Essay on Elections and Politicization in India

Essay on Elections and Politicization in India


Elections are particularly conspicuous and revealing aspects of most contemporary political systems. During an election speak; a political system is on display.

Even though the features that are most obviously on display may be only a small part of the iceberg that lies beneath elections are complex events involving individual and collective decision which directly affect, and are affected by, the total political and social process

Development of Thought:

India's nationalist leadership has become intellectually committed to the representative democratic traditions to draw people with diverse historical and cultural backgrounds into a common universe of interaction and discourse based on principles of political equality and competition, to open up a new area of political choice and influence for ordinary men and women who, until recently, were apolitical beings-that is, subjects not expected to intervene in the ongoing processes of allocation of power and privilege in the society and for a drive towards equality.

To be more precise, stability of the authority would be determined to a large extent by the capability of the ruling class to mould the essence of the socio-economic structure of India in accordance with the needs of the people.


With an active extra-parliamentary movement that keeps the link with the masses intact, with an ever vigilant party organization where the ideology remains dominant and with a cadre that is enthusiastic to take the message to the masses and organize them, such an electoral process could provide an opportunity for the citizens to exercise their options.

Elections in a democracy can be defined as a process politischer willensbildung, i.e., as means through which the political opinion (will) of the public is shaped. They help people to crystallize their interests, to give expression to them. In the elections it is decided who shall govern and who shall have the control over the government. These are, at the same time, also substantial processes of political mobilization and participation.

It is through these processes that peripheral groups transcend their regional and caste identities, and acquire over time a certain commonality of economic interests and political identification which help establish a political framework of conflict and negotiation among divergent interests; within the society.

The new Republic, therefore, by adopting the new Constitution, armed the people, legally at least, to change the content of political power through elections. This was guaranteed in Article 326 of the Constitution.

This article reads, "The elections to the House of the People and to the Legislative Assembly of every state shall be on the basis of adult suffrage; that is to say every person who is a citizen of India and who is not less than eighteen years of age on such date as may be fixed in that behalf by or under any law made by the appropriate legislature and is not otherwise disqualified under this Constitution."

The Article thus provides for universal adult suffrage by giving the right to vote to every Indian citizen who would attain eighteen years of age. This extension of political power to the common man of India, irrespective of caste and sex, might surely be characterized as political justice.

However, the real political import of this Article is that henceforth the stability of the ruling class would be relative-relative to its capacity to deliver at least the basic goods to the common man.

To be more precise, stability of the authority would be determined to a very large extent by the capability of the ruling class to mould the essence of the socio-economic structure of India in accordance with tine needs of the people.

There have been democratic changes of government both at the Centre and in the states several times through the election process.

One interpretation of this may be that Indian democracy has been vindicated and thereby measuring in terms of adaptability, complexity, autonomy and coherence India has ranked high not only in comparison with other modernizing countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, but also in comparison with many much more modern European countries.

There can be no doubt that the public responds to democratic opportunities by participating at election times and in many other ways in the political arena. However, one must be cautious-in interpreting the penetration of democratic norms and practices.

In the analysis of political development one should always keep in mind whether democratic norms and practices have actually penetrated to the Indian masses. For this we have to understand the level and extent of political participation and politicization, relationship of the political Process and expectations of the masses, and faith in the system.

Generally speaking, by political participation one may refer to those legal activities by citizens which are more or less directly aimed at influencing the election of government personnel and policy decisions. There are a variety of ways in which citizens participate in a wide range of participatory institutions and mechanisms.

Some of these are located within the electoral sub-system and some outside it. But irrespective of where they are located, all types of participatory act are important.

It is by engaging in some or all of these possible activities that citizens can exercise varying degrees of influence over political outcomes in the system, in terms both of the selection of rulers and of the policies and actions they pursue.

As far as participation in elections is concerned while the size of the electorate has expanded with population, there has also been a steady increase in the percentage of voting turnout.

Studies further show that the increase has been both in urban and rural areas. Similarly participation by women has also increased with each election, although the level of turnout for women is lower in rural constituencies.

