Are we an Oligarchy masquerading as a Democracy?

Lets first define the terms I am talking about.

  • OLIGARCHY– a small group of people having control of a country or organisation.
  • PLUTOCRACY– a form of oligarchy. Defines a society or system ruled and dominated by the small minority of the wealthiest citizens.
  • NETOCRACY– a perceived upper class that bases its power on net-working skills.

Any observer of the events that have been unfolding over the last few weeks in this country could not have failed to notice how deep the rot has spread in our polity and society. Its no longer a question of Congress or BJP, government or business, judiciary or media – the cancer has metastatised through all the organs of the state. As Lalit Modi regurgitates dirty secrets on the twitterverse on an hourly basis and our rulers and erstwhile conscience keepers retreat deeper into their carapaces, a distinct pattern appears to be emerging of how a few individuals and families have taken over this country by manipulating the processes of democracy, and are now sucking it drier than the East India Company ever did. And the inevitable question that arises in my mind is: are we a democracy at all, or have we been hijacked ?

It is becoming clearer each day that the BJP refuses to take action against its errant Ministers that our democracy is just a facade. All the four pillars of a democratic dispensation – the legislature, the executive, the judiciary, the press – have developed deep fractures and have been taken over by termites and weevils who have hollowed out the innards of the edifice. They have been fattening themselves at our cost all these years; once in a while one of these insects tumbled out but we took little notice, and suspected no real danger. But now the Queen Bee itself is talking (or tweeting) and as the secrets tumble out the extent of the infestation is becoming clearer.

It is my contention that a few families and individuals in our four vital organs- executive, judiciary, legislature, press – have taken them over and have moulded and disfigured then to suit their own purpose, and the country be damned.


Consider first the political executive. State after state has been commandeered by the likes of the Badals, the Dhumals and Virbhadra Singhs, the Yadavs and Mayawatis, the Patnaiks, the Karunanidhis and Jayalalithas, the Pawars, the Hoodas and Lalls of various denominations, the Abdullahs, Raos and Naidus. The states have become privately owned businesses. It is impossible for anyone not owing allegiance to one or the other of these sicilian-style families to enter the power structure. Parliament itself is the personal fiefdom of a few dozen families, a franchise of the dominant families; and the franchisees are doing very well, thank you: according to the website of the Association for Democratic Reforms, the average wealth of an MP in the current Lok Sabha is now Rs. 15 crore, up from Rs. 9 crore in the last one. And this is only the declared assets! The state legislatures are no different, packed with sons, daughters, their spouses etc. of the Dons. And so we have the scandalous situation of the Badal family having twelve Ministers in Punjab, and Mulayam Singh has so many of his family in the government that even he probably can’t remember the number.

The judiciary too is not exempt from a few question marks, the biggest of them being: why is it so keen to retain its choke-hold on appointment of Judges ? In no other genuine democracy do judges appoint judges, but here we have a circus playing out on a daily basis in the Supreme Court where a perfectly reasonable NJAC Act is being scrutinised for its constitutionality, and in the interim all appointments have been put on hold – and that too when as many as  251 posts of judges are lying vacant and more than 40 million cases are pending in the courts. Why? Maybe the answer lies in the following statistics which a Mumbai lawyer M.J. Nedumpara recently submitted to the Supreme Court, based on information gleaned from the websites of the SC and 13 High Courts: 33% SC judges and 50% of High Court judges are ” related to higher echelons of the judiciary”, which translates to 6 in the former and 88 in the latter. This has been the result of the existing Collegium system of appointments (which the NJAC seeks to replace) in which vacancies are neither notified / advertised nor is there any transparency in the appointments. Further, a succession of judgements in the past has ensured that retired judges have almost complete monopoly over appointments to various Commissions and Tribunals, guaranteeing them post retirement sinecures. If this does not smell of an oligarchy or netocracy I am not sure what does.

