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Members of India’s Bharatiya Janata Party, the world’s largest political party, gather in Mumbai. By Al Jazeera English, CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Ed. Note: Kiefer Kofman, Pace ’16, is a political science major and the former head of the Community Energy Team at the Pace Environmental Policy Clinic. He spent the summer studying in India under a Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship.

Kiefer’s first post, Into the World of India, appeared June 23; the second, Reform of India’s Culture of Economic Slavery a Prerequisite to Environmental Reform, July 15; the third, India’s Cultural Barrier to Environmental ReformAugust 6; the fourth, The Tragedy of Indian Farmers Under Neoliberalism, August 27. ~ JC

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IN ARAVIND ADIGA’s best-selling book, The White Tiger, a low caste Indian servant indefatigably ascends the economic ladder against enormous whipsawing odds. Balram, the main character, crystallizes the morass in which Indian society is mired:

Never before in human history have so few owed so much to so many. A handful of men in this country have trained the remaining 99.9 percent-as strong, as talented, as intelligent in every way- to exist in perpetual servitude; a servitude so strong that you can put the key of his emancipation in a man’s hands and he will throw it back at you with a curse.

For Americans, India provides a window into a reality defined as much by our differences as our similarities.  It allows us to see our issues from an alternative vantage, and the profound ways in which the two nations overlap. Certainly, on the severity scale, India has not evolved sufficiently to contain its extremities. But the roots of some issues are common to both of these democratic nations. In particular, corruption, inequality and resistance to change intersect in striking fashion.

The top .1% of Americans earn as much as the bottom 90%; just over 100 people in India own 25% of the country’s GDP.

Slavery and the caste system are instructive examples. American slavery, an exploitable tool for those who could profit off cheap labor, bred a visceral hatred toward African-Americans. Though race discrimination is unlawful, and generally abhorred, a racial divide still haunts the U.S. today. Similarly, India’s caste system is a product of intentional bigotry and the static economic misfortune of those at the bottom. Like slavery in the U.S., it was profitable.  It grew from the British divide and rule strategy that would eventually metastasize into widespread class discrimination. Additionally, both systems were justified under the guise of religion. Just as Hinduism was employed to sanction the caste system, literal interpretations of the Christian Bible were used to justify American slavery.

Whether it is through more abhorrent systems of exploitation such as slavery or more acceptable neoliberal policies, both nations have allowed a handful within the corporate and political elite to perpetuate a system that flows wealth from the bottom up.  Though corruption in India may be more blatant and systemic, the inequitable economic and social roots of both nations can teach us about our relationship with democracy.

In a white paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research, Emanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman found that the top .1% of Americans earn as much as the bottom 90%. The New York Times recently reported that in the current Presidential election, nearly six months before the first primary, fewer than 400 families are responsible for nearly half the $388 million raised thus far.

The flow of wealth from the bottom to the top is endemic to both Indian and American society.

Meanwhile, just over 100 people in India own 25% of the country’s GDP whereas 80% of the population lives on less than half a dollar a day.  As renowned Indian novelist and essayist Arundhati Roy describes in an interview with Democracy Now:

There isn’t a single institution anymore which an ordinary person can approach for justice: not the judiciary, not the local political representative. We are really owned and run by a few corporations, who can shut down India when they want.

The American relationship with its democracy is undergoing radical change, dangerously analogous to the Indian democratic veil. As the U.S. deregulates its democracy (e.g. Citizen’s United), it is slowly emulating India’s democratic model —  one that reeks of dark money, laughable contribution “limits”, and corporate coups of political parties.

An estimate by the Centre for Media Studies in Delhi found that India’s 2014 general election (including parliament and state assemblies) cost $4.9 billion, making it the second most expensive in world history just behind America’s $6 billion in 2012. The Election Commission (EC) in India sets limits on both fundraising and expenditures. Yet, as with many laws or regulations that rely on enforcement in India, this rule is virtually moot.