During the first election many women refused to give their proper names and therefore, were not registered. By 1962 two-thirds as many women as men voted, and by 1967 the proportion had risen to three-fourths.

The act of voting however is not enough evidence of political involvement. The citizen should show some awareness of the outcome of the election, at least in his constituency. Besides, a politically involved voter should be interested in political matters and generally and actually participate in political activities.

In this regard empirical studies in India suggest that a substantial number of voters do not relate their act of voting with its political consequences. At the level of personal involvement and actual participation in political activities, the apathy of the Indian voter seems still higher.

His general political identification and understanding do not lead him to active participation. It seems politics has yet not become an object of effective orientation for the Indian voter in so far as he refuses to be drawn into election meetings and campaign and is least interested in politics and public affairs in the period between elections nor is much bothered about who wins the election in his constituency.

Voting by an uninformed and disinterested voter is a qualitatively different act than voting by one who is aware of the objects in his political environment and is psychologically involved in the events and outcomes in the system.

In one case the citizen votes probably because he is manipulated by a local influential or a political broker; in the other the citizen's participation is based on his own subjective state of feeling and understanding of why he should participate and what he will get out of politics.

In the first case, "the voter's expectation of rewards and benefits is associated not primarily with parties nor with the general outcome in the electoral and political system, but with those who manipulate his votes.

In the second case, it is the government and the political parties that are salient to the voter, with both his hopes and expectations and his evaluations directed towards them.

The first path of participation leads to private politics in which political processes come to serve not the public interest but the personal and private ends of brokers and party leaders.

The other makes possible open politics in which citizens interact more or less directly with their representatives with certain demands and expectations, and reward or punish the latter for their performance in government or opposition. So far the trend in India has been more towards the first. There are several reasons for that.

Empirical studies of democracy indicate that the robustness of democratic institutions depends on three interrelated phenomena. First, there must exist a cadre of political activists who are committed to democratic principles and compete among themselves for capturing political power within the confines of democratic rules of the game.

Second, there must be available an institutional structure that facilitates articulation of divergent public policies and promotes smooth transformation of inputs into appropriate systematic outputs. And, lastly, there must exist a generalized commitment to democratic values and norms on the part of the general public.

All these three factors are, however, either lacking or are too delicate to survive in intense interplay of clashing interests based on primordial loyalties and feudal relations prevailing in the context of the social structure of India, the nature and extent of its economic development and the operation of class relations.

The most fundamental reality of the Indian society is the overwhelming poverty. According to a number of standard works, measuring on the basis of expenditure required to meet a minimal subsistence standard of living, nearly 50 per cent of the urban population and about 40 percent of the rural people in India lived below the poverty line in 1960-61.

Over the years, in spite of the economic development, or more truly due to the specific pattern of Indian development, the conditions of the majority of those living below the poverty line has remained stagnant or further deteriorated to the extent where the living conditions of the bottom 10 percent is indistinguishable from those of street dogs.

While the top 10 to 20 percent of the people below the poverty line have marginally improved, the next 20 percent is stagnant.

Further a vast multitude of Indians are unemployed and underemployed. While a good section of the unemployed are in the urban areas, nearly 32 per cent of the rural population is unemployed or only partially employed. A bulk of them is illiterate and unskilled.

The rate of literacy after more than 46 years of independence is not more than 51% percent of total population. The illiteracy among the Harijans and the poor is almost total.

It is this vast ocean of humanity living especially in the rural side of India, which constitutes the basic reality of India. It is this majority of population living below, and just above the poverty line which has the major share of votes in the Indian elections.

Poor, illiterate, superstitious with a sense of belonging only to the caste or religion, and with no access to proper communication, except occasionally the government run broadcasting system, this enormous human wave is being driven to the polling station, every now and then, to cast its sovereign.

It is mainly on this section of the population that the number game of Sections and its quantitative outcome really depends. The elections thus become occasion when their consent is manipulated not so much to promote their own interests but to sustain a political system that expects them to surrender their sovereign right for its own interests.

