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One Step Forward, One Step Back

The Indian Elections: a Game Changer?

by VIJAY PRASHAD

The Indian general election of 2009 is finally over. 445 million voters entered 828,000 polling booths to elect 543 candidates to the lower house of the parliament, the Lok Sabha. An immense state apparatus went into play to ensure that the voters’ will was not subverted by theft (2.1 million security guards were joined by 74,729 videographers to observe the polls). The entire process took just over a month. On Saturday, May 16, the Election Commission released news of the outcome. This is the first election in decades where there was no foreseeable victor; neither was there one singular issue. Four major coalitions vied for position, and the issues on the table appeared to be far more local than national. The result has belied this expectation. The Indian National Congress won decisively, over 200 seats, and for the first time since the 1960s, is able to form a government in Delhi without any major allies. This is a remarkable feat, given that the Congress ran an election promising more of the same, a certain tonic for defeat in anti-incumbency democratic politics. It projected the current Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as its leader, even as it had the various scions of the Nehru family as the central icons of the party and of its campaigning (Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul Gandhi both won their seats this election). Little suggested that the Congress would do better than it did in 2004 (with 145 seats).

The Congress’ victory came at the expense of various regional parties, and the Left. Its gains were taken directly from the Left (in West Bengal and Kerala), and from two other regions where it had previously been shut-out (Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh). The Left suffered, in many ways, from the perils of governance in neo-liberal times: able to bring justice to the countryside, the Left faced a growing unemployment problem that it could not solve through a feasible alternative. Attempts to break the intractable bind of jobless industrial growth failed, not only because the Left had to operate within the confines of bourgeois law, but also because of the privations of governance in regions without the treasury of oil. The Left’s allies in places such as Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh had an overly expedient relationship to anti-capitalism; the voters saw right through them. The Left had engineered a Third Front, which, at one time, projected as its prime ministerial candidate the leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Mayawati. The BSP was originally the party of the most oppressed, Dalit, castes, but it has since crafted itself as a wily player, making alliances with Brahmins to fend off the dominant, rural castes who are not at either end of the hypothetical caste totem pole. Mayawati’s party maintained its 2004 position, making no gains.

The party of political Hinduism (the Bharatiya Janata Party, BJP) won 138 seats in 2004, but this time could only pull off 117. Confined to a few states, the BJP suffered from the gradual demise of its irascible politics: when one of its candidates, Varun Gandhi (another great-grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, as it turns out), made anti-Muslim statements, it dented the BJP’s claim to being an inclusive party. Its leader, L. K. Advani, wanted desperately to be the next Prime Minister, but his close association with the politics of animus failed him. Concern for their economic well-being trumped any anxiety among the voters about national security, so that the BJP had little to run on. Both the Congress and the BJP have close ties to big money, and to economic “reform” (which is essentially the process to dismantle the public sector), but the Congress unlike the BJP also has some measure of commitment to social welfare. The siren of national security was so weak that the BJP was unable to make capital out of the Mumbai terror attacks of last year. The BJP’s alliance partners have also failed it, afraid for good reason that Hindu supremacy’s engine might be slowly winding down. Advani has resigned as leader of his party. In the wings stands Narendra Modi, the leader from Gujarat, who is known for his efficiency and his brutality, a combination that chills. The BJP is not down and out, only wounded. Its social base has not abandoned it, even as the party has left them down electorally.

If the BJP lost parts of its coalition in the run-up to the election, the Congress too lost several of its partners. Three of them went on to form the Fourth Front (these are the main parties that emerged out of the Socialist tradition, but they are now essentially parties of the Other Backward Castes who dominate the political culture along