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India - The New Oligarchy?
|by Col. Gopal Karunakaran|
Oligarchy - "a form of power structure in which power effectively rests with a small segment of society distinguished by royalty, wealth, family ties, or military control. Such states are often controlled by a few prominent groups who pass their influence from one generation to the next."
For many of us who believe that India is a functional democracy – the largest democracy in the world - let’s think again.
In practice India is closer to an Oligarchy – a nation whose wealth, power and opinions are controlled by a few – for their own benefit. It’s not just the political class, the bureaucracy, or the wealthy corporate kings – but even the powerful opinion makers of new India - the media houses – are all here, to protect and fuel their own narrow interests.
How representative are any of these power centres of the cares and concerns of the majority of Indians? What is majority India? Here is a sample of India:
More of ‘real’ India …
And who constitute the Oligarchy in India?
1. The Political Class
To contest an election to a Lok Sabha seat, a candidate, and his party, today unofficially spends anything from Rs 3 crores to Rs 20 crores. Interestingly, the Election commission of India has set a limit for expenditure as Rs 25 lakhs per candidate. Any expense in excess of Rs 25 lakhs amounts to a corrupt practice under sec 123 (6) of R. P. Act, 1951.
So, an illegal act is what gets an overwhelming majority of our elected representatives to our Parliament. The candidates and their political parties believe they must spend in excess of the legal limit to reach the hinterlands, to pay for crowds to come to rally’s, to give sops to prospective voters to lure them to vote; but most of all - to “buy” small leaders, who control vote banks because of caste or religious loyalties – with promises of returning favors for votes cast after the elections are over. It is also well known that some major political parties “sell tickets” to candidates based on his ability to pay for the “party ticket” and his potential to win from his constituency. In addition, huge amounts are collected unofficially from business men and business houses to fund elections. Every one of these actions is defined as a corrupt practice under the Indian Election Commission rules. So what do you say of a ruling class where the first step to power has been a corrupt practice?
Once elected, the Member of Parliament, who has started his journey with breaking laws on the way to power, has many favours to return, and begins to use his powers to benefit himself, regain his return on investment and to help those who helped fund his candidature.
Lay Indians today are tired of the political class and their skepticism is well founded. We laugh when the two leading parties of India accuse each other of “massive” corruption in the space of the last two months. The BJP’s ruling dispensation in Karnataka nearly lost power with their own leadership stating that the Congress party ‘induced’ their rebels. They were caught, just a bit earlier, with their pants down, with allegations of massive irregularities in the mining mafia run by the Reddy brothers of Bellary. A few weeks later, the leadership of the Congress Party in Maharashtra finds itself deeply embroiled in a messy land grab in the heart of Mumbai in Colaba, with present and past Chief Ministers among those allegedly guilty of malpractices. The Ruling UPA in Delhi, once again, is defending the telecom minister accused of illegally causing the loss of a preposterous Rs 1,30,000 crores to the exchequer. Laughably, these national parties have, over the last few years, deriding Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh for the party,s more brazen and blatant money collection practices!
What recent events have shown is that neither of the national parties is better than the other. Even politicians known to be personally honest, like the Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, AK Antony, Pranab Mukherjee, can only look the other way, while their party members collect money, ostensibly to fill their coffers to fund the next election, but allowing them to take a huge swipe at the tills themselves.
Illegal Election funding and spending, (legalized in the United States and other evolved democracies), is the single biggest reason for our sham democracy. It has put a veil of acceptability to the worst and most blatant of corrupt practices. Every politician seems to believe he has a license to thieve in the name of election funding, and the few honest ones are forced to look the other way.
2. The Bureaucrats
The British left the Indian civil services with a legacy of enormous powers to set things right in their districts and in the state and central government offices. Unfortunately, the best among them have reduced themselves to being subservient serfs of the political leadership – and prefer to take the path of least resistance. The majority of them prefer to share the booty and connive with the politicians and the powerful business lobbies. Why rock the boat, when you can be part of the loot? They never seem to be blamed for blatant wrong doing or inefficiency – no bureaucrat seems to have been blamed and found accountable for the shocking shame of the Commonwealth Games! The politicians seem to have taken the flak for corruption but no government official seems to be blamed for insufficient oversight. The bureaucrat always gets away, though they would have garnered benefits for themselves as a pay-off for looking the other way. The worst punishment one has heard given to a bureaucrat suspected of wrong doing is “suspension” or “transfer”! That the most tainted bureaucrats are rising to hold powerful positions is evident with the appointment of the new Central Vigilance Commissioner, no less, challenged now in the Supreme Court of India, for having allegedly been implicated earlier in corrupt practices! It is obvious that having a spine is not one of the characteristic of an Indian Administrative Service officer who wishes a bright future in Indian administration.