This is clearly reflected in the class nature of the electoral slogans as well as the performance of the parties once they come into political power. The "socialistic pattern" benefited the private sector more the "Garibi Hatao" and "Nationalization" really meant more capital becoming available to the medium and small entrepreneurs.

The removal of "Emergency rule" meant more freedom from insecurity and enjoyment of civil rights to the urban petty bourgeoisie and intelligentsia. None of these slogans or their implementation reflects the interests of the majority which has the electoral rights and actually exercises it.

They merely serve as a reservoir of votes in India. This reservoir has been steadily expanding with the tremendous growth in the population and the accompanying increase in the proportion of people going below the poverty line.

It is more so in rural India which presents a very complex picture. In many ways is a constitution of the pre-modern mode where the hierarchical structure is still strong and the class lines still blurred.

The existence of tenants and share croppers, the undifferentiated (or only vaguely differentiated) hierarchy of medium small peasantry, the social and status differences between the landed and landless, agricultural labour and other factors make the bulky lower strata very much dependent on and at the mercy of higher levels.

The poverty, unemployment for a major part of the year, the consumption load from the landlord daring the non- working months, make the agricultural labour and rural poor extremely dependent on the land holder and put them in perpetual deficit and informal bondage to the top peasants.

This is responsible for the social relations in the villages to be still one of the feudal patron-client patterns.

The importance of this patron-client relationship is enormous for the polities in the rural side. This is even more so during the election period. As many studies have pointed out, voting by the poor in the villages often follows the lines of what the 'malik' says.

Whether they are laborers of share-croppers, Harijans or next higher castes, the landowner dictates to them the party candidate they have to vote for. Often the method adopted is a simple one of voting by proxy: the labour leaves the choice to the landowner who advices and persuades them not to go to the booth as their votes would be cast.

In case they are undecided and look like voting for someone other than the choice of the landowner, they are prevented from voting.

Such practice has been going on almost since the beginning of elections in India, but more openly and on a larger scale since the sixties, with the emergence of the rural elite of landlords and kulaks as an influential lobby at the state politics.

The parties and their leaders too all along have adopted a policy of "non interference" in the rural sector so as not to annoy the landlord/rich peasants, without whose assistance, and feudal vote banks, a candidate could not hope to win.

By and large, this forms the basis of the voting pattern in the rural side, though one has to make exception to those rural areas where due to historical and structural factors.

There has been a conscious, well organised peasant movement, where the concerned left political parties have established a certain base among the labour, so that the personal subservience and personal obligation have been, to some extent, overcome. Such villages are of course, still limited in number.

Equally, there is also the emerging class contradiction as a result of the process of change that has set in the rural structure following the petty bourgeoisie land reformist measures and aggravation of the same by the nature of economic development.

Even while there is no flowering of class consciousness, the class antagonisms themselves are getting clearly expressed in the form of more and more horizontal ties among similar classes, along the lines of class interests.

For instance, the big and medium peasants by aligning themselves with other segments like rural merchants, petty shopkeepers and money lenders have come to constitute the bulk of the lower middle class of India.

They are together interested in keeping the small peasantry impoverished as then they could benefit from their money lending activities in the villages and pay a smaller price for the agricultural produce after the harvest.

As a whole the feudal patron client relations have not yet been replaced, just as the emerging capitalist mode has not replaced the feudal mode of production.

This manifests in the social life as a close nexus between class, caste and citizenship and strengthens the operation of vote banks and vote contractors in the Indian electoral politics. Role of caste and religion are very important in this context.

The caste system in its most general but fundamental aspect can be described as an astrictive system of status and hierarchy, known for controlling and defining social, economic and political relationships for the individuals. The Indian caste system, in its ideal typical form is a status-summation model envisaging congruence among various positions.

In its extreme form, caste stratification subsumes all other stratification systems and is therefore termed as a homogeneous or non-complex system. As the caste status is ascribed by birth, the system envisages 'hereditary substitutability' of position and privileges.

