India - The New Oligarchy?

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:

  • 55 % of Indians live in villages.
  • 40 % of Indians live on less than Rs 1.25 $ a day, the official poverty line of the UN.  (that is nearly 450  million Indian from a total of 1.1 billion)
  • 55 % don’t have a bank account.
  • 75% don’t speak English.
  • 93 % don’t have an internet connection. 

More of ‘real’ India …

  • 90% of the work force is in the unorganized sector with no labour laws guiding their employment rights. 
  • The public health system is nearly non-functional in a majority on India.
  • The public education system is in shambles marked by absenteeism of teachers and poor oversight by the administrators.
  • Over 40 % of the population doesn’t have access to clean drinking water.  

And who constitute the Oligarchy in India? 

1. The Political Class

The only semblance to a ‘Democracy’ that India can claim is that our election process is relatively free. It’s in two other indicators of a true democracy; that the Indian system of adult suffrage fails. Firstly, electioneering itself is dishonest and breaks every rule the Indian election commission has set. And secondly, once elected, the elected representatives of India act in sharp contrast to the interests of its electorate. 
The only way you can get elected in India is if you represent a political party. Currently 534 of India MPs in India’s lower house, the Lok Sabha, belong to a political party. There are only 9 Independent candidates who won the last elections. 

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. 
3. The Indian Businessman  

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.       
4. The Media Houses 

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.

Image (c) Gettyimages.com 


More by :  Col. Gopal Karunakaran

Top | Opinion

Views: 3835      Comments: 11

Comment All we need is power in the hands of an altruist. Egoism is animal instinct and thus we need to educate a more altruistic generation. But our education system is the best, so, can't complain. People dumb, no unity; no one thinks for themselves, only groupism. List is a huge and solution simple, a new supervillain, literally.

The next Hitler
02-Jul-2020 01:08 AM

Comment Both India and Pakistan as well as Bangladesh are fit to be called the corrupt Oligarchies.

Shah N. Khan
10-May-2014 00:31 AM

Comment A very in-depth analysis and also very thoughtful comments. I can see that this discussion is more erudite and balanced than any that we observe in the National discourse.
But nothing is as it seems.
It must not be forgotten that ALL companies, including the great ones earlier mentioned have used previlege at various stages; all have pure self interest in mind in their operations, as one would know with direct contact.
Even the Tata group was part of the Radia tapes and if you went through part of what was available in print, you will understand why they fought so hard to ensure that the rest did not get published.
This country has many government structures and self-help groups operating seamlessly & simultaneously. It is absolutely necessary for us as a people to do the following:
- reduce the extent of reach of Big-Brother
- have more action by the government where they should act
- eliminate government presence where they should not be there
- make the laws unambiguous, logical, fair and implementable
- be really concerned for the people of this country, down to the very smallest person
Many more - but these come to mind immediately

Varadarajan Seshamani
19-Jan-2013 08:41 AM

Comment Yes Sir, this country is the biggest oligarchy in the world, bigger than the Russian oligarchy. The anti-poor, anti-green Politicians are just puppets of these oligarchs and mining rackets. Just 100 oligarchs possess wealth equal to 80% of national GDP whereas more than 80 million live with less than Rs. 50 a day and many struggle for food. Yet, this country is a "Socialist Democratic Republic" according to their "never changeable holy" constitution! what a cruel joke! Again there are pests called "babus" who add to the sufferings of the poor. This country is ruled by VIP culture. It has become a capitalist shit hole. Revolution is the only way out.

Randall Walls
13-Apr-2012 03:47 AM

Comment You may contact me at gopalkarunakaran1@gmail.com


Gopal Karunakaran
31-Dec-2011 11:46 AM


Dear Sir,

31-Dec-2011 10:01 AM

Comment Only one solution: REVOLUTION....REVOLUTION....REVOLUTION.......

22-Mar-2011 08:25 AM

Comment Dear Gopal Karunakaran, you paint a true and opaque picture on Indian democracy. A country where the public inconvenience is not an issue, the opposition is considered by the ruling party a mere hindrance, lawyers work against their conscience, every right judgement is decried as judicial activism, EVM is used for election in spite of large-scale protest, MNCs get easy entry to do illegal business, coastal region is thrown away to outsiders for dubious purposes, senior IAS and IPS officers do wrong things, can we raise our heads to say we enjoy the fruits of democracy. Yet things are not as dark as they appear, on the lips of dark clouds we see the smiles of lightning - success of Indian sportspersons in CWG, scientific findings of great values, good doctors, IT professionala and engineers, a spirited young generation provide some hopes for the future.
Thank you, Karunakaran for a thought-provoking write-up.

kumarendra mallick
20-Nov-2010 08:08 AM

Comment Dear Gopal

It is a very incisive study of the systems within systems in governance models of India. My thought are exactly the same with the following addl inputs in solutions to the problems

Firstly, cleansing the political class is no mean achievement but must be tried by a system monitoring political expenses through CVC or a whistle blowing organisation tasked to tame this class.

Secondly, the punishments for corruption at high places should be exemplary. Supreme Court should have a special bench dealing with such cases. Raja, Kapoor and Chavans can not be allowed to roam around free while petty thieves are being hung.

The babus are a much deeper malaise. They control the Indian polity like no one else does and have a strong lobby in India to manage and nurture their interests. It is well nigh impossible to break this nexus which promotes and operationalises corruption at high places. Of hand no cure comes to mind.

The media are at best naive and bought off for financial reasons. The commercials over rule the quality and that is why as you have rightly highlighted they chase stories without any depth. This will not improve as long as interested parties continue to fund the media houses. A case in point was that as per informed sources, during the IPL held in South Africa, Modi allegedly had paid each channel 5 crores to promote the game. Now where do you draw the lines in the ethical behaviour.

China was not mentioned even once on any debate during Obama's visit - the sole reason for his visit. Man Mohan Singh was down played while he got a great deal for the country. The commentators on the channels are staid and archaic. Yes we are a growing democracy but we must learn the art of public diplomacy to safe guard our national interests.



kamal kapoor
17-Nov-2010 20:34 PM

Comment you make interesting points about how the officers too align to one or the other power structures. That too must be subject to reform. Interestingly, for the first time one notices, the political parties are shaken, at least a bit, when important people are publicly saying that they and the nation has no faith in the JPCs!

16-Nov-2010 22:11 PM

Comment So true... our social structuring based of caste and classes also supports the Oligarchy. There are numerous circles formed around each power centre. And there power centers then form interest based consortiums. These power consortiums are so well recognized. For example the affiliations of govt officers is well known that if the other party comes in power they immediately remove the officers from other unfriendly affiliations from key positions. I am known to many instances where in influential business houses have such a rapport that they can even summon key IAS officials in there presence?.

So it is a shameless loot by these power consortium and network…. Needs to be broken…

After having seen this --- I felt as I wasted 23 years of my Army life… I always feel why the hell I defended an evil system to extent of risking my life. Rather the enemies are within… and these needs to be eliminated first…

Colonel Ashok K Singh
15-Nov-2010 22:55 PM

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