“… There are too many idiots in this world. And having said it, I have the burden of proving it.”

― Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks


Had Frantz Fanon lived to see the candidates in our upcoming general elections, he would have had very little trouble proving correct his pessimism about the abundance of idiots in this world. The festival of idiocy that is relentlessly paraded on our screens during election season is not unique to our shores. Across the Indian Ocean the vast subcontinent of India is also in the throes of an election season, and, given its massive population, the accumulation of idiots on parade in India far exceeds those we have to confront day after day. As in South Africa, electoral politics in India, where the ballot paper at least carries a “None of the above” option, generally comes down to the predicament of having to decide which party is likely to be the lesser evil. The many wonderful aspects of India today, and there are many, have everything to do with its people and very little to do with its politicians.

We have 29 parties contesting for seats in our National Assembly. In India there are four main electoral alliances between parties, and just one of those is made up of 22 parties. This grouping, farcically named the National Democratic Alliance, is anything but democratic and includes people from the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Shiv Sena, both Hindu fascist organisations, as its leading members. Whereas we get a single day on which to cast our votes, India’s voting process is about five weeks long. It began on April 7 and will conclude on May 12. This year the Indian election will reach 810 million eligible voters, and will include 100 million new voters. We have just 25 million registered voters.

In terms of scale and logistics, elections in India are a very different kettle of fish to ours. But in terms of the degeneration of electoral politics, its systemic corruption, its turn to authoritarianism and the use of populist forms of conservatism to mask the deterioration, there are important similarities with South Africa. An exploration of these similarities, which in some respects begin with the figure of Mohandas Gandhi, could provide us with some useful insight into our present political landscape, and the very real dangers that could confront us in the future.

Indian politics was not always as corrupt as it is today. There was a time when elections in India were not dominated by a parade of opportunistic scoundrels and nationalism was a collective aspiration rather than a tool, sometimes descending into fascism, for elites to divide and dominate the majority. India has one of the strongest intellectual scenes around, and a large number of principled intellectuals and activists. But ideas alone only go so far, and its electoral politics are simultaneously terrifying and farcical. If we want to arrest the rapid decline of our own electoral politics we can learn a lot from the degeneration of electoral politics in India.

The first Indian elections was held 63 years ago. Since then India has held 15 elections, with grand figures like BR Ambedkar, Jawaharlal Nehru and Shripad Amrit Dange, a founding member of the Communist Party of India (CPI), joining the fray. Today even the CPI has collapsed into flagrant corruption and authoritarianism. The state of West Bengal, which the party ruled for 34 years, became notorious for mixing communist discourse with practices more suited to the mafia and colonial avarice. Politicians in the state ended up a little like Blade Nzimande, a communist with a 7 Series BMW and a tendency to oppose strikes and support state repression in the name of a revolution that never comes.

Different thinkers place the beginning of the decline of electoral politics in India at different points in time. In 1949 Shankarrao Deo, an important activist and intellectual in the anti-colonial struggle, was already discussing the possible decline of the Indian National Congress (INC) once it took state power. For Rakesh Sinha, a contemporary intellectual, the decline was incremental. Sinha tracks it back to the 1960s when three different political forces rose to challenge the dominance of the Congress: the communists, socialists and Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS). For others, like the historian Mahesh Rangarajan, the decline really began in the 1980s when the Congress “lost its appeal to a vast section of the under classes, especially the religious minorities who felt it was compromising on pluralism at the cost of their physical security”.

The splits that arose out of the failure of the INC to retain the hegemony it had enjoyed in the 1940s and 50s are largely the splits that still endure today. The three main coalitions in the Indian political scene today developed in the splits of the 1960s and 1980s: the National Democratic Alliance, made up of an assortment of communalists and conservatives, led by the BJP; the United Progressive Alliance, a coalition of moderates led by the INC; and the left parties, led by the communists. Corruption is endemic across all three of these coalitions. One-third of all members of Parliament have criminal cases pending against them and candidates with criminal records generally do better in elections than those without.

The systemic corruption in Indian politics is not just a matter of the state’s efficiency being compromised. It has also led to a serious decline in the democratic quality of rule by elected leaders. Of course, India continues to have regular elections, but politics, in and outside of elections, is overwhelmingly driven by patronage and the narrow interests of elites. To disguise this, elites have turned to repression, social conservatism, ethnic and religious chauvinism and even outright fascism. It is not unusual for parties to have armed wings and for politicians and the local powerbrokers that supply their support to operate openly more or less like Mafiosi.

India has a vibrant left and a rich set of intellectual spaces for discussion. But much of this left has not been able to link its intellectual engagement to popular sentiment, with the result that although it is often intellectually impressive, it is also often simultaneously politically irrelevant. This has left the political space open for populist politics of various forms, some of it deeply reactionary.