Take our so called “free” press or media. Most of our leading newspapers and News Channels are owned / managed by business interests (Bennet Coleman, Mukesh Ambani, Bhartiyas) or politicians (Jayalalitha, the Marans, Rajeev Shukla, Chandan Mitra, the Badals, Karthikeya Sharma). Their agenda is naturally set by these behind-the scenes puppeeteers whose sole objective is to preserve the oligarchic status quo. They will not tolerate any change or any “outsider” trying to crash the party. That explains their almost vitriolic hatred of Narender Modi when he first made his bid for Delhi, or of Arvind Kejriwal even today. Mr. Modi is now acceptable to them partly because they have no choice now that he is the Prime Minister, and partly also because he is gradually getting co-opted into the cosy club himself. But Kejriwal is still fair game for a disgustingly biased reporting because he will not abide by their rules.

Consider next India Inc. as our world of business is grandly termed. They are the real plutocrats who pay the piper and call the tune. Protectively nurtured in the licence-raj nursery they have now attained adulthood and have claimed their legacy. There are 180,000 of them – dollar millionaires. But the real barons of the business world, the dollar multi-millionaires number 14800 (India Today, 10th November 2014) and they are the real oligarchs. According to the Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report of October 2014 the top 1% of Indians own 49% of the country’s wealth, and this continues to grow: in 2000 the figure was 36.8%. The top 5% own 65.5%. In contrast the bottom 50% Indians own just 5%! And this in a country where a quarter of the world’s destitutes reside, more than 400 million people still live below the poverty line – now we know why they are there. Even in a far wealthier country like the UK the top 1% own only 23.3% of the wealth.

These then are the four sub-oligarchies which coalesce into a grand whole which is the democratic republic of India. The four guard their turf zealously, both individually and collectively, and also network with each other to ensure that no harm befalls any of them. They do not allow any meaningful action to be taken against any of them and ensure that wrong-doing is never punished. The Radia tapes exposed the most venal complicity between politics, media and big business but were quickly erased. 2G and coal allocations were not a one-off mistake or malfeasance: they were part of a mutually beneficial public policy, and many more names than those charge-sheeted are involved, but the lid has been hastily lowered on the investigations. It is common knowledge where the SAHARA moneys came from and where they went, but our oligarchs are certainly not interested in the truth becoming public, so Subroto Roy remains in jail: he will pay the bail amount some day and walk free and everyone will breathe easier. Jayalalitha’s bail application is heard in record time while the victims of UPHAAR still wait for their application to be heard even after one year.

Convicted members of our privileged netocracy can get bail within hours while unconvicted undertrials rot in dungeons for years. A High Court judge passes a patently illegal order and threatens to register an FIR against his own Chief Justice; another defies the law by refusing to sentence a convicted rapist and instead ordering a “mediation” between the rapist and the victim (!!)- and both continue to serve in the courts, no doubt to pass similar illegal orders in the days to come. Five thousand poor farmers have committed suicide in the last one year under pressure to repay their loans, but one of our high flying (literally) multi-millionaires who owes more than Rupees seven billion to the banks continues to party in his private jets and Mediterranean villas and produce movies for his son. The country’s banking system is collapsing under the weight of Rs. 300,000 crores (US$ 50 billion) “non-performing assets” which is just a euphemism for loans taken by big business which they just refuse to return, with no consequences for them: of course, you and I have to pay for it by more expensive loans and lower returns on deposits. Official secrets are stolen from central ministries and the companies doing so identified (yes, they belong to our 1% club) but only class four employees and middle level managers arrested: the long arm of the law in India shrinks in direct proportion to the moneys and oligarchs involved. (I can guarantee that we will hear no more of this case). No less than four retired Supreme Court judges give (paid) legal opinions to help an absconding Lalit Modi, knowing fully well that his case is sub-judice and is likely to come up before the same court they were a part of till the other day. Can money speak any louder?

One can go on ad-nauseam but I think I have made the point intended-viz. that our oligarchs look after their own. In the first place laws and policies are made to suit them. If they still fall foul of them, then the laws are bent to breaking point. If even that doesn’t help then perverse legal interpretations are floated (such as drawing a distinction between an ” affidavit” and a ” disposition” and ” absconder” and ” evader” and so on.) And if, by some miracle, even that is of no avail then the final frontier stares us in the face: an impenetrable thicket of laws and lawyers, judges and judgments, adjournments and appeals that somehow ensures that the innocent is incarcerated and the guilty is freed.

