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

India: Political Culture, Governance and Growth

EAS Sarma

In developing countries like India, the quality of economic growth is as important and crucial as growth itself. However, most planners perceive the rate of economic growth as an end in itself. This has something to do with the obsession of the planners with the macro-economic aspects of development, rather than its distributive implications. In a way, this perception is reinforced by the elitist political, bureaucratic culture that pervades our system and the norms that guide governance at different levels.

One must however bear in mind that a high rate of economic growth that has adverse distributive implications would not be sustainable in the long run.

Economic Growth

The rate of growth of the GDP is a robust measure of the processes that are at work within an economy and its overall health at the macro-level. At the same time, it does not fully capture a horde of other factors that characterize the well being of the people and the extent to which they stand empowered in taking advantage of the political and economic processes that contribute to growth.

The Human Development Reports of UNDP have tried to compute the Human Development Index (HDI) for different countries, taking into account more comprehensive indicators of development that include poverty reduction, empowerment of the poor through education and public healthcare systems, nutrition and child development, sanitation and hygiene etc. Many countries including India have adopted this approach and come up with their own national human development reports. It is encouraging to find that many States in our country have also tried to prepare their own human development reports. However, these indices are rarely used in designing and monitoring development programmes. For example, the Tenth Five Year Plan had indeed defined measurable targets in some areas of human development. But, the Plan was silent on formulating a tangible programme to achieve those targets.

Economic development should be inclusive, not exclusive. It should result in the overall development of the society and the individuals that form part of it. It is not sufficient that we consider only the indices that measure the growth and the improvements in human development. It is equally important to know whether the institutions that have interface with the people have become more participative and transparent in their functioning and whether the people, especially those that are disadvantaged, have become more empowered as a result of development. There are many countries that have impressive track records of high rates of economic growth but their performance in reducing human rights violations and internal conflicts has been dismal. Unless there are suitable indicators to evaluate these aspects, it is not possible to say whether the development model adopted by the country is an appropriate one or not.

There are a host of other aspects of development that need to be constantly assessed and evaluated. Has the process of development helped in reducing the income disparities and the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few? Has it reduced the class and gender differentiation in the society? Has it resulted in a reduction in regional inequities? Unless the planners address these questions in a forthright manner, exclusive dependence on the rate of growth as the single measure of development would certainly be inappropriate.

Economic Development: A Constitutional Perspective

Our Constitution requires that we should build a “socialist” Republic that secures to all its citizens “justice, social, economic and political” and “equality of status and of opportunity”. Right to equality, right against exploitation and cultural and educational rights are enshrined as Fundamental Rights for the enforcement of which the Constitution has provided remedies. The Directive Principles reinforce these concepts further. For example, Article 38 enjoins upon the government the responsibility of securing a social order for the promotion of the welfare of the people. Interestingly, this Article also states that “the State shall, in particular, strive to minimize the inequalities in income, and endeavour to eliminate inequalities in status, facilities and opportunities, not only amongst individuals but also amongst groups of people residing in different areas or engaged in different vocations.”

Article 39 further casts an obligation on the State to ensure equality in opportunity for men and women, prevent concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, prevent child exploitation and ensure that the children are afforded the opportunity to develop with freedom and dignity.

It is evident that what our elders had in mind, when they drafted the Constitution, was that the process of development should be inclusive, not exclusive; should empower, not restrain those that are disadvantaged; reduce, not widen the disparities among different sections of the population and among different regions in the country and aim at promoting the welfare of the society in a holistic manner.

While these objectives are indeed sublime, the very same socio-economic imbalances that the Constitution has sought to eliminate altogether have become the constraining factors that have shaped the political system of the country during the last five decades or so. As a result, even after half a century of economic planning, it has not been possible for the country to realize fully the goals of development set out in the Constitution.

One should not however ignore the silent but steady process of change that is taking place, as a result of the spread of literacy, greater awareness among the people and the increasingly proactive role played by the media in highlighting the negative outcomes of development. In the long run, one could hope that this process of transformation would have a positive impact on the political culture of the country and bring about a paradigm change in the model of development to the benefit of the people.

The Political Culture and Governance

The Constitution of India treats all citizens equally and provides them with equal opportunities of participation in governance. However, the existing socio-economic and regional disparities have yielded a political culture that is inherently biased and is somewhat out of tune with this concept.

