Dialogue  April-June, 2006, Volume 7  No. 4

Reflections on India’s Political Culture and Governance



The concept of “political culture” and the notion of “governance” have been explained in the first instance.  Then follows a brief account of the evolution and historical ackground of political culture and governance in post-independent India.  At the end, salient features of India’s political culture have been identified with reference to a few recent events and issues.

(i) Political culture

Every civilization, it is said, has a “character” or a “persona” which has its roots in its cultural values or dharma.  Similarly, every functioning or live political system has a “mind” which is determined and conditioned by a political culture of its own.  This political culture comprises of a set of beliefs and values and norms and ideals and a set of attitudes, sentiments and ideas and values derived from a particular world-view.  It determines the character of the political institutions and their interrelations as well as their functionality.  Moreover,  political culture provides of an over all perspective to the ruling elite in the exercise of power, including in the resolution of conflicts at various levels.  It also affects the “milieu” and various sectors of the polity as well as it engenders a work culture of the system.

Political culture pervades or informs, as it were, the entire fabric of a political system and also it imparts a “flavour”, which distinguishes it from other political systems.

However, not unoften, it manifests itself dramatically in the response a political system gives to a major a crisis, say, an invasion, or a disaster or any other traumatic occurrence.  For example take the responses of the USA and the UK to identical tragedies with befall them on 9/11 in New York and 7/7 in London.

The response of America expressed through the utterances of President Bush was raw, blunt, belligerent and actual war-an example “cow boy” political culture President Bush raved about getting Osama Bin Laden “dead” or “alive” he talked of punishing the “axis of evil”.  The response of the UK through the speeches of Prime Minister Blair was measured, restrained, steady.  He talked of “evil of ideology”, “winning the hearts”, “preservation of multi cultural and multi-racial” character of the British society.. by fighting the perversions of true faith of Islam.

Nearer home, during the Partition of India in 1947, a heinous side of the collective political behaviour of common people came to light in the streets and public places-rioting, looting, rape, burning and robbing and encroachment.  Perhaps, this was on account  of the conditioning of peoples mind by a running a acrimonious public discourse on communalism during 1906-1947.  These kind of behaviour was also witnessed during the infamous riots in Gujarat in 2001.  This behavior was not an aberration but it was due to the political culture of an ever-expanding section of Indians inspired by “cultural nationalism” during the preceding decade.

However, though political culture varies with time and space, there are some common abiding characteristic also.  For instance, every political culture has a realistically benign view of human nature and has faith in the collective wisdom of common people and people’s knowledge, Power, influence and patronage and all human endowments and material resource are treated as trust, Respect for human dignity and autonomy of civil society etc. is assured. A wholesome political culture is based on seven ethical principles public life as recently enunciated by Lord Nolan, an English Judge, that is, selflessness integrity, objectivity, accountabity openness, honesty and leadership.  “These principles of public life are of general application in every democracy and one is expected to bear them in mined while scrutinizing the conduct of every holder of a public.  It is trite that the holders of public officers are entrusted with certain powers to be exercised in public interest alone and, therefore, the office is held by them in trust for the people. Any deviation from the path of rectitude by any of them amounts to a breach of trust and must be severely dealt with instead of being pushed under the carpet.”


Recently, responsible political analysists  distinguish between “government” and “governance”.  They identify “government” with “corruption”, “unaccountability” “indifference to the powerless” and “bias for special interests”.  In their view, the term government conjures up an image of a set up which is opaque and is engaged in “clandestine operations.”

“Governance”, “on the other hand, is described as “noble” or “pious” or as “close to perfection as possible.”  For example, according to World Bank “governance” is epitomized by predict-ability”, “openness”, “enlightened policy is making imbued with professional ethos”, acting in furtherance of public good, the rule of law, transformed process a strong civil society which embraces, policy makers, elected representatives and all transformative agencies.

Whether a country has “governance” or “government” depends upon its political culture.  A political culture determined by colonial or feudal or hierarchical values gives rise to “government” and a political culture based on equality and freedom etc. give rise to “governance”.

