Nicolas Martin: Democracy subverted: Inequality, liberalism, and criminal politics in the Indian Punjab

A number of liberal scholars of India, ranging from Amartya Sen and Jean Drèze to James Manor, all broadly view democracy as the solution to a variety of social evils including poverty, inequality, corruption, crime, and even violent conflict. They all acknowledge that Indian democracy is at times a messy affair, but they share a common faith in its self-correcting potential. As they see it, democracy has fostered a more assertive citizenry that no longer accepts traditional hierarchies and that is less tolerant of abuses of power.

Here, based on ethnography from the Indian Punjab, I argue that while democracy may have contributed toward undermining traditional hierarchies, it hasn’t necessarily given rise to greater political inclusion or more accountable government. On the contrary, democracy appears to be providing assertive and sometimes violent political entrepreneurs with opportunities to capture and use the state to further their own private interests. Fueled by rising consumerism, economic growth, and skyrocketing real estate prices, political entrepreneurs with criminal records are increasingly seeking and obtaining public office. This trend is evident at the national level, where Indian MPs with criminal histories rose from 24 percent in 2004 to 29 percent in 2009, according to the Liberty Institute and the Indian Electoral Commission.

In the prosperous and now comparatively peaceful Punjab, 17 percent of provincial politicians have criminal records, and both journalists and academics have noted the growing link between politics, business, and crime in the state. Most notably are serious allegations that leading politicians in both the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) party and the opposition Congress Party are involved in land grabbing, extortion rackets, and the state’s flourishing trade in opiates. This development has led to widespread concerns about the gangsterization of Punjabi culture, a trend popularly held to be discernible in Punjabi music videos. More broadly, this development, and parallel ones across India, casts significant doubt on liberal theories that place their faith in democracy’s capacity to generate virtuous, self-correcting cycles of increased political participation and accountability.

Democracy in theory
The liberal tradition that dates back to John Stuart Mill emphasizes the way citizens develop a “habit” for democracy. Here the assumption is that the more citizens participate in democratic politics, the more they will be able to understand and use democratic mechanisms to have their voices heard and their demands met.

Along parallel lines, Amartya Sen argues that democracy allows for the cultivation of public reason through public debate. In their recent book An Uncertain Glory, Sen and Drèze argue that informed public debate will eventually lead Indians to realize that redistribution is desirable and that present levels of inequality and poverty are unacceptable. All the public needs in order to press politicians for change is for the media to draw the public’s attention to the plight of the poor.

Also within the liberal tradition, James Manor (2006) acknowledges the rise of “brutish” behavior in Indian politics but argues that it is linked to a broader, more positive trend of increasing political participation and competition. Broadly stated, he argues that a more demanding and assertive electorate, together with higher levels of political competition, lead to more conflict, violence, and even criminality; but greater political participation also means that Indian politicians are often becoming more responsive and accountable to the public and that this will, in the long run, counteract the negative developments.

Democracy in practice
The overall picture on the ground was one of dramatic social and cultural transformation, but not in the direction of greater participation and accountability. Whereas agriculture accounted for 58 percent of the Punjab’s GDP in 1971, it accounted for only 24 percent in 2011. This change, together with broader processes of modernization and the spread of democratic values, underlies the erosion of traditional social values and hierarchies. Jan Breman (2011) argues that in India, unlike in Europe, agriculture’s declining share of the economy hasn’t been accompanied by large-scale permanent migration of the landless and land poor to the towns. But while the landless still reside in the villages between intermittent periods of migration, they now have more access to off-farm work, meaning they are no longer tied down in relations of subservience to members of the Jat cultivator caste (see Jodhka 2014). Democracy, and the spread of egalitarian values, also means that the predominantly lower-caste landless no longer accept their ideological subordination.