In the maze of rules and regulations created to perpetuate their power and influence by the bureaucrats and the political leadership, the business houses become soft targets and chose often to pay illegal gratification to get favours, permissions and licenses to run their businesses. Mr Ratan Tatas recent admission of a minister asking for Rs 15 crores to give the TATAs a licence to run a private airlines, speaks of a malady which is well known but rarely spoken of. Land deals are rarely done without exchange of huge amounts of black money, mining contracts are awarded to powerful political and business lobbies when money changes hands, large scale housing projects get cleared breaking statutory regulations to benefit a few, illegal contracts are awarded to favored business houses, and the list can go on with every Central and State government, regardless of its political leanings. There seems to be no other for way for corporate growth in India.
The queerest case in the Indian democratic cauldron of deceit is the fourth pillar of the new oligarchy - the powerful Indian media. Many media houses claim to be fiercely independent, and national in their outlook, but their views are pathetically myopic at best, and dangerously compromised, at its worst. The powerful visual media overtly represents the concerns of a small growing middle class, but it covertly allows itself to be manipulated by the other two elements of the oligarchy; the political class and the business house. Most news channels, news papers and periodicals seems to only crave market share and thereby advertising revenue. That news stories are bought and sold at a premium is apparent from the stories emanating from the last elections where political parties were asked to pay for favourable reports from sections of the media. Honest reporting of what deeply matters to India is a secondary concern. They run from one screeching controversy to another at break neck speed, rarely getting to the depths of anything, as the next raging controversy engulfs it for the next adrenalin shot of TRP ratings.
But the ignorance and disinterest of the media in expressing the true concerns of majority India has huge implications. What the media does not cover today has much graver implications than what it covers. The Americans went into Iraq because public opinion was built to believe that it was the right thing to do, the dangers were never rationally brought up. It resulted in one of the most disastrous international interventions by the United States in its history.
Similarly, it seems incredulous that the powerful and knowledgeable elements in the American media did not see the dangers to the American economy well before the recession hit it and burst the bubble of the capitalistic empire world -wide. No one in the media – the vital fourth estate of a vibrant democracy - had the wisdom or the courage to challenge the status quo – when they would clearly have seen that huge fundamentals were being constantly violated.
Indian media too is going down the same path. The Maoist insurgency is a shockingly story of a whole swathe of India’s population, unaffected by India’s professed growth, rising in revolt against the Indian state. The Maoists influence has come to light after years of festering, as a deep and dangerous wound grew in India’s hinterland. It went unnoticed till bombs blew close to where it became uncomfortable for the power elite – the towns and cities of India. It was rarely brought into middle class drawing rooms by our opinion makers till that happened, and our myopic media must take their share of the blame.
All revolutions in history have happened when the power elite ignored the masses. Has Indian governance - and its oligarchy - resulted in huge neglect of the rural and less privileged masses of India?
The sickeningly cozy cohabitation by the four partners of India’s sham democracy must end for India to become a truly egalitarian state representing the majority of its people.
Ironically, the solutions are to be found from within the oligarchy.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government for all its inadequacies, has not desisted from allowing the worms to crawl out – the 2 G scam, the Adarsh scam and others would have been swept under the carpet by earlier governments. We need more honest parties and politicians who can stand up to public scrutiny. The Congress leadership is showing some heart in this regard inspite of it being in a coalition. The younger generation of political leaders, show signs of being tired of their lineage and wanting to make a positive change.
Among business houses, Tata’s, Infosys and a few others have shown that one can run a relatively taint free business enterprise to considerable growth by sticking to by and large honest ways.
The stunning success of the Delhi metro project, with its admirable efficiency and speed of execution, shows us that government projects with the right leadership, as demonstrated by the exceptional Mr Sreedharan, can still come out of our much criticized bureaucracy. Though exceptions don’t make the rule, it is a shining example for young bureaucrats.
The Indian media for all its ills, has been the one pillar on which our claims to a democracy can rest, as it is surely the most powerful element among our democratic institutions. It has the power to keep a check on the wrongdoings by the other triad of the oligarchy - if it chooses to.
However, the greatest positive change will occur due to a coming together of technology and governmental intent to integrate it into governance. The ubiquitous PAN card has resulted in huge tax compliance over the past few years. Digital signatures of mobiles communications and other digital signatures will curb illegal activities like no other, because the trail it leaves behind is irrefutable evidence. All pervasive technological imprints will reduce the days of corruption in public life - and with it the influence of the current oligarchy.
And most of all, for India to move to a true democracy, much effort and positive intent will be needed from India’s young leaders – elections reforms could be the first major step.
|More by : Col. Gopal Karunakaran|
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