Further, the notion or the concept of “politics” and “the political” differ although in common parlance these terms are used synonymously. Politics comprises of a corpus of activities in which only ‘state-power’ is used in transactions relating to state, government and other constituents of the state and its progenies.  The sole basis of politics is what Laski calls, “habitual obedience” of the citizens to the state or  its progenies and affiliates. The notion of  “the political” is much wider, it encompasses such activities which lie outside the “orbit” of “state-apperato”, including for instance, “civil society.”  The term “political” connotes the use of any non-material endowment and resources to influence others or mould their attitude and behaviour. It is said “where logic ends the political begins.” The political “permeats” the field of art, culture and religion. Every political culture has a whole some element of the “political” and politics but the former determines the have and character of the ruling  elite.

 (ii) Evolution

 Society and state in ancient India interacted with each other minimally, nay neglibly. As a matter of fact, since society was self-reliant and self-regulated and autonomous, if remained immune to the vicissitudes of the state and the rise and fall-of empires and kings-a fact which, inter-alia, accounts for the longevity of India’s culture.

However, at that time there did exist a political systems : viz.,  there were kings (rajas), kingdoms (raj) and politics (rajniti) and diplomacy (kootniti) and armies.  Many ambitious kings aspired to be world conquerors and performed ashwamedh yagyna for this purpose.  But the concept of “power” “politics” and “political culture”, and “the political”, as we understand it today, is missing in the thought and practice of state crafts in ancient India. In so far as the people were concerned, there collective psyche was conditioned by “shastriya” and lokik parampara within the frame work of dharms which ensured identity and integration in the Indian polity.

 The Moghul rulers established a network of political institutions and they introduced certain political processes which widened the sphere of the exercise of power of kings.  But this was not at the cost of the autonomy of society.  Consequently, an all embracing “political culture” did not emerge.

The British crown governed India indirectly (East India Co.) and directly for 350 years. The British rulers introduced a mai-bap political culture. They also set up rediments of liberal but centralized all-India political system at the Centre.  The British system covered a judicial set-up, administrative and political arrangements, infrastructure of economy, a skeletal educational system and scientific research.  In fact, British rule accentuated and exacerbated and depended the divisive propensities of Indian people and they introduced fissiparous political culture.

The Congress-lead national movement against the British rule under Gandhi had a distinct political culture marked by a deep concern for political ethics and inclusion of common people in the political processes and movements.  It was organized as peaceful struggle which combined civil disobedience and constructive programme. It was committed to pluralism, sarva dharma sambhava.

The Congress also participated in the governance at the state level in 1938-39 and in the legislative activity at the center since twenties. Thus, it was familiar with a sort of representative arrangement based on a very limited franchise.

Besides liberalism and a few Gandhian elements (specially satyagrah and civil disobedience) the Congress culture had also a sprinkling of socialistic ideas.  No doubt the Congress organization was based on democracy it had also had set up undemocratic conventions and procedures as well as personality cult of a refined type.

After Gandhi’s non-violent struggle the “tryst with destiny” was largely ritualistic.  The Congress did not pay the heavy price paid by other countries and their leaders.  Slipping into British shoes was easy and practical and comfortable for the Indian leaders. They took over the colonial apparatus of the State-  its police regime, the centralized economic controls of World War II, the Official Secrets Act, the forest laws and the whole paraphernalia of power and the legal system and the steel frame of civil services constitutes the super-structure of the modern political culture in India.

It is note-worthy that the political outfits which were evolved to mobilize, aggregate and articulate public opinion in colonial era during six decades preceding 1947 also served the function of regular “political parties” in the post-colonial period.  The political activists bowderized and vulgarized Gandhi satyagraha and civil disobedience.

There was substantial continuity of the British traditions.  The old mind set and body determined the social and political behaviour.  Behaviour patterns of “karta” and “Jajman” , of caste and kin, and of zamindari, with a more centralized and unified state than ever before, extensive controls constituted the mainstream political culture of the “sirkar”.  The indigenous tradition of local people managing their village institutions, forest and water resources began to deplete.

