India’s elections promise business as usual for the country’s wealthy and ongoing grinding poverty for its most poor of poor, writes Paul Kenny.

Indians have begun going to the polls in the largest expression of representative democracy in world history.

As many as 570 million people will cast their votes between 7 April and 12 May to choose the next government. But with India’s economy increasingly controlled by the few, will the identity of the next government make a difference for most Indians?

Poverty in India

India is home to a staggering number of extremely poor people. As of 2010, some 68.8 per cent of the population lived on less than $2 per day and 32.7 per cent lived on less than $1.25 per day. That amounts to nearly 400 million people still living below the World Bank’s poverty line. To put that figure in perspective, it’s a third of the whole World’s extremely poor.

Crucially, this poverty persists despite the fact that India registered an average annual GDP growth rate of 6.5 per cent from 1990 to 2010. The issue, as in many Western countries over the last 20 years, is that a disproportionate share of the gains from this economic growth has gone to the very wealthiest. Just 100 of the richest Indians are worth a staggering US$ 250 billion.

One might expect that this growing inequality amid persistent poverty would favour the policy programs of the political left: higher taxes on corporations, higher minimum wages, and unemployment insurance, just to name a few initiatives. However, India appears increasingly likely to put Narendra Modi, the leader of the Hindu-right BJP, in the Prime Minister’s Office.

While politicians elsewhere typically try to keep their public distance from the economic oligarchy, Modi overtly coddles the country’s richest individuals. As Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat, he has actively promoted a corporate-led restructuring of the economy. Land deals, subsidised loans, and a hard-line against unions and small farmers have made the state the darling of India’s mega-corporations. Yet, despite Gujarat’s impressive headline growth, the state is a poor performer in terms of poverty alleviation, growth in wage rates, and childhood health and education.

Some of the downward drag on Gujarat’s social and economic indicators stems from the persistent marginalisation of Gujarat’s Muslim minority.  Although Modi himself has never been convicted of personal culpability in the death of more than 1,000 Muslims in pogroms across the state in 2002, his recent pronouncements don’t suggest much of a softening of his Hindutva beliefs. What this attitude implies for others outside the Hindu mainstream, especially Adivasi (tribal) groups in the east and northeast and Muslims in Kashmir, who stand in the way of Modi’s vision of development, remains to be seen.

But what of the right’s opponents?

Despite its social democratic heritage, the contemporary Indian National Congress party doesn’t present a great contrast for voters. Indeed, the Congress has been in power for much of the post-liberalisation period, and has presided over the considerable growth in economic inequality in India. The Congress too, albeit less publically, has scrupulously served the interests of the country’s oligarchy.

The democratic socialist left is in even deeper crisis than the Congress.

In the 2009 general election, the Left Front – comprised of the two main Communist parties and a number of smaller left of center parties – had its worst performance since independence in 1947. From an average of 45 seats in the Parliament over the previous 13 general elections, in 2009 it obtained only 24. In 2010, the country’s last two explicitly left-wing state governments, in Kerala and West Bengal, fell. Pre-election polls suggest it is unlikely that the left will reverse the decline in the present elections.  

Some observers have argued that the progressive mantle has been taken over by the other parties making up the Third Front. They include the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), known for its anti-corruption stance; the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the lower caste party of Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh; and the Trinamool Congress and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIDMK), the regional parties of Mamata Banarjee in West Bengal and Jayalalitha in Tamil Nadu respectively.

The problem with this argument is that these parties do not, individually or collectively, have a coherent policy agenda that would address India’s need for inequality-reducing economic development. India’s regional and caste parties have thus far proven themselves to be more concerned with delivering pork to their supporters than with progressive reform. Even the AAP, more a party of the upwardly mobile middle class than of the poor, hardly promises to challenge the growing privatisation of India’s public wealth.

As French economist Thomas Pikkety’s shows in new book, Capital in the Twenty-first Century, there is no reason to expect that inequality will decline simply as a result of market forces.

The long-accepted wisdom that in the long run economic growth decreased inequality is now discredited. The reduction in inequality in the West in the 20th century now appears as a historical aberration, unique to the First and Second World Wars.

If India is to arrive at a more broadly shared improvement in living standards, this will have to be a result of deliberate government action and civil society mobilisation, not the imagined hand of the market.

Whether Indians actually have the option of choosing such a government in this election, however, is very much doubtful. Whoever the winner, it looks like it will be business as usual for the plutocrats.

Dr Paul Kenny is a research fellow of Indian political and social change in the School of International, Political and Strategic Studies at the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific.