Rule of the rich

India’s political system in now overwhelmingly represented by the rich, resulting in the poor being marginalised

By Author Geetartha Pathak   |   Published: 31st Jul 2017   12:01 am Updated: 30th Jul 2017   11:38 pm

An analysis of the recently-held Presidential elections by the Association for Democratic Reform (ADR) reveals that of the 4,852 MPs and MLAs, 3,640 or 71% are crorepatis. Of the 543 Lok Sabha MPs, 445 or 82% are crorepatis while for the Rajya Sabha, the number is 194 or 84% of the 231 members. On the other hand, 2,821 (69%) of the 4,078 MLAs are crorepatis.

Paradoxically, the financial health of the representatives of the people of India has no parity with the income of those whom they represent. Historically, wealthy individuals and organisations have exerted influence over the political field.

In the contemporary world, many democratic countries permit political parties and individuals to raise funds. The political forces are dependent on such funds for advertising their candidacy to the voters. Whether through individuals, corporations or advocacy groups, such donations undermine democracy and build up a system by which major contributors are rewarded on a quid pro quo basis.

Powerful Economic Elites

When Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz wrote the 2011 Vanity Fair magazine article, “Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%”, the title and content supported Stiglitz’s claim that the United States is increasingly ruled by the wealthiest 1%. Some researchers have said the US may be drifting towards a form of Plutocracy, as individual citizens have less impact than economic elites and organised interest groups upon public policy.

According to the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, 270 million or 21.9% of the 1.2 billion Indians lived below the poverty line of $1.25 in 2011-2012. A recent report based on the study conducted by Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative (OPHI) at the University of Oxford reveals that at least half of India’s under 18 years live in acute poverty. Asian Development Bank’s India Poverty report states that 21.9% of the population lives below the poverty line and for every 1,000 babies born in India, 38 die before their first birthday.

We can draw the picture of poverty on a larger canvas citing data from various sources. Now one may raise questions as to why there are less poor people in politics in India, are they not interested in political affairs of the country?

It is not difficult to get the answers if we look at a study conducted by the Russell Sage Foundation, which was established in 1907 for the improvement of social and living conditions in the United States. Though the study is based on American experiences, it is relevant to the Indian context.

Wealth and Power

The study found that average US citizens are not interested in politics and think that politics cannot change society, but the rich and elite classes show more interest and want to influence state policies by entering politics.

In India, the situation was different before the process of globalisation began. Role of money in politics was very limited till then. The global money-induced political trend slowly percolated in drops in Indian polity thereafter.

Not only are the rich people occupying the base of political power, their wealth is increasing at a geometrical pace too. The ADR analysis revealed the wealth of a present Minister of Assam has increased at the rate of 5,335% in his five-year tenure (2011 -2016). The trend is conspicuous in every State. For a section of politicians, politics is a shortcut to enormous wealth.

German-American socialist writer Oscar Ameringer once said: Politics is the gentle art of getting votes from the poor and campaign funds from the rich by promising to protect each from the other. China-backed former Chief Executive of Hong Kong CY Leung candidly said during a student unrest on the demand of democratic elections in 2014 that “the poor” would have the largest say in politics if election candidates were chosen by the public. What Leung did not know was that the poor may still be kept out of power in a manipulated democracy.

Exploiting the Impoverished

NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley last week lashed out at Republicans and Democrats, accusing both of exploiting the impoverished for political gain. “All politics is rich people screwing poor people,” the former basketball star said during an NCAA basketball tournament event.

“Poor people are too stupid to know they’re just chess pieces in a game.” Former Uruguayan President José Mujica, popularly known as ‘Pepe’, once said – “People who like money too much ought to be kicked out of politics”.

He explained his philosophy applying distinct logic as such: “They tend to view the world through their perspective, which is the perspective of money. Even when operating with good intentions, the perspective they have of the world, of life, of their decisions, is informed by wealth. If we live in a world where the majority is supposed to govern, we have to try to root our perspective in that of the majority, not the minority.”

It may not be immediately possible for the poor and middle-class people to stop entry of rich and aspiring rich people in politics. Nonetheless, the majority must strive to foray into the system of politics to make democracy meaningful.

A central tenet of democracy is that government policy should reflect the preferences of the governed. This ideal of political equality is perhaps impossible to fully achieve in the face of economic inequality. However, its success will depend on the awareness and readiness of the members of the civil society and people in general to dominate the political system of the country.

(The author is a senior journalist from Assam)