Indian politics — a foreigner’s perspective

India is the largest democracy in the world, and might just be the most populous country. By nature, India is a union of 29 states: this means there are on average 6 elections per year.

During last central elections, it gathered more than 10% of the world’s population.

I was lucky enough to join in 2015 a group of political consultants who managed and successfully delivered the Lok Sabha campaign of 2014. The organisation took its roots from Citizens for Accountable Governance and had the initial aim, to improve the living conditions of the most vulnerable thanks to its special relationship with the freshly elected government.

However, it quickly became India’s prime political strategy hotbed, led by India’s most wanted and successful strategist (and ultimately went ballistic against BJP). As for my involvement, it was insignificant — I was a random foreigner surrounded by domestic experts and, subsequently the brightest minds I’ve ever met.

Here, I’d like to offer my perspective on North Indian politics — from Rajasthan to Jharkhand, how some banalities for my Indian colleagues were ground breaking for me.

There is no specific order of importance in the following but I have split up my points into three verticals: politicians and their parties, the operations of electioneering and the people’s vote.

I. Politicians and parties

(a) Elected officials are less educated

I am not saying it’s wrong: in my opinion, skills are far more important than education. Because India is struck by income disparity, I genuinely believe it is better for the people to be represented by the vulnerable rather than the elite.

It is not uncommon to find a state minister that ended his education at 15 years old, sometimes younger, which does not mean he/she does not have the skills to represent its people. However, in some cases, you may encounter an official who might have no clue what to do, and therefore, jeopardize the development agenda of the country.

(b) Nepotism is a problem

At first, I could not believe the amount of politicians who were “son of” or “daughter of”. For instance, the son of a former State Chief Minister and Central minister was “placed” into one of India’s top cricketing team for 3 years without playing a single game. Three years down the line, at 26, he became the youngest ever deputy chief minister of one of India’s most vulnerable state.

This raises several issues:

Is he/she qualified to be a leader? Will he/she deliver on his promises?
Does the new-born think he is naturally selected?
Is nepotism becoming more and more tolerated, if not accepted?
Can this have a negative impact on the voter’s faith towards the public system?

(c) Some ministers and top officials are filthy rich.

We had this joke to estimate the net value of a politician, open an excel sheet:

  1. first column, write all the departments he held
  2. second column, add the department’s budget
  3. third column, multiply the second column by 5% if he’s standard, 15% if he’s corrupt and 30% if he’s savage.

Don’t get me wrong, there are many impeccable and hardworking elected officials, but any individual working with the government of India would confirm that cash paybacks are common.

(d) Politicians are more open to meet the people

Back in France, I always had this image of politicians constantly trapped in their 17th century offices, guarded by an army of weaponised humanoids. Impossible to meet them! And if you’re really keen, you’d most probably drown in a sea of bureaucratic processes.

On the other hand, to my great surprise, Indian political leaders are very open to meet the common man/woman. Although this is barely scalable, they receive people in need, make sure their basic requirements are met and show empathy.

II. The operations of electioneering

(a) First rule: polarise

An unanimous strategy to implement on field is identity polarisation: religion, caste, age, gender and income-level — in this order. I am not aware of practices in other countries but in North India, the level of market segmentation is very very very high.

The challenge here is to satisfy the most segments and avoid losing votes from any. However, building “market segments” are only relevant to a certain level of geographical complexity and subject to local scenarios.

Bear in mind that polarisation as a political tool is leveraged in every single country.

(b) Caste is dead, long live caste

The first time I landed in India, I was told the caste system was long gone. In fact, unlike most of the countries in the world, India still has some parts of its welfare system based on identity (caste and religion) rather than income level. On this matter, there is a hierarchy amongst brackets of caste :

  • Scheduled Caste (SC) at the lowest
  • followed by Other Backward Caste (OBC)
  • and finally General Caste (GC)

Belonging to a lower caste does not imply earning a lower income anymore, and vice versa.

A common campaign strategy is to promise a particular caste a downgrade in order to get access to better benefits. This practice wins votes and entertains a vicious circle around casteism.

(c) Politicians really like to print their faces everywhere

I always giggle when I see a poster of a political leader with dozens of karyakartas on a 20m x 10m billboard. In fact, it is one of the easiest way for a political consultant to add significant value in India: hire a good designer and avoid passport size picture scaled up a gazillion times.

As for parties in power, printing one leader on a large scale is considered propaganda and cult of personality in the West.

(d) Ground reality: alcohol, cash and stash

Political funding can have very different dynamics throughout the world. In the west, voters are expected to fund political parties, while in India political parties fund the voters.

It is quite a controversial topic and as per my knowledge only applied to a few states in the northern belt of India. As such, weeks before election D-Day, may start disbursement of cash, alcohol or other gifts to voters. The golden rule: it won’t make you win, but if omitted — it’ll make you lose.

III. The vote of the people

(a) Are vote banks a thing?

Indian mainstream media loves to use this term, and argue how peculiar announcements might affect a community’s voting pattern. A habitual mistake is the idea of a religion-based consolidation vote; some speculate a vote bank can swing homogeneously from one pole to another but there is no evidence of that pattern.

No, because it is only specific to a small zone and community. It cannot be generalised to the level of a state.

Yes, because the aforementioned market segment is a vote bank per se, and it is at the epicentre of a political strategy.

(b) Do people cast their vote or vote their caste?

Impossible to know for sure, but you can estimate.

Statistical tools exist and are leveraged during elections. It is untraceable, somewhat controversial, and most importantly feasible because the government publishes electoral rolls at booth level that showcase the voter’s last name (indicator of caste).

Therefore, caste data at village-level is available in India.

(c) India worships women like no-one

Recall Indira Gandhi or Jayalalitha and look at West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee and Rajasthan CM Vasundhara Raje: they had/have tens of thousands of worshippers! Many forget that no other country has similar legacy of powerful women leaders in politics. Shouldn’t India be proud and celebrate this achievement?

Although India does hide issues on gender and sex, it’s high time to just deal with it: India is at the forefront of women empowerment in politics.

IV . To conclude

Politics are messy affairs. And like any other countries, Indian politics face issues with respect to nepotism or corruption: look at Korea’s Geun-hy scandal or the Le Pen family’s shady affairs.

India has to adapt to its societal complexity, a mix of cultural diversity and income disparity.

· Because India is so diverse, campaigns tend to polarize communities to a greater extent than elsewhere.

· Because India is so disparate, politicians have to please every single audience in a customised fashion, without offending one another.

There are certainly many loopholes to be addressed in Indian politics, from on-ground execution to resource misallocation, but its electoral process has nothing to envy from other countries.

It enjoys amongst the highest levels party pluralism, women empowerment and anti-incumbency voting patterns — all signs of a healthy democracy.

India can be over-politicised in some contexts, but without politics, there is no democracy. And this is exactly why India is the largest democracy in the world.