Another development has taken place during the past two decades, viz., the emergence  of an articulate assertive and organized public opinion committed cultural national under RSS parivar, specially BJP in the arena electoral politics.  This has created more fisseures in the political mind of India which from 1920-1980 was influenced primarily by democratic secularism and nationalism which are spiritually and ideologically antagonistic to cultural nationalism. A few important elements which determine the political culture of RSS and BJP during the past two decades are: exclusivity; bravado and machoism a mix of  Macchhiavillianism and Chankya niti and ambieguities and flexibility rooted in popular Hindu view of life.

(iii) Political culture today

Political culture of India today has not achieved a stable inner-equilibrium, since it is condemned to grow up or evolve at the cross-roads of history.  It is like making love in a crowded public park.  Rapid chaotic globalization in general and economic globalization in particular and the emergence of “speed” as an essential ingredient of culture and economy and politics, has given birth to a “ a high-risk society” which did not give time to the people concerned to build counter vailing or corresponding inbuilt ethical and institutional and other social infrastructure so necessary for the smooth functioning of a dynamic polity.

It can be said, India’s political community is-in-the making.  It is a mechanical-mixture (bhel-puri) comprising of an incestuous bureaucracy, insulted and isolated  armed forces and para-military forces, self-centred corporate sector, introvert organized while collar labour and TU workers, upcoming hybrid rural middle classes, “upstart”-engineers, medicoes, chartered accountants, crimo-genic legal community and a prolific and ever burgeoning service sector.  This political class is a-political and a-ideological.  Morevoer, it is infatuated with “culture of expression” (as opposed to culture of retraint) and to free-market economy based on neo-conservatism.

A million “netas” made their own trysts with destiny.  Authoritarian and corrupt behaviour patterns asserted themselves.  The state and its vast assets became proprietary, under cover of a sprawling hefty bureaucratized public sector.  Corruption grew, destroying good government and honesty in society.  After 1965 government systems were changed to blatant personalized counter-systems. Every public post had a private price.  So were admissions to schools, colleges, hospitals and public offices and state-sponsored cultural activities. Even after the tips of the iceberg of corruption of emerged (Bofors, the Bank Scam, the Urea, Telecom and the Bihar Fodder), the political culture was marked by the lack of will on the part of the political class, the inefficiency of investigative agencies, the dilatoriness of the judicial process, and connivance of the I.T. Department which did not enforce the law in respect of cases of filing income-tax statements by political parties and leaders like Jagjiwan Ram.

The political and administrative elite classes and their hangers on play the role of the “powerful parasites,” and muscle men at the elections, and rowdies in the legislature.  The same class robbed the depositor’s money at loan melas without the obligation of repayment.  They took their share in every government contract, even at the level of panchayat”, even in international contracts for defence equipment, for telecommunication technologies and for power projects.  Having put a price on themselves, they put a price on every public office public patronage and facility when in power.”  Once elected with concealed and unaccounted money, legislators cease to function efficiently as representatives of the people.  For example take constituency Development Fund for MPs. It was envisaged that allotment of such fund would help in carrying out projects for improving living conditions of people in the constituency project. Unfortunately, in the execution of this scheme all sorts of complaints have been received of misutilisation of funds non-execution of projects and occasionally also of funds lapsing.

Outside the legislature, the neta’s image now has to be enhanced by gunwielding security policy, at public expense of crores at the Centre and States. A strange irony of democratic election that the representative of the people have to be protected against the people.

Where lie the sources of this kind of political behavior?  It would perhaps be helpful to refer to the old Indian proverb viz a child should be treated as a god in the first five years (the makings of little narchissists?); as a slave from six to 15 (the makings of subordinates under authority) without individual responsibility and autonomy, and as a friend after 15 years of age.  One finds marked similarities in the up bringing of the male child, and the behavior of the up start adult netas.  The latter is a creature reared in an atmosphere of authoritarianism, with no clear roles and responsibilities, with no process of  maturing to “socialization.”  The adult neta talks of socialism or social justice as a mere political slogan to power through elections without knowing true socialization process. The child and the man in the neta are not concerned with equality, humaneness, reason, debate, and responsible work for others. They grow to expect work from others in sub-ordination, while they enjoy the fruits of status, office and power and patronage.

It is over simplification, if not a misnomer to treat all this as a the case of mere corruption.  In reality it is an expression of political culture of India’s political class.  It abetts and encourages and permits and sanctions large scale illegalities over decades.  These wholesale illegalities are accepted as normal and legal over a period of time.  But when the illegalities come to light the law-makers and the law-breakers come together and use, rules of law to sanctify and legitimize illegality.  And then the opposition parties like BJP which when power were responsible for there illegalities launch mass struggle for “justice” for the delinquent groups or crimogenic classes.

(iv) Elements of political culture

A cursory study of political culture in post-independent India indicate seventeen ingredients of political culture in India viz1. Politicalization (a) of historical time and of long-range tolerance; (b) of civil society (including gender relations, voluntary organizations (NGO’s) the child and other vulnerable sections of society; (c) of language and literature and other forms of creative art; (d) of poverty and deprivation; (e) of organized religion and religious sects; (f) of tradition and cultural heritage. (2) “Fragmentegration”, i.e. a tendency toward fragmention and re-integration, factionalization and fractionalization, consensualty and spilitting of political formations such as political parties etc. (3) Culture of political bhakti, i.e. cult of personality, hero worship, dynasticism etc.; (4) Majoritianism leading to crisis of representative system and minorityism; (5) Populism and Politics of Streets and consequential depoliticization of bonafide political processes; (6) Litigious propensities in the resolution of conflicts; (7) Political plagiarism and political in cest (e.g. administrative reform); (8) Regionalism; (9) Culture of bureaucratic controls; (10) Corruption of consciousness and crimogenic politics; (11) Hindu ambiguities and chankayan diplomacy in an open polity;  (12) Ethics of illegality and illegality of ethics; (13) Laws and rule makings; (14) Political tokenism and symbolism and politics of scale or grandiose; (15) use of violence for intimidation and breaking the morale of minorities and to encourage macho culture among Hindus.  In other words masculanization of Hindus and effeminization of Muslims; (16) Predetariness, “spongism or parasitism” and encroachment; (17) the cult of “accommodation: and abuse of grey zones of discretionary powers; (18) procrastination or bidding time to dilute progressive measures by the cult of appointing commissions of enquiries and investigations; (19) ondalization of society and the cult of reservation.

Further, in recent decades in India the idea of “the political” has become fragmentary or reductionist.  For instance, elections as events have become explicitly equated with democracy.  “Such an impoverished view of politics also reduces the idea of the political.”  A great part of “the political” has also shifted from parties and state to other non-party civil processes.  It is no longer clear when does an issue become political?

“The search for the political and its recovery must begin with examining how nationalism has been affected by the Right and how the political economy has been affected by the Left.  Look at what the Right has done to Swadeshi. Swadeshi which was a theory of locality and hospitality, and self reliance.  In the hands of to Mohan Guruswamys the notion of Swadeshi has been aborted.”

The functioning of Indian democratic set up is affected with “divisive discourse” and disruptive political tactics.”  There are cracks in “national consensus” about all major macro-level issues e.g. foreign policy, secularism and political ethics and parliamentary conventions and on certain other crucial matters.

 In 1952 Nehru and his senior colleagues discussed a note by H.K. Mehta titled “a Note on Parliamentary Relations with the Oppositions” in which it was stated,” it may be necessary to keep in contact with the main opposition parties which may form alternative government of the swing in election goes in their favour.  This contact is necessary for the sake of continuity of major policies or major programmes involving large expenditures.  They did not make it since CPI at that time was the largest opposition parliamentary opposition which did not accept parliamentary system in letter and spirit. Nevertheless, they ‘realized the need for a protocol of relationship between the government and the opposition.  But today the need for such a protocol has not been fulfilled. Even today there is no inter-active mechanism for discussions and engagement between government and the opposition.”Further, the fifty-seven year long enterprise called Economic and Political Development has turned to be a Mega-Profit-Yielding Inc. for the nouve powerelite in India.  It is incomparably more scandalous than the abuse of Office of Profit by the law makers in the country.  Their greed has been compounded by the adoption of an economic system solely driven by profit-considerations. It has given birth to a political culture which is a cause as well as affect of profiteering.

The majoritarian notion of politics demands that everyone joins the mainstream, i.e. the majority.  What gets corroded in this middle class majoritarianism is the variety of differences.  Minorities-Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, even tribals have to protect democracy against majoritarianism.  Even this majoritarianism is a quaint one because it is “sectarian, and Hindutva appropriating the plurality of Hinduism. The RSS-Shiv Sena-BJP combine reduces it to a mono-cultural existence. We give below a few concrete cases of the abovementioned elements of political culture:

Take the case of politicization of civil society, which is supposed to be outside the “power” orbit, functioning on its own. Civil society means association of voluntary nature, standing between the household and the state with at least with some autonomy. What is the state of civil society in India today.  As whole it is fragmented and dispersed.  But there is a prestigous organized sector represented by voluntary organization (popularly called NGO.  This sector have been recognized by the UNO and the Government of India as a sector which can play key role in economic development. Some NGO’s, have rendered yeomen service in various fields in a sharp contrast to the dull and confined routine of the bureaucrats working the government an one hand and the freedom and initiative of the social activities in NGO sector on the other.  Many civil servants resign from the government to work in one or the other NGO; others set up their own NGO on retirement. Moreover, when the political class, corporate sector, bureaucrats are under attack for  its corruption citizen, movement have fought and won” Right to Information” in regard to government, development expenditure etc.

However, the balance of relations between the state and civil society are tilting in favour of the former.  The autonomous space for civil society is shrinking.   The voluntary sector itself has got bureaucratized and ossified.  NGO’s have been cynically described as “Non-Gazetted Officer”. A few years ago a serious attempt was made to have a Code of Conduct for the voluntary sector.  This was resisted and sabotaged by the articulate leadership of voluntary sector.  There is a general impression that those engaged in voluntary section use foreign money and they act “very much like touts and “then tell stories of struggle, campaign, rape state brutality and show how close they are to grassroots and them fix trips abroad to workshops and conferences.

Further, take of the case of using legislative powers as gangajal to purify illegalities.  Over the years commercialization of residential areas has become a phenomenon witnessed across all major and minor cities in the country.  From big cities like Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore, to upcoming metros like Jaipur, Jammu and Bhopal unauthorised commecialisation has also entered residential areas of much smaller towns like Panipat and Pathankot and looks like it’s here to stay.  All these illegal developments have happened over the past few decades with the active support of the politicians and connivance of bureaucrats and builders right under the eyes of authorities in these cities in different parts of our country.

 But on April 2006, these scandalous developments were brought to light when the Supreme Court decided to get cracking on the massive unauthorized commercial establishments in Delhi.  The Court fixed the deadline of 30 June 2006 for sealing thousands of commercial establishment in various parts of the Capital. This aroused “righteous indignation” among the traders and other against the Supreme Court order. They not only protested violently in many areas, but a virtual mass-civil disobedience movement was launched to challenge to State.  The Supreme Court order became a blessing for a divided the depressed and demoralized like BJP party to recover its lost political prestige.

The traders in Delhi contribute 5000 crores sales tax.  They constitute powerful lobby as well as a vote bank on which the politicians and bureaucrats and legislators fatten and prosper in geometric progression. Clearly this is a case of open conspiracy between the netas, the legislators cutting across the party lines, the bureaucrats and the traders- a large-scale political criminalization of a sort.  But the Centre and Delhi government the traders lobby and a law was passed within a record short span of time to suspend demolution of unauthorized structures for a year.