The system is thereby closed. Different castes differ from each other in ritual, socio-economic and political positions. It also marks non-antagonistic strata i.e. acceptance and legitimacy of the ritually determined position in the allocation of wealth, status, and power. Thus the system is non-competitive.

Caste in general sense, thus, has over the years provided the normative order social interaction and has reflected at the same time the social values of the society within which agrarian structures acquired a distinctive form. Caste, in other words has been both, an indicator of social status of an individual as well as his economic position.

The caste hierarchy also has a close relation to the class hierarchy. The studies of K.N. Raj, Andre Betielle, M.N. Srinivas and Kathleen Gough confirm fact that there is a correspondence between caste and class, that the rich and lords and peasants come generally from the higher castes such as Brahmins,

Bhumihars, Rajputs and Thakurs while the Harijans, Adivasis and Tribals contribute the bulk of agricultural labour. At the intermediary level, however, caste and class cut across each other.

A majority of members of the middle castes such as Jats, Gujjars, Yadavs and Kurmis, are small and medium peasants or tenants, though there has been a trend for a movement upward.

Some from among these backward castes have emerged as big tenants with big leases and have come to own some land, a few have also become big peasants with large parcels of land.

This is especially true of northern regions like Rajasthan, U P and Gujarat: but is also becoming visible in the South as in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. The middle and backward castes thus constitute the bulk of the medium and small peasants.

By and large the very small land holding poor peasants come from the lower castes and also work as agricultural laborers. However, it is the Harijans and other Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes who supply the bulk of landless labour.

It is pointed out that since the Indian masses were politically illiterate, the caste becomes the most important instrument for mobilization. It is also suggested that the caste loyalties do come to be exploited more and more by the top groups for their class interests.

At the time of elections when it becomes more a question of number game, there caste groups seek to mobilize the support of not merely their own cast members hut also those belonging to subordinate castes and the Harijans another view is that in peculiar Indian situation caste and caste association have played a great role in the success of political democracy by helping India's mass electorate to participate meaningfully and effectively.

Rather than providing the base of reaction, caste has absorbed and synthesized some of the new democratic values. According to this view, caste has not only survived but has also transformed and Tran valued itself in the sense that it contributes to undermining inequalities of the old order by helping to level its values and privileges.

Before going into the details of these aspects it is important to point that the use of caste for political purpose had begun long before the introduction of adult franchise.

The liberal education, economic opportunities and the position of power offered by the new institutions and the new leadership during the colonial rule drew caste into its modernist network.

India society was on road to modernity, not because of the well-intentioned policies of the colonial rulers, but because of the logistic of capitalism and need for the maintenance of the colonial rule, in the changing ambience some aspects of the caste like ritual, pollution, hierarchy etc, began to lose their significance, and at the same time its secular aggregative and ideological dimensions progressively began to emerge which had been hitherto left unnoticed.

Now, castes began to organize themselves for social, political and economic purposes. Caste associations articulated around particularistic divisions but having secular and associational orientation mushroomed with this the actual process of interaction between caste and modern institutions began.

After independence many qualitative changes were introduced in the political system. Democratic polity based on the principle of adult franchise was perhaps the most crucial factor which reinforced caste with a lot of vigor.

According to Moin Shakir there is dual role of cast in the Post-Independence era that is democratizing system and hampering the rise of evolutionary class organization. The type of mass political operating after independence is radically different from that of British India.

The compulsions of the democratic system, to mobilize the illiterate people, who cannot understand politics in terms of class interest, make it imperative appeal to the cast sentiment because it pays dividends.

In the absence of clear-cut class based parties or because of weak communist and socialist movements in the country factors other than ideology and class are bound to be more effective. It activities primordial institution. Thus cast, religion etc., become relevant inputs in the mass politics of India.

As regards the mobilization of the people on the basis of castes. Rudolph and Rudolph say that there are three types of mobilization vertical, horizontal and differential.

Vertical mobilization is the marshalling of the political support by traditional notables in local societies that are organized and integrated by rank, mutual dependence and the legitimacy of traditional authority. Horizontal mobilization involves the marshalling of political support by class or community leaders and their specialized organizations.

