Emerging Politics in India: Senior Loeb Scholar Sunil Khilnani

Emerging Politics in India: Senior Loeb Scholar Sunil Khilnani

The Senior Loeb Scholars at the GSD this year are Sunil Khilnani and Katherine Boo. Partners in life, they both seek to understand the mechanisms that promote and stifle equitable and just societies. Khilnani, director at King’s India Institute at King’s College in London, is working on a book about India’s global role and prospects and the history of democracy in India. He participated in a Social Enterprise Seminar–co-sponsored by Harvard’s South Asia Institute–with Ashutosh Varshney (professor of international studies and social sciences at Brown University). Tarun Khanna (director of the SAI and HBS professor) moderated the dialogue about the shifting landscape of democracy in India.

On the eve of Indian National elections on April 7, there are indications that India is at a crossroads, with multiple outcomes possible. Khilnani notes how transformations may happen–perhaps out of anger toward ineffective institutions, yet maybe from changing expectations and standards. People living beneath the poverty line, also referred to as “Other Backward Class,” are the majority in India. With high electoral participation at every rung of the socio-economic ladder, their votes often determine an election outcome.

Voter participation in India puts other democracies to shame: Rajasthan counts 78 percent voter participation and Delhi rings in at 66 percent. In the US, national voting rates in 2012 hovered around 56%, yet younger voters are far less active. Only 38 percent of 18-24 year olds vote, and 49.5 percent of 25-44 year olds. The 2014 Indian National election, with a potential turnout of 814 million voters, will be the largest democratic event in history.

It used to follow in India that whichever political party promised to do more for the poor would often win. Dr. Richard Cash of the Harvard School of Public Health conducted a study with SAI on promises by politicians to provide toilets for residents of Dharavi, one of the world’s largest slums. The study found that 1 month after elections, the toilets were boarded up due to lack of maintenance. Khilnani points out that after too many broken promises, the most vulnerable sectors of society are becoming more sophisticated political participants. They’re demanding what cannot be fulfilled by glib vote attractors. Varshney confirms, “you can’t now argue that Indian elections are rigged, or that people buy votes, because everyone is giving saris or whiskey.”

There is also a growing doubt that institutions can cope with new economic and social conditions. Will this election mark the fall of the “ancien régime” and the beginning of a new phase of Indian democracy? Distrust of the institution, Varshney and Khilnani contend, is sparking the emergence of a new type of charismatic leader.

For example, Narendra Modi is a strong contender for Prime Minister in the 2014 Indian general elections. Chief minister of Gujarat, Modi heads the regional Bharatiya Janata Party. He emphasizes his rise from lower classes and his utter commitment to politics, even at the cost of family. His motto is: “minimum government with maximum governance.” He’s not without critics, however. While Modi was in power in Gujarat State he was accused of turning a blind-eye to ethnic tensions between Hindus and majority Muslims. India’s Hindu majority is wondering if he’s supportive of them.

Another outsider on the scene, Arvind Kejriwal, is leader of the Aam Aadmi Party, former chief minister of Delhi and a rising star in politics. Kejriwal grew up in the slums and has caused a buzz with rogue behavior like sleeping on the roadside and taking the metro to work to demonstrate that he’s just “one of the people.” Khilnani describes Kejriwal as a “master communicator…flipping from coy boyishness to rage.” His political message is “I’m a small man, I can’t do this alone.” He paints himself as seeking justice, not power.

These leaders are distancing themselves from the career politician, while implementing new tactics to gain legitimacy. They are challenging the belief that growth and wealth will pool or trickle down to the OBCs. In turn, Varshney emphasizes that people are demanding not only gains in economic equality, but also dignity gains from government. “Treat us like human beings,” is the message. The sight of everyday individuals such as Modi and Kejriwal becoming leaders is feeding a new mobility of the imagination and forging optimism about the future. How will the election transform Indian democracy? And how low will approval sink for long-time majority Congress Party?

Khilnani privileges analysis in real time, rather than relying on theories that may be outpaced by field conditions. His mindset informs his upcoming book, for which he is distinguishing states in India that are functioning better than average and asking what tactics are succeeding and how the methodologies and techniques can be applied to other states in India. It will be fascinating to follow the outcomes and rippling effects of the April 2014 elections.

Khilnani and Boo share commonalities in their research and subject matter; Boo’s investigative reporting in a Mumbai slum complements Khilnani’s research at the scale of politics. Read more about Katherine Boo’s 2014 Senior Loeb Lecture.

Photo of Barak Obama addressing Indian parliament courtesy of White House

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