Having a hard time grasping Indian politics? Get in line. Photographer: STR/AFP/Getty Images
Having a hard time grasping Indian politics? Get in line. Photographer: STR/AFP/Getty Images

So you know India goes to the polls next week, and you also know that no election in history has involved the political will of such a large amount of people (about 800 million voters). You are an Indophile and have a broad sense of the issues at stake, but you want to learn the fine grain of the subject; you want to move from being merely conversant to being impressively capable.

Well, good luck to you.

The Indian-democracy neophyte trying to improve her capabilities by carefully perusing Indian newspapers is swiftly frustrated on many levels. First, one is pitched headfirst into a sea of acronyms -- the names of political parties (INC, BJP, AAP), political alliances (UPA, NDA), government programs (MGNREGA), even political scams (CWG). Some of these seem to have merely rhetorical meanings or, even worse, no meaning at all (what policy direction or focus could one extrapolate from “United Progressive Alliance”?).

QuickTake India's Aspirations

Next, there is the sheer plenitude of shops and sellers in this political marketplace. There are two major parties in India, as in most of the world’s democracies, but even these parties need to stitch together coalitions with smaller, regional parties to have a chance of winning a majority in Parliament. And when they’re done, there’s still room for another large, 11-party coalition, the Third Front. Beyond that, there’s still room for nonaligned parties, bless them, and independents.

Finally, there’s the slipperiness of the political language itself. To be sure, “democracy” is a fairly transparent word, and it works as a conceptual gateway into a number of political features (separation of state powers, relative freedom of speech) that we assume every democracy possesses. But when history, culture and language intersect with democracy as a theoretical system, the encounter generates all manner of concepts that soon acquire a life of their own and become shorthand for realities unique to that democracy.

Indian politics is full of such words, and while I can’t help you with the first two problems, here is your answer to the third: a small database of “keywords” in Indian democracy that cascade from the tongues of politicians, voters, scholars, journalists, policy wonks and television anchors -- and that you need to master if you are to make any progress at all.

Let’s begin with the grandest of them all: secular. It would take a book-length work to parse the different historical and political contexts in which this word is used worldwide. Briefly, though, to Indians, the term calls up a certain history and a theory of politics. India is a multifaith civilization with a long history of both religious accommodation and religious conflict. In 1947, India the nation-state emerged from India the British colony, losing two large Muslim-majority territories that became Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Unlike Pakistan, which became a state that privileged Muslims, India guaranteed religious freedom and equality to all, and it was secular in the commonly understood sense. But successive governments went out of their way to ensure that minorities, especially Muslims, were not discriminated against, and this sometimes granted special protections and privileges to minorities -- India does not have, for instance, a uniform civil code -- that meant a gradual slippage in the popular understanding of secularism. This allowed pro-Hindu parties to accuse their political opponents of being pseudo-secular. In turn, the secular parties could accuse their opponents of being communal -- not in the sense in which a large table in a restaurant is communal, but in that of a certain community (usually Hindus) that is being privileged over all others.

Of course, “secular” parties can be communal, too, when it suits them, under cover of their avowed secularism. And “communal” parties (such as the main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party) can reply that when they insist that there be no cosseting of minorities, it is they who are in truth being secular.

Despite all its intricacies and evasions, this secular-communal rhetorical warfare establishes a point astutely made by the Indian historian Mukul Kesavan: “The meaning of secularism can be contested (truly secular/pseudo-secular), but it is a value, like democracy, that no mainstream party can publicly repudiate.” When one considers the extent to which sectarian clashes have disrupted the lives and economies of other South Asian nations, this is no small achievement.

This overarching latticework leads us to our next keyword: votebank. Coined by the sociologist M.N. Srinivas and since widely deployed in journalism and the vernaculars of Indian politics, the word describes the phenomenon of people voting en masse along the lines of religious divisions or caste stratifications. (“Caste” is another Indian word that requires a whole book.)

As the popular proverb goes, Indians “do not so much caste their vote as vote their caste.” “Votebank” assumes there is something unusual or anachronistic about Indian democracy vis-a-vis the individualistic democracies of the West, which are thought -- mistakenly, in my view -- to form the normative precedents of democracy.

But as the Indian political scientist Yogendra Yadav suggested in a 2007 essay, “votebank” has little validity when investigated empirically. Even those who are assumed will automatically vote their caste choose from a number of possibilities and make a number of fairly sophisticated mental trade-offs. Yadav proposes instead a revival of political scientist Imtiaz Ahmed’s term situational solidarities. This is a less picturesque term, but one that allows for more extensive deployment: I'm currently using it to describe my last three relationships.

Whatever the truth, the perception that Indian democracy is chock-full of votebanks persists. Close your eyes and listen to the word ripple, like a sacred mantra, in the engine rooms of political parties around the country.

The presence of so many ethnic, religious and linguistic identities and the gradual decline of the one political party -- the Indian National Congress -- that in the past enjoyed broad acceptance has led to a new reality at India's political center, fragile in its various incarnations but stable in its persistence: the coalition government.

Since 1989, every government in New Delhi has been a coalition of some kind, and the next is likely to be one, too. These coalitions have spawned their own political vocabulary. Some of its terms are quite picturesque, such as the multilingual coalition dharma: the ethics and courtesies owed by major and minor partners to each other in a coalition (the Sanskrit word "dharma" loosely translates as "right action").

Coalitions have also made common the terms pre- and post-poll alliance. The distinction becomes a significant one in the event that no party emerges with a simple majority in an elections. In that case, a group of parties that have already announced themselves as a coalition before an election have first claim on forming a government. But sometimes a pre-poll alliance still falls short of a majority, leaving the door open for a bunch of other parties to bury their differences in the sudden desire to give the people of the country a “stable government.”

Some parties might choose not to join an alliance, but rather stay outside government and offer what is called issue-based support -- a euphemism for holding the government of the day to ransom on all manner of trivial issues.

At the end of this list of common nouns, we add a proper one, Gandhi. This word stumps most outsiders new to Indian politics: Are Mahatma Gandhi and today’s prime ministerial candidate Rahul Gandhi related? No, not at all. The country’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, had a daughter, Indira, who happened to marry a journalist and take his last name, thereby launching a new Gandhi line in Indian politics.

Indians are always proclaiming the virtues of family, and the word Gandhi has, in modern politics, become less a name than shorthand for a political assumption: the right of a family to rule. But genes do not automatically transmit capability for high office; in the present election, the Congress Party has most unreasonably put up Rahul Gandhi as a candidate for prime minister. Although he is one of many hereditary MPs -- a term recently coined by the writer Patrick French to show the workings of dynasties within democracies -- in the current Parliament, Rahul (the grandson of Indira and the son of the late Rajiv, who was also prime minister) has never held a position in government.

The word “issue,” we must remember, also means “child.” In a sense, the Congress Party is now asking of the electorate a different kind of issue-based support: that for a candidate merely because he has the right lineage.

Democratic dharma -- it is time for us to develop a few neologisms of our own -- asks that such proposals be decisively rejected electorally, not just in the interest of Indian democracy, but also in the interest of India’s most distinguished political party.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is based in New Delhi. His novel "Arzee the Dwarf" is published by New York Review Books. Follow him on Twitter at @Hashestweets.)

To contact the author on this story:
Chandrahas Choudhury at cchoudhury@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net