The more politicians who get the message, the better governance will become and the more democracy will help India grow, economists and political scientists say.
“The lesson is that people want delivery, and part of that delivery is growth,” said Arvind Panagariya, an economics professor at Columbia University, adding that “brazen” corruption also has increasingly swayed voters. “In India, the perception is that everybody is corrupt. The mere fact of corruption everybody accepts. But if it becomes excessive, if there is nothing covert about it, that hurts you.”
The old cliche about India is that the electorate did not so much cast their votes as vote for their caste. The fracturing of politics into caste-based parties seemed to make a mockery of democracy, and one study showed that the more people voted along caste lines instead of on merit, the more corrupt were the politicians they elected.
Democracy seemed to give poor people the power to throw politicians out of office every five years, but not to improve their lives.
But India has undergone a “revolution of rising expectations” since the economy was liberalized two decades ago and growth began to take off, Panagariya and fellow Columbia professor Jagdish Bhagwati say.
“People at all levels, especially the poor, had discovered that unlike during the first four decades of independence, rapid improvement in economic fortune was possible,” Panagariya wrote. “They, therefore, now punished non-performing governments with electoral defeat and rewarded performing ones with victory.”
‘Mandate for a dream’
Many members of India’s middle class view their democracy as deeply corrupt and dysfunctional, and some see it as a handicap in the race to emulate China. A nationwide anti-corruption movement last year gave voice to a deep desire for change.
Parliament has become a symbol more of gridlock than governance, while rising criminality among politicians and illegal campaign contributions threaten to worsen corruption.
But the poor in India value even the limited power their votes give them, and they still turn out in large numbers in election after election. Democracy has helped keep this diverse land of 1.2 billion people together as one country since independence from Britain in 1947, and it has the power to signal a brighter future.
“India has changed,” said Shekhar Gupta, editor of the Indian Express newspaper. “Our voter is no longer confused. Nor is she a prisoner of narrow-focus prejudices and loyalties. She now reads the big picture: agendas, track records and what’s-in-it-for-me-and-my-children’s-future. That is why verdict after verdict, you get the same message. That our elections are becoming increasingly meritocratic.”