Differential mobilization involves the marshalling of direct or indirect political support by political parties (and other integrative structures) from viable but internally differentiated communities through parallel appeals to ideology, sentiment and interest.

Political implications of this development are recruitment of leaders, provision for political personnel, legitimization of the traditional authority pattern and creation of group consciousness and divisions along narrow sectarian lines.

The primary function of caste politics, suggests Moin Shakir has been to transfer authority from the higher to the middle castes. Those who were the lowest of the low-untouchables, landless peasants, rural poor-were not benefited by this new political arrangement.

The class interests of the emerging rural elite could best be protected through an alliance with the urban bourgeoisie. Thus adult franchise, 'caste in politics' principle, democratic decentralization, Panchayati Raj institutions have, in practice helped the ruling classes in consolidating their rule.

The new rural and urban elites have developed a vested interest in the Perpetuation of "caste in politics". Irawati Karvorightly points out that politicians who enjoy privileged position aimed at perpetuating the operation of caste to Seek sanction for their power in social system which possesses great inequality in status, worldly goods and opportunities.

In the rural context, "caste in politics" has been the instrument of mobilization a channel of communication representation leadership which links the electorate to the new democratic process. This "interrelationship frees the lower castes from exploitation and victimization by other upper castes.

To what extent caste has become a means to level the old order inequality is of course, highly debatable issue. But there cannot be gain saying the fact that caste has provided "substance to politics".

Be that politics bourgeoisie or revolutionary, at the, present it does not matter, because both lines of politics have used the caste factor for its political purposes.

It will be to recall here that the communists in India used caste idioms for mobilizing the class of agricultural laborers in Andhra elections in 1950s and elsewhere also, on the ground of caste-class correspondence. And later on Congress used the same caste idiom to wrest the influence from the hands of the communists.

The point that is to be noted is, that in caste one finds an extremely well articulated and flexible basis for organization-something that is also available for political manipulation and one that has a basis in consciousness.

The styles of functioning of the various political parties proves the validity of the caste factor in the selection of candidates at the time of elections, formulation of campaign strategies and manipulation of votes show that they are not interested in banishing casteism but are pragmatic enough to make the political processes intelligible to the overwhelming majority of the electorate.

They are realistic to accept that the stress on caste should be more at the Gram Panchayat level and less on the State level and negligible at the national level.

It is also important to understand that it is the persistence of feudal relations and the much retarded growth of capitalism that is responsible for close caste- class relation being obtained still in India rather than any ritual or numerical status.

Working within the framework of direct, personal sub services, often the villagers vote as a near unity irrespective of high/lower caste divisions. This is where the caste affiliations of the rich and medium land owners become important, though numerically they form only a small percentage of the total rural population or even among the agricultural population.

The concentrations of specific caste in specific regions help them to carry more weight with the lower castes in the villages. Equally the coming together of various middle and lower castes on the basis of the common interest of the peasantry class has helped this group to further consolidate themselves.

From the above discussion it emerges that despite a steady increase in voter turnout and frequent shifts in electoral support for the parties, especially at the constituency level, the notion of herd behaviour of the Indian electorate still persists.

It is an image of a voter for whom voting is a ritual, or at best an act of fulfilling extra political obligations. While voting, he is not only unaware of the political implications of his act but is supposed to be unconcerned and innocent of the fact that he is involved in an act of choice.

Political reality is something quite external to his universe of perceptions and evaluations. If he changes his party support from one election to another, he is not guided by any political or civic considerations, but is only responding to a change in factional arrangement within political parties at the local level or to the exhortations of middle men who are in command of "vote banks'".

Yet, in an open and competitive system, elections are the occasion and the instrument through which the distortions in the system can be set right. It can even offset the threat to the constitution of the system.

Elections can help the concerned political parties to achieve the greatest need of the day-educate the poor, awaken them politically and break the very vicious cycle which makes the poor the captive vote banks of the vote contractors, feudal landlords and big bourgeoisie.