The political parties in the country are built on a foundation that is fractured on the lines of caste, creed, religion, economic status and regional disparities. Like the society itself, our political parties are by and large feudal in character. Very few of them believe in inner party democracy. They rarely display their willingness to adopt processes that are participative and transparent. Our electoral process itself is based on widespread corruption. The high cost of contesting any public office in the country has automatically deterred public spirited, honest persons to contest elections. Many of those that are elected have often placed their self-interest above the public interest. The recent exposure of cash-for-questions scam and the controversy surrounding MPLADS are illustrative of the misplaced role that our representatives have assigned to themselves, in clear contravention of what the Constitution has envisaged.

There are numerous examples of how the political parties in our country have failed to respond to problems that weaken our institutions and pose a threat to democracy. For example, the process of selection of an individual appointed to the office of the Governor of a State has attracted a great deal of controversy time and again. It has become commonplace for a political party to criticize the selection process while in opposition and fail to set right that process while in power. The landmark observations made by the Hon’ble Supreme Court recently on the unfortunate case of imposition of President’s rule in Bihar is yet to serve as a wake up call for the UPA government at the Centre.

We expect our political leaders to act with a sense of probity and set an example to the rest of the nation on upholding the basic values of our Constitution. Rarely have our leaders displayed any semblance of statesmanship in this matter. The manner in which our esteemed representatives have responded to the controversy surrounding the office-of-profit issue has eroded the credibility of the legislatures in the eyes of the public.

Weak institutions tend to reduce the efficacy of governance. In turn, ineffective governance creates distortions in development that increase the costs and reduce the benefits to the society. The bureaucracy of the country is one of the instruments of governance. Even though the Constitution has clearly envisaged civil services to be independent and accountable to the values enshrined in the Constitution itself, in reality, the shortcomings of the political system have percolated down to the civil services. After all, the civil services work in tune with the set of incentives and disincentives offered by the political executive. That is the reason why the attempts made in the past to reform the civil services had failed to yield any tangible benefit.

Growth and Human Development

India has taken major strides in agriculture, industrial development, atomic energy, space, information technology and so on. Our planners are euphoric about the rapid rate at which the economy has been growing and the increase in the volume of FDI flowing into the country. However, in terms of human development, our record continues to be dismal.

For example, in the latest Human Development Report of UNDP, India has been ranked at 127 in terms of the Human Development Index (HDI), out of a total number of 177 countries for which HDI has been computed. India is placed along with 88 “medium” HDI countries. Among them, we stand in the last quartile. In terms of many indicators of human development such as life expectancy, infant mortality, maternal mortality, literacy etc., India stands below the average for the medium HDI countries. In terms of adult literacy, it is disconcerting to see India lagging behind even the sub-Saharan group of countries.

Compare this with the rank of India in the World Wealth Report findings. With its fast growing dollar millionaires, India stands second only to S.Korea in world rankings. Every one in thousand Indians is a dollar millionaire today. It represents an island of affluence in an ocean of poverty!

Within the country, there are wide regional disparities. The National Human Development Report (2001) brought out by the Planning Commission provides some information on this, though the report is somewhat outdated. It is interesting to compare some of the indicators available for Kerala and Bihar on the basis of this report.

The per capita net State Domestic Product (SDP) of Kerala was 1.59 times that of Bihar in 1981-82. By 1997-98, Kerala’s per capita SDP increased by a factor of 1.66, whereas, the corresponding figure for Bihar was only 1.2. In other words, even in terms of economic development, the disparity between Kerala and Bihar had widened during that period.

The HDI computed for rural and urban areas of Kerala were 0.576 and 0.628 respectively. The corresponding indices for Bihar were 0.286 and 0.460 respectively. The gender dependency index for Kerala was 0.825, whereas the corresponding index for Bihar was 0.469.

The proportion of families below the poverty line in Kerala was 9.38% in rural areas and 20.27% in urban areas. The corresponding figures for Bihar were 44.3% and 32.91% respectively.

The Gini Coefficient of income inequality also displays a wide variation between Kerala and Bihar. For the period 1981-82 to 1997-98, the Gini Coefficient for Kerala declined from 0.330 to 0.270 for rural areas and from 0.374 to 0.320 for urban areas. In Bihar, while it declined from 0.256 to 0.208 for rural areas, it increased from 0.301 to 0.318 for urban areas. While these figures could at best be indicative, they do show that the income disparities had stagnated in Bihar during this period.