At the opposite end of the social spectrum, we find that wealthy farmers, with more than ten acres of land, have likewise removed themselves from the village economy and social life. Many have moved to the local towns, where they run a variety of businesses, where their children are educated in private schools, and where they lead highly consumerist lifestyles—buying flat-screen TVs, land cruisers, modern kitchen appliances, designer clothes, and the latest mobile phones. Because a farming income alone cannot sustain these levels of consumption, they have become involved in both business and in politics. Politics, as I show below, has become central to their ability to exploit new avenues for capital accumulation.

My research, across some twenty villages in the central Punjab, indicates that members of this class control local and provincial politics. While it is true that caste-based discrimination is no longer publicly acceptable, and that the lower orders have gained in terms of dignity, it is less clear that they are now meaningfully participating in politics.

In almost all of the villages I visited, elected village heads (sarpanches) were wealthy male Jat farmers. The only times they were female or of the Scheduled Caste (SC) was when the post was reserved for them by law, and even then they tended to act as rubber stamps for upper-caste male farmers who actually made the decisions. In some cases, SC sarpanches were even the farm servants of the de facto village head. In one village, when an SC member tried to resist the dictates of the Jats, he was threatened with the possibility of having false police charges brought against him. The most powerful man in the village had good connections with police officers, so the threat was credible and the man stopped resisting the Jats.

Scheduled Caste political leaders were still easy to threaten and I found other instances where it had happened. During the Block Samiti elections, for example, an SC opposition Congress Party candidate was threatened with physical violence by a local ruling SAD tough—also a wealthy Jat farmer—and had to desist from campaigning. The tough in question was a protégé of the local Member of the Legislative Assembly; his job was to intimidate and beat up political opponents and to help rig local elections. In exchange, he was given police cover to run gambling dens and to forcefully grab disputed residential properties.

While recourse to the use or threat of violence was widespread, the growing role of money in politics formed the fundamental barrier to popular political participation. The fact that candidates spent an average of 1 million rupees (£10,500) to contest Panchayat elections clearly indicates that while traditional hierarchies might no longer strictly determine political participation, money increasingly does.

Moreover, my research indicates that the wealthy Jat sarpanches who control village councils aren’t particularly accountable or meaningfully responsive to villagers’ demands. For many, investing in politics is seen as a road to power and riches. Of course, not everyone who invests in politics becomes rich and powerful, but those who want to, and are both lucky and astute, sometimes do.

The case of Balwant Singh—a fictitious name to protect his real identity—illustrates how local leaders exploit and consolidate political, economic, and social inequalities. Balwant’s political links allowed him to make good money by trafficking illegal poppy husk (an opiate) and illegally distilled liquor. He had been able to exploit the Sainsis for their votes because they too were involved in these trades and needed his protection to escape police prosecution and harassment. I learned that Sainsis hid poppy husk in his fields where the police wouldn’t search during their occasional raids. I also learned that contacts in the police would call Balwant to warn him of upcoming raids, and he would then allow the Sainsis to hide all of their merchandise in his house. Moreover, Balwant was alleged to have made lots of money while mediating with the police for Sainsis who had been caught with illegal liquor or drugs. He was known to take money from them to bribe the police and to personally take his share from these bribes.

In exchange for his patronage, the Sainsis voted for Balwant as village head for eight consecutive five-year terms, and they likewise delivered their votes according to his dictates during provincial and national elections. The Sainsis complained that Balwant had prospered on their backs and at their expense. He got their votes and made money while they merely subsisted, were denied access to various government schemes, and remained dependent on his good will in order to evade police harassment and prosecution.

Balwant’s secure vote bank made him an important power broker and gave him ready access to members of the legislative assembly and even cabinet ministers. As village head he also built connections and friendships with a number of local government officers, allowing him and other members of his extended clan to capture valuable commercial properties in the center of the nearby administrative headquarters. From here he illicitly sold fertilizers and hybrid seeds that he obtained at subsidized rates from the government cooperative society.

