questions about the plan choices were raised.
Public intervention sought to translate plan priorities into practice. This public intervention came through the establishment of large public enterprises, which not only replaced the private sector through nationalization but also entered the commercial sector by restricting the entry of the private sector. The consequence of both the methods of expansion of the public sector was multiplication in the army of state employees. Together with the expansion in public sector, public employees also increased due to state undertaking a development role in society and economy. The economy that emerged was an economy that was directed and regulated by the government with the private sector decisions dependent on government policy. The result was that the growth of the state sector and the emergence of command economy brought into being a potentially privileged political class that consisted of public sector employees and managers, petty and high level officials, professionals and politicians whose power and influence was defined by the extent of ownership of state property, resources and authority. A vast network of privilege and patronage developed. Even many in the corporate sector prospered not because of their entrepreneurial skills but due to their „connections‟.
The market-regulated economy with its attendant patronage system arose at the same time that the Congress party dominated the political system during the Nehruvian and Indira Gandhi period. The incumbency factor helped party building activity through use of state resources in distributing patronage. The economic reforms introduced in 1991 are seeking to shake this nexus between the economy and the polity. One kind of opposition to the reforms comes from the wide spectrum of actors who were the beneficiaries of the strategy of state intervention in the economy and society. If such type of alliances tended to disrupt the goals of industrialization and planned economic development, the rural sector did not present a very different scene.
India inherited a colonial land settlement, which assigned ownership of land to rentier zamindars or cultivators in return for the rent paid to the Raj. Economic power was widely dispersed and also entrenched in these propertied classes. Industry was at a nascent stage but powerful regionally based and family centered business houses had begun to emerge. In both agricultural and industrial sectors there were powerful individuals or groups who commanded significant economic power. This economic power relationship was defended by a powerful social order based on caste, family and region. The development strategy that was hammered out during the early years was one that kept these economic power equations in mind. Dominant caste groups and their
relationships were also kept in mind. The major problems were those of very unequal distribution of land ownership and very low levels of productivity. The power equations severely constrained and strictly circumscribed the capability of the state and its scope of action. In a much later explanation of the lack of investment in long term growth, Bardhan (1984) suggested that the politicians presided over a dominant coalition with three main elements: the industrial bourgeoisie, rich farmers and public sector employees. Each strive to maximize benefits from the development policies and the state was unable to rise above their interests and work for the society as a whole. Radical postures may have been taken but they could not be translated into action. What happened then was that the state was strong on regulatory law and weak on enforcement.
Indian Bureaucracy and Administrative Reform