CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — The largest election in history, involving more than 700 million voters, has resulted in the victory of India’s ruling alliance, led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of the Indian National Congress. The verdict disproved gloomy predictions of a hung Parliament and the further strengthening of regional parties. The new government will be far more stable than many of its predecessors, so the election results have elicited profound relief.

But the fact remains that, like previous governments, the new administration will consist mostly of politicians unfit to hold ministerial office. While several provincial satraps have been cut down to size, new aspiring ones have garnered significant support. Despite the manifest success of India’s democracy, its parliamentary system is not succeeding in giving India good governance.

Obviously, India is not a failed state. Lant Pritchett of the Harvard Kennedy School has coined a new name for India: a “flailing state” — a state where the government’s extremely competent upper echelons are unable to control its inefficient lower levels, resulting in poor performance.

But this analysis gives credit where none is due: India’s problem is its top political leadership’s lack of competence. The inability of India’s current political system to provide effective government places the country in a different category: a nonperforming state.

The idealism of India’s freedom movement quickly evaporated after independence in the face of the opportunities for patronage that came with power. The way India’s political system evolved has made politics the surest path to wealth. The money spent to win elections (often including the purchase of a party’s nomination) is recouped many times over once the winner is in office. Half of India’s legislators who stood for re-election this time around had tripled their assets in the last five years.

Increasing corruption within governments run by the Congress party, which led India to independence and monopolized political power for decades, showed what a lucrative career politics had become. Given India’s religious, caste and linguistic divides, politicians saw how easily they could leverage even a small following into votes.

Soon, Indian political parties began to break up, giving rise to a large number of regional and caste-based parties. Most of these parties are led by political dynasties that prize loyalty over merit.

Because of the splintering of political parties, India has had only one single-party government and eight coalition governments in the last two decades. Members of the coalition governments have treated the ministries allocated to them as fiefdoms, to be milked for their benefit. Over time, India’s government has become primarily a tool for advancing the personal interests of politicians rather than the entity responsible for running the country.

The opportunity for personal gains through public office has made electoral politics an automatic career choice for Indian politicians’ progeny. Record numbers of sons and daughters of political leaders and millionaires (and people with criminal backgrounds) contested this election. We are seeing the formation of a new Indian caste — a caste of rulers different from India’s traditional Kshatriya caste — before our very eyes.

Like existing castes, the new caste specializes in one occupation: political office. Just as someone became a carpenter or a trader in an earlier era merely through birth, members of India’s ruling caste now become leaders of parties, members of legislatures, and Cabinet ministers solely because of their parentage.

And, as with the older castes, there is no need for any qualification for the vocation; birth alone is sufficient. Lack of vocational competence never barred Indians from remaining in their caste, and how well one performs in political office is, likewise, not a criterion for politicians to continue in positions of power.

India’s parliamentary system requires ministers to be members of the legislature. Party leaders select family members and other loyal followers as candidates for elections, with absolutely no consideration of their abilities to fulfill ministerial responsibilities, resulting in Cabinets that are simply not capable of managing the problems confronting the country’s national and state governments.

Even with the best political leadership, governing India is no easy task. Successive governments staffed with unqualified politicians have failed dismally to carry out the core governmental functions of maintaining law and order, providing the basic services expected of modern societies, and promoting economic growth. India’s high-performing private sector has so far masked the failure of the Indian state.

In its current form, India’s parliamentary system can produce only nonperforming, corrupt governments. It rewards ambition, promotes office-at-any-cost politics, and devalues merit.

Taking away the prize of ministerial office from elected representatives might discourage wealth-maximizing politicians from entering politics. It is time, therefore, for India to consider introducing a presidential system of government, which would reduce the scope for “horse trading” and allow the country’s leader to select competent people for Cabinet positions.

Appu Soman is a fellow of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. © 2009 Project Syndicate

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