His unchallenged position as village head also allowed him to capture and cultivate most of the village commons—roughly a third of which were legally reserved for use by lower castes. He also stole money from the various central and provincial government schemes destined for the lower-caste Sainsis in his village. A number of Sainsis I interviewed complained that Balwant had never given them access to subsidized government rations for the poor and alleged that he had stolen them. Many also complained about not getting the promised government-sponsored latrines because he had stolen the funds put in his care to build them. As a result, most of the villagers had no choice but to continue to go to the toilet in the local fields. Finally, of all the villages I visited, this one was the most neglected in terms of its open-air gutters and alleyways.

A downward spiral
What my discussion illustrates, then, is not a growth in civic values through democratic practice in the spirit of Mill but rather the opposite. Equally important, it illustrates how traditional, caste-based barriers to political participation have ceded to new ones based on cash and naked coercion. It illustrates how democracy has provided assertive elites with a framework through which they can capture state power and use it to further their own private interests.

The rise of lower-caste political parties in places like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh does not contradict these observations. While it is true that lower-caste political parties in these states helped curb atrocities against former untouchables, money played an undeniable role in their ascent to, and exercise of, power. Their ascent was greatly facilitated by the fact that their leaders were middle class. Moreover, the unprecedented corruption that characterized their tenures indicates that they needed money to effectively exercise power. Critics argue that their principal achievement was to consolidate the power of lower-caste elites (Jeffrey 2000); what is clear is that they didn’t achieve much in terms of passing and implementing progressive, pro-poor legislation.

To conclude, then, while democracy can provide a framework through which abuses of power can be curbed—and India does provide instances in which this framework has been put to good use—it now appears to be serving as a conduit that enables political entrepreneurs to pursue predatory and abusive practices.

Can, as Sen argues, informed public debate remedy this situation? Perhaps it may indeed be a first step, but debate alone is unlikely to persuade privileged elites to relinquish their privileges. For this to happen, political parties and social movements would need to organize in order to give Indians a fairer share of power and economic resources. Without this, unaccountable elites will continue subverting the rule of law as well as attempts to implement progressive legislation. The problem is that in the Punjab, as in much of India, the traditional Left has dwindled and allowed identity politics to firmly implant itself in the foreground. Besides being divisive, identity politics in India has often focused on issues of dignity at the expense of more programmatic and even redistributive agendas. So long as this state of affairs persists, Indian democracy is unlikely to generate a virtuous cycle of increased political participation and accountability; it is instead likely to continue generating a downward spiral of rising crime and corruption.

Nicolas Martin is a Senior Research Associate on an ERC/ESRC project entitled “Democratic Cultures in South Asia” based at the University College London. He completed his PhD on local politics and debt bondage in the Pakistani Punjab in 2009 and subsequently taught at the London School of Economics and Political Science for three years. He will soon publish his doctoral work with Routledge and has been researching local politics in the Indian Punjab since December 2012.

Breman, Jan. 2009. The great transformation in the setting of Asia. Address delivered on the 57th Anniversary of the International Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, Netherlands, 29 October.

Drèze, Jean, and Amartya Sen. 2013. An uncertain glory: India and its contradictions. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Gill, Sucha Singh. 2013. Gun culture in Punjab. Economic and Political Weekly XLVIII(8): 16–18.

Jeffrey, Craig. 2000. Democratisation without representation? The power and political strategies of a rural elite in North India. Political Geography 19(8): 1,013–1,036.

Jodhka, Surinder S. 2014. Emerging ruralities: Revisiting village life and agrarian change in Haryana. Economic and Political Weekly XLIX(26–27): 5–17.

Manor, James. 2002. Changing state, changing society in India. Journal of South Asian Studies 25(2): 231–256.

Cite as: Martin, Nicolas. 2015. “Democracy subverted: Inequality, liberalism, and criminal politics in the Indian Punjab,” FocaalBlog, 11 February,