As The Economist described in an article on the 2014 campaign, political candidates “must break the rules in order to stand a chance of winning.” To reiterate, India is regressive enough to sustain blatant corruption, but the U.S. hides it better. American presidential candidates similarly skate around laws by inventing avenues the Supreme Court left open. The aperture created by the Citizen’s United case emboldened economically powerful Super PACs to increase their role and encouraged candidates to delay the official announcement of their candidacies in order to bring in large amounts of unregulated money.

E. Sridharan, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Advanced Study of India, told The Economist that when legendary Prime Minister Indira Grandhi ran a socialist government that faced a serious challenge from a pro-business party, she banned corporate donations outright. By 1985, reforms made it possible for businesses and corporations to give up to 5% of their net profit from the past three years directly to political parties. Today, though, 93.8% of the income from the Congress Party (the equivalent of India’s Democratic Party) and 91.3% of the BJP’s comes from unlisted sources.

India illustrates that democracy can be preserved and valued even when there are abundant reasons for apathy.

One loophole to cover dark money in Indian elections, for example, takes advantage of a rule where parties are not required to account for any contribution less than 20,000 rupees ($330). Instead, special interests will contribute ten chunks of 20,000 rupees disguising an overall contribution of 200,000 rupees. Whether elite groups of special interests who exploit the poor through abominable institutions like caste or slavery or through a political system that reduces the poor and middle class’ influence, the flow of wealth from the bottom to the top is endemic to both Indian and American society.

So, what can we learn from India?

First, India represents what American society can become if social and economic inequality continue to grow. It is more than inequality in the classic sense, however. It is also a perception of the poor that has inculcated much of the American conversation. Take Presidential candidate and former Texas Governor Rick Perry’s biblical justification of inequality to the Washington Post: “We don’t grapple with wealth inequality here in Texas. Biblically, the poor are always gonna be with us in some form or fashion.”

Second, and more positively, India illustrates that democracy can be preserved and valued even when there abundant reasons for apathy, such as its years of stagnant policies and corruption. NDTV reports that in 2014, Indian voter turnout, much of which was comprised of the youth vote, hit a whopping 66% in the  general election, over 20 points higher than the United States.

The United States, particularly its youth, is spoiled by a relatively healthy economy and global hegemony. By contrast, India’s resurgence of voter interest is directly related to the intractable nature of issues that are omnipresent, and connected to one’s life no matter where or who you are. In the U.S. we must learn how to reinvigorate an apathetic citizenry that feels it has little influence over elections, where candidates like Ted Cruz, Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, and Marco Rubio court corporate donors to unearth an arsenal of campaign contributions.  As in India, this type of electoral system allows, and encourages, wealth to flow inexorably to the top.

 A recent report by the World Institute for Development Economics Research  found that the gap between India’s ‘have-a-lots,’ ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ is increasing. India’s rich are “disproportionately richer while India’s poor are disproportionately poorer than their global peers.” The influence of those at the bottom is near nonexistent. Similarly, as the economic health of the lower and middle class in the United States dissipates, the correlation between eroding democracy and wealth inequality will continue also, as it has in India.

There is much to celebrate about India – its natural beauty and fervent spirituality, and the love that can grow from a place so challenging. In my blogs I have belabored India’s dense, complex issues because too often in the United States we hear only of India’s successful economic growth, and the social mobility Prime Minister Modi is aiming to create. We hear too little about India’s cultural context – its human rights violations, failed economic trickle-down, broken justice system, religious violence and the obscured suffering of the lives of the bottom 80% who live on less than a dollar a day.

And so the final lesson. To understand life in India, and life here in the United States, we must learn to dig beneath the shrubs of talking points, government posturing and press releases. Our measure instead should simply be those with the least, those whose lives are most adversely affected, and most readily hidden, by a long history of inequitable social and economic policy that drives wealth and privilege to those with the most.