But, interestingly, this election has a new party with significant presence – the Aam Aadmi Party, the ‘Common Man Party’ – which won control of the capital city, Delhi, in the 2013 legislative election with a pro-poor, anti-fascist and anti-corruption agenda. The party began as a grassroots popular struggle but won over sections of the middle class who shared its militant opposition to corruption. In office in Delhi it has shored up that support with subsidies for the provision of gas and water. Its leader, Arvind Kejriwal, enjoys real respect in some quarters. He is a fearless critic of corruption and has declared that: “In this Parliament, 163 members have cases of heinous [criminal] offences against them. In this Parliament, rapists are sitting, murderers and looters are sitting.” But the demands of realpolitik are such that Kejriwal, previously openly atheistic, has had to start to perform religious piety and to make a series of alliances that, while politically logical, seem morally questionable. It’s not clear if his credibility will survive the pressures of realpolitik on a terrain as compromised as that of electoral politics in India. But the way in which a grassroots campaign against corruption won over sections of the middle class who shared its opposition to corruption is certainly interesting. In Brazil, opposition to corruption has also enabled moments of unity between the poor and the middle class. This is not a politics that appeals to most of the South African left, but here, too, corruption is of concern to both the poor and the middle classes, and perhaps there are lessons to be learnt from the Indian and Brazilian experiences.

No credible person in South Africa denies the degeneration of the ANC, or that it has been both dizzyingly rapid and grotesque under Jacob Zuma. As in India, there is some debate about the exact point at which this degeneration really kicked off. Some might argue, like Shankarrao Deo did for the INC, that it began as soon as the ANC took power in 1994. Others might point to the arms deal or the HIV/Aids controversy. Certainly former president Thabo Mbeki, much like Nehru, was a formidable intellectual who centralised power around his own personality, with the result that when he left office there was very little talent with the necessary experience to step forward. But whatever the origins of the degeneration of the ANC, it is clear that by the time Mbeki was deposed in 2008 and replaced by Zuma, the ANC was in freefall.

Nationalist visions are often teleological – the assumption is that we go from strength to strength and that any problems we encounter will be minor detours along the way. But while the idea that we are moving towards national redemption is appealing, there is no example, thus far, in the post-colony that confirms this optimism. In India the Nehru dynasty always had its limits, becoming seriously corrupt and, later under Indira Gandhi, ruthlessly oppressive. But the assumption that the alternative would be necessarily redemptive was swiftly shattered on the rocks of reality. The BJP’s populism proved not only to be massively corrupt but also chauvinistic to the point of fascism.

Here the optimism that was felt in some quarters about the prospect of a populist alternative to Mbeki ended in the sordid realities of life under Zuma. Now some look to EFF leader Julius Malema, once Zuma’s enforcer, for a way forward. But it is clear that Malema’s corruption, authoritarianism and chauvinism, all legitimated in the language of the left, can only engender further degeneration. We have also seen a turn to state and party violence, as well as ethnic chauvinism and social conservatism to contain discontent. And here, too, the left has often failed to connect to popular sentiment, with the result that although it sometimes has a big presence on Facebook and Twitter, it is largely irrelevant in the world of realpolitik.

When the Indian elections are finally over on May 12, the citizens of the world’s largest democracy might very well have elected Narendra Modi – one of the most corrupt, authoritarian and dangerous politicians in the contemporary world – into power. Modi combines hypercapitalism for corporate power with fascism for the people. If Modi is elected, as expected, India will become an even more brutal and corrupt society than it already is.

In South Africa, people have a deep faith in electoral politics. There are people who genuinely seem to believe that elections are a magic act that take us forward, bit by bit, on the path to national redemption. The Indian example is an important warning that this might not always be the case. There are aspects of our politics that are superior to those in India. We have not, for instance, had family dynasties run our politics. But there are also some ominous parallels.

Gandhi and Nelson Mandela were both nationalist leaders who operated comfortably in front of the media. They were both men of remarkable vision and with a real capacity to seize a powerful place the world stage. They both acquired a saintly aura that offered the promise of a magical moment of redemption. Nehru and Mbeki were both formidable intellectuals, modernisers with a global perspective who centralised power around themselves and preferred technocratic rather than mediatised modes of rule. In both cases, their mode of rule resulted in the demobilisation of politics outside of the state. Once they left power – Nehru through death and Mbeki through being unceremoniously deposed in a palace coup – there were no good candidates able to follow them. After Nehru, independent India had its first series of communal and state massacres and there was a turn towards authoritarian forms of rule. The alternative to this turned out not to be some sort of redemption of the original nationalist vision but rather a mixture of fascism and hypercapitalism. Here in South Africa, we are still making new sense of our country after our first massacre, we have no credible electoral alternatives and we confront the real danger that populist alternatives to the ANC could prove to be disastrous.

In 2014, elections offer no credible route to building a decent and democratic society in either India or South Africa. Here, as in India, the building of credible electoral alternatives will require alliances, principled but pragmatic, to be built outside of electoral politics from the ground up and across the various lines that divide our society.

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