India’s Bourgeois Revolution

NEW DELHI – In 2009, when I competed in India’s last parliamentary election, I was something of a rarity. I was not a professional politician. By contrast, all of the other candidates in my constituency – indeed, most of the contenders across the country – had devoted their entire lives to politics, many since their student days.

I was not born into a political family; I had no seat or political fiefdom to inherit; and I had entered the race without a political “godfather.” I had not even lived in India for decades, having spent my adult life working abroad for the United Nations. Nonetheless, I managed to wrest a seat from the opposition Communist Party of India, which had won the two previous elections in my constituency, with a substantial margin of 100,000 votes.

This victory represented a slight crack in the well-guarded fortress of Indian politics, which had long been reserved for a small and largely hereditary circle. The only exceptions had been movie stars, whose popular appeal was based on fame, not political pedigree. Professionals who had built careers and reputations in other fields simply could not get their foot in the door.

But this may finally be changing. In the current general election, there are more non-politician candidacies than in any previous poll. For example, Nandan Nilekani, co-founder of the technology giant Infosys, is running on behalf of the Congress Party in Bangalore, India’s information-technology capital, against a five-term incumbent from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).