Date: Tue May 26 2009 - 21:51:26 EDT
The Daily Star
Monday, May 25, 2009
India's successful elections don't mean good governance
By Appu Soman
The largest election in history, involving more than 700 million voters,
has resulted in the victory of India's ruling alliance, led by Prime
Minister Manmohan Singh of the Indian National Congress. The verdict
disproved gloomy predictions of a hung Parliament and the further
strengthening of regional parties. The new government will be far more
stable than many of its predecessors, so the election results have elicited
But the fact remains that, like previous governments, the new
administration will consist mostly of politicians unfit to hold ministerial
office. While several provincial satraps have been cut down to size, new,
aspiring ones have garnered significant support. Despite the manifest
success of Indian democracy, its parliamentary system is not succeeding in
giving India good governance.
India is hardly a failed state. Lant Pritchett of the Harvard Kennedy
School has coined a new name for India: a "flailing state" - a state where
the government's extremely competent upper echelons are unable to control
its inefficient lower levels, resulting in poor performance.
But this analysis gives credit where none is due: India's problem is its
top political leadership's lack of competence. The inability of India's
current political system to provide effective government places the country
in a different category: a non-performing state.
The idealism of India's freedom movement quickly evaporated after
independence in the face of the opportunities for patronage that came with
power. The way India's political system evolved has made politics the
surest path to wealth. The money spent to win elections (often including
the purchase of a party's nomination) is recouped many times over once the
winner is in office. Half of India's legislators who stood for re-election
this time around had tripled their assets in the last five years.
Increasing corruption within governments run by the Congress party, which
led India to independence and monopolized political power for decades,
showed what a lucrative career politics had become. Given India's
religious, caste, and linguistic divides, politicians saw how easily they
could leverage even a small following into votes.
Soon, Indian political parties began to break up, giving rise to a large
number of regional and caste-based parties. Most of these parties are led
by political dynasties that prize loyalty over merit.
Because of the splintering of political parties, India has had only one
single-party government and eight coalition governments in the last two
decades. Members of the coalition governments have treated the ministries
allocated to them as fiefdoms, to be milked for their benefit. Over time,
India's government has become primarily a tool for advancing the personal
interests of politicians rather than the entity responsible for running the
The opportunity for personal gains through public office has made electoral
politics an automatic career choice for Indian politicians' progeny. Record
numbers of sons and daughters of political leaders and millionaires (and
people with criminal backgrounds) contested this election. We are seeing
the formation of a new Indian caste - a caste of rulers different from
India's traditional Kshatriya caste - before our very eyes.
Like existing castes, the new caste specializes in one occupation:
political office. Just as someone became a carpenter or a trader in an
earlier era merely through birth, members of India's ruling caste now
become leaders of parties, members of legislatures, and cabinet ministers
solely because of their parentage.
And, as with the older castes, there is no need for any qualification for
the vocation; birth alone is sufficient. Lack of vocational competence
never barred Indians from remaining in their caste, and how well one
performs in political office is, likewise, not a criterion for politicians
to continue in positions of power.
India's parliamentary system requires ministers to be members of the
legislature. Party leaders select family members and other loyal followers
as candidates for elections, with absolutely no consideration of their
abilities to fulfill ministerial responsibilities, resulting in cabinets
that are simply not capable of managing the problems confronting the
country's national and state governments.
Even with the best political leadership, governing India is no easy task.
Successive governments staffed with unqualified politicians have failed
dismally to carry out the core governmental functions of maintaining law
and order, providing the basic services expected of modern societies, and
promoting economic growth. India's high-performing private sector has so
far masked the failure of the Indian state.
In its current form, India's parliamentary system can produce only
non-performing, corrupt governments. It rewards ambition, promotes
office-at-any-cost politics, and devalues merit.
Taking away the prize of ministerial office from elected representatives
might discourage wealth-maximizing politicians from entering politics. It
is time, therefore, for India to consider introducing a presidential system
of government, which would reduce the scope for "horse trading" and allow
the country's leader to select competent people for cabinet positions.
Appu Soman is a fellow of the Belfer Center for Science and International
Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. THE DAILY
STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate (c)