In terms of male and female literacy rates, Kerala registered 94.2% and 87.86% respectively. The corresponding figures for Bihar were 60.32% and 33.57%. These figures reveal not only regional but also gender disparities.

The infant mortality rates (per 1000) for Kerala and Bihar were 42 and 75 respectively. Similarly, the maternal mortality rates were 198 and 452 for these two States.

These indices merely illustrate the imbalances that are perpetuated by the development model that we have chosen. These imbalances have something to do with the variation in political culture and governance in different States. In undertaking any basic reform, one should first understand the status of human development at the grass-root level and address the issues that concern the poorer sections of the society. Trying to transplant the readily available models of reform borrowed from the west would not answer those concerns.

Development and Displacement

All development schemes lead to one kind of displacement or the other. Major schemes, whether they are industrial units or irrigation and power projects, cause physical displacement of a large number of people. Mechanisation of agriculture might have benefited the rich farmer but it has deprived the local artisan of his livelihood. Indiscriminate exploitation of ground water and the use of electricity in pumping water from deep tube wells might have increased agricultural productivity but those very same activities have adversely affected the interests of the smaller farmers, driving them into the waiting hands of the moneylender. The spurt in the number of suicides in the rural areas of A.P., Maharashtra and the other States merely represents the tip of the iceberg of the serious crisis brewing in those areas. One could go on and on citing similar examples of displacement of the other kind. Unfortunately, the elitist reformists of this country have little appreciation of these problems. The political culture of the country is such that these concerns are either unwittingly or deliberately ignored. Our Parliamentarians are more eager to protect their own turf than discussing these fundamental issues of displacement during the successive sessions of the Parliament.

There is another kind of displacement that is far more serious. For example, in the case of irrigation projects that submerge the tribal tracts and the mining projects that displace the tribals from their respective habitats, the tribals would be losing the rights conferred on them under Schedule V of the Constitution. Those rights could never be restored to them in the kind of development that is being pursued. Is there an indicator to assess such deprivation?

The crucial issue here is to what extent a development model that displaces people is appropriate in our context. The arguments put forward by activists like Medha Patkar in the case of Sardar Sarovar multi-purpose irrigation project and other similar projects need to be taken up for a national debate before blindly pushing through such projects without consulting the affected people.

Even though the Constitution has recognised the importance of the Panchayat and the Gram Sabha in the scheme of democratic governance of the country, rarely has any State Government paid attention to the need to take them into confidence in deciding on projects that displace the people.

Development leading to Conflict

Inappropriate models of development and ineffective governance have led to conflict situations. In our case, one major factor that has led to conflict is the system of governance that is non-transparent and highly centralized. Centralised systems obviate the scope for the local communities to participate in decision-making. In turn, this leads to inappropriate schemes being imposed on the people. A second important factor that has often caused conflict is the unwillingness on the part of the political and bureaucratic executive to recognize the entitlement of the people to the local resources.

We have any number of examples that illustrate this. The ongoing Maoist problem in many States in India had its genesis to the weakening of governance in the tribal areas and the refusal of the government to recognize the legitimate rights of the tribals to land, forest and mineral resources, water etc. Schedule V, as already stated, has empowered the States to enact special laws and amend the existing ones to safeguard the interests of the tribals. Rarely has any State Government invoked these powers to the benefit of the tribals. Often, the politicians and the bureaucracy have sided with the rich and the influential that exploit the tribals, rather than protect the interests of the tribals. No wonder that the Maoists have grabbed the opportunity in taking up cudgels against the government. Even now, the government’s response to the Maoist problem is by treating it as a mere law & order issue, rather than dealing with the socio-economic concerns that lie at its root. We have similar conflicts inhibiting development in the North East and elsewhere.


The foregoing discussion on the various dimensions of development shows that the character and quality of development depend on the political culture of the country in general and the political cultures of the different States. Governance and political culture are inter-linked.

Political culture and governance are not static phenomena. They change with the transformation that takes place among the people. Promotion of education and health, strengthening of the media and emphasis on democratic values will bring about a positive change in the civil society. The latter has an important role to play in the process of development. It is for each citizen to wake up to this reality and assume the role of changing the politics of our country.


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

Astha Bharati