Is it any wonder then how the present Lalit Modi burlesque is playing out? The Congress may be shouting ” thief!” now but it took no action against Lalit Modi when it was in power itself – how could it, when it has been feeding at the same trough in our own Animal Farm?  In fact, Mr. Lalit Modi has rendered a great service to this country – he has exposed the putrefied core of our democracy and revealed how every institution meant to strengthen it has actually been undermining it from within. It would appear our tryst with destiny has been postponed indefinitely, for surely it cannot be our destiny to be an oligarchy? To take another metaphor from ‘Animal Farm’:

” The creatures outside looked from pig to man and from man to pig, and from pig to man again: but already it was impossible to say which was which.”
The bestial transformation is complete.

Join the Conversation


  1. says: Mihir

    Isn’t that the basis of Capitalist societies, who ever has capital rules the country, who ever has money has the power, lets be real, for centuries that has been the culture of India. Same problems faced by world, rich countries always decide for the entire world

  2. says: Bobby

    Stupid article. Not a single court in India or in fact the world over has declared LM a criminal…so what’s the fuss about ?

    Don’t we have criminals with more deadly sin all around us ?

  3. says: Avay Shukla

    Bobby,please read the article again: it s not about Lalit Modi at all. He has been mentioned in passing only, and that too to credit him with his leaking stories which expose our sordid system.
    Mihir, your point about the inevitability of capital controlling governments is a fair one: in fact, this idea is neither strange nor novel. The German sociologist Robert Michels as far back as in 1911 in his book ” Political Parties” had postulated what is known as the ” Iron Rule of Oligarchy”, which advances the theory that rule by an elite is inevitable within any democratic organisation. Michels stated that the official objective of representative democracy – of eliminating the elite – was impossible, and that representative democracy is a facade legitimizing the rule of a particular elite. This Iron Rule, however, is discredited by political scientists today and many progressive democracies have found the will to establish more equitable and fair governments and social frameworks. We need to move towards that model and not regress into a darker history.

  4. says: amarjot

    this is by far the most hard hitting article. It encapsulates every ailment that our democracy is suffering from.

    The issue described does not only make one think but makes us realise that there isnt a hope.

    Things as we see around us are getting worse. Every system is openly being exploited.

    And the scariest part is most of us now think rather than fight this as there isnt a chance of winning, join them.

    But Avay uncle, you must mention some sort hope or solution in the articles. I cannot figure out if there is even a chance of bringing some sort of change. Seeing the stats either we will end up in civil war or just a nation that accepts its fate.

  5. says: Nodnat

    A trenchant and well illustrated analysis of how deep the rot runs in our system. It would seem though that the ‘rot’ affects different people or groups of people differently and unequally. But those who bear the brunt of or have to ‘pay’ for our ‘democratic’ profligacy and mis-governance, the genuinely tribal people, a vast majority of Scheduled Castes, the marginal, rain dependent and suicide prone farmers, the eco-system refugees thronging urban slums, the struggling lower middle classes, the honest and so on, do not (perhaps cannot?) mobilize themselves to sustain any challenge to well entrenched and net worked Oligarchies-cum-Plutocracies. And they cannot do this due to the nature and structure of inequality amongst and between them, be it social, economic, educational or political. For instance, can there be political mobilization or a party of honest people across these multiple inequalities? And recent ‘Class’ divides have sharply exacerbated this underlying inequality. Add to this, the dubious First Past the Post method of electing ‘people’s’ representatives in our great democracy ‘tamasha’. More than any other factor, the FPTP clause has stopped competent, educated and well meaning people from getting elected.

    Is it any wonder then that MPs and MLAs do everything except represent the people who elected them? The current version of Representative democracy has long failed in India and the badly battered categories (above) have no political representation worth the name. The few who break equality barriers are sooner than later co-opted into ‘The System’.

    More than the political class, unless the bureaucracy (a huge vested interest in itself) begins to play a fair and Constitutional game and stand up to the ministers, there seems to be little hope of moving in a peaceful way towards a more just and equitable society.