 (v) Impact on Governance

Today India’s political culture bears the marks 350 years colonial culture, 150 years of national struggle, particularly that of Congress - led by Gandhi.  Nevertheless, this kind of political behaviour of netas or the new political class in independent India is not unusual. All developed democracies in modern times particularly, the U.S. and the U.K. have gone in for more valgar, violent and in-human, corrupt and tempestuous political experience, e.g. Spoils System in the USA and the rotten borrough system in the U.K. or denial of adult franchise to women in the U.K. upto first quarter of 20th century and slave trade and Negro farms in the U.S.A. to breed Negro labour and the era of terrorism in France after French Revolution.  But the difference between Indian ruling classes and those in the USA and the UK is that in India the ruling classes have so far not thrown up an upright Swadeshi  intellectual class who can act a their conscience and as a mirror unto the Indian polity today. We do not deny that India’s political culture has many admirable positive characteristics.

For example, (a) unflinching commitment of the people of India to the “idea of democracy” and to the objectives of social and economic equality national integration and secularism; (b) the capacity of the people to put up with inverterate deliquent ruling elite and to adjust creatively to the mess created by; (c) the proven capacity of Indian people to punish and even throw out any combination of political forces, however great, if they deviate from the right path; (d) the intrinsic strength of the democratic political institutions as designed by the founding fathers of the. Constitution, particularly scores of historic decisions of independent judiciary at the top has  rendered yeomen service as “saviour of the last resort” of people’s right and freedom and dignity. This is inspite of the fact that the judicial system itself is not to from the contagion of the corruption of consciousness; (e) with all its fatal faults and avoidable abberations, the political culture of media is a source of great strength; (f) the federal character of India’s political culture is also source of strength, (g) the political armed forces of India and the all India character of curl service provides stability to the Indian polity. The impact of these positive characteristics has rendered India a dynamic functioning liberal political polity.  But the malevolent attributes of India’s political culture adversely affected the system of governance and economic development.

On account these malevolent characteristics India suffered from what may be called “arrested development” and it failed to exploit the potentialities of the democratic system for welfare for the people and promote prosperity, peace and harmony among the people as well as between India and Pakistan on the issue of Jammu and Kashmir.

We should like to focus attention on the impact of political prossrast trination and politicization of historic time.  This weakness has left a back log of un resolved conflicts as debilitating as a running wounds, e.g., (1) the sixty year old law case of property blew into a major political issue threatening social harmony, (2) the insurgency in North East is fifty year old and it is still a matter of endless parleys, (3) naval violence which is forty years old, is still growing strong - it started in a remote village and today it has affected nine states and 170 districts.

 We recognize that Pakistan is big hinderance in resolving Jammu and Kashmir problem.  But that is not enough to exonerate India’s political culture. The people of Jammu and Kashmir in 1948 voluntarilly decided to be with India. They preffered India’s democratic secular political culture to Pakistan autocratic fundamentalism.  But Jammu and Kashmir is no longer territorial problem. A new generation of Kashmir’s have out grown the trauma of Pakistan and shed the baggage of history. Then why a good section of the generation could not be assimilated, and on the contrary it has got alierneted. ‘They wanted independent homeland blended with reality.’  If they do not want to be in India, it is basically a short coming of India’s political culture. Finally, the economic and social cost of political slothfulness and politicization of “time” is enormous. For example, (a) the inexcusable delays in the completion of “irregational projects has cost India heavily in the field of agriculture in particular and economic growth in general; (b) the Constitution directed the ruling elite to ensure free universal basic primary education within ten years.  But Indian ruling elite has stretched the projected into 21st Century. This has done incalculable harm to the foundations of democracy in India. (c) Corruption has been a major problem since fifties. That it has spread is bad enough.  But the corruption in public life has spread to India’s collective psyche.  A growing number of people (middle classes) and almost the entire ruling elite and political class now suffers not only from corruption of consciousness but also have developed crimogenic inclinations.


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

Astha Bharati