  6. says: Avay Shukla

    Couldn’t agree more, Nodnat. What we do indeed require is a people’s revolution, which is a difficult thing to achieve against a modern state which has all the resources at its command- coercion, patronage, finance, and even institutions like the judiciary and the bureaucracy which it can ( and does) subvert with ease. Its actually a Catch-22 situation: no meaningful change is possible within the parameters of existing laws ( which favour the status quo), but any attempt to change these laws is immediately dubbed as unconstitutional, seditious and put down with a heavy hand. The experiment is playing out in Delhi right now in all its blatant nakedness. Kejriwal’s attempt to provide a more responsive, accountable and people-centric government is being thwarted by the oligarchists at every turn, quoting SEC. 229 of the Constitution and the Delhi Reorganisation Act, both of which are dated and anachronistic pieces of legislation- and notice how ALL parties are ranged against him! They see the dangers of Kejriwal succeeding, for then it will offer an alternate model of governance. And therefore they will not allow him to govern, and have thrown everything at him– the Lieutenant Governor, the Delhi police, the Municipal Corporations, the DDA, his own bureaucracy, even the CRPC and the IPC. The judiciary will not provide him any relief either because it is also part of the status quo. So is the media- they will spare no time for his excellent budget and other bold initiatives but will concentrate instead on his electricity bills, Manish Sisodia’s car being challaned, and the alleged escapades of Kumar Vishwas: they too wish to distract attention from his governance model. The surest indicator that Kejriwal is on the right track is provided by the nature of his support base- the deprived and under-privileged people NODNAT has referred to, and not the fat cats of South Delhi. He will need have tremendous reserves of energy and endurance to survive this onslaught, but if he does then we may see a cataclysmic change in our polity. How difficult his course is going to be can be gauged by the fate of the last such attempted revolution- by Jaiprakash Narayan in the 70’s. Even he failed, for the Janata Dal he spawned consisted of frustrated elements who wanted power for themselves, not for the people. They were quickly coopted into the system and are now scattered all over India, oligarchs all, seeking votes in the name of caste, religion and getting them by the use of money and musclepower. Much as we may deride Kejriwal and his bumbling AAP the hope ultimately lies with him, and with his inexperienced, politically naive but idealistic team.
    I hope this partly answers your question and doubts too, Amarjot. Unfortunately,there can be no clear answers just yet.

  7. says: Nodnat

    You are dead right. Neither the BJP nor the Congress (two sides of the same coin) can afford to let the AAP experiment succeed. Sixty years of their unequally shared ‘milking’ of India’s people is a ‘stake’ that is too valuable to be allowed to be exposed and understood by the common voter. It would be like the East India Company letting the French carry out an audit of their accounts and then let the Dutch upload the Report on the Internet!

  8. says: Prakash Katoch

    Splendid analysis and accurate exposure of the state of affairs. The question is does the present dispensation, or more precisely the Prime Minster, have the balls to set things right, and quickly before it becomes wholly unmanageable?

  9. says: K RAMANI

    You are right. Will you please tell me how come the so called intelligentia are thier followers. You have NK Singh Amitabh Bacchan, then you have these IFS/IAS fellows with Mulayam and Nitish .

    What is your solution??? We all know this … father is in Congress son in BJP , PLESAE HAVE A CLOSE LOOK AT raja, yechury, brinda,, karat what is their contribution… They are passing their life very well… no worries… have good pay … get paid well.. Come once in a while in front of TV on some controversial topic GIVE GYAN and disappear WHAT BETTER WAY TO LAED LIFE NO RESPONSIBILITY NO ACCOUNATBILITY

    If you take out Jiatly , Sushma Swaraj, MODI has a good cabinet … but he BANKS ON jAITLY WHO HAS BEEN IN THE INNER CIRCLE OF BUREAYCRTAS AND politicians for decades.. he cant change.

    In the ultimate analysis we get the Govt we deserve …

  10. says: Avay Shukla

    Good to hear from you, General Krishan ! I distinctly remember the Pine Hills eco-camp and am gratified to hear that it is up and running. If I remember it was the first project to actually take off on the ground, thanks to the military precision with which you and your partners approached the whole idea. I’m hoping you will expand into other areas, taking the benefit of the experience gained at Barog. This is the only way any sensible model of tourism can go in a mountain state. Shall certainly try and make it some day to your idyllic camp site. Wishing you all the best.

  11. says: AK.George

    A well written article. No doubt it is the truth. End of the day who will bell the cat ? and HOW? The procedure? That is what is needed.
    The ‘common man ‘can vote and elect a person,but they have no right to remove him from that post!!!

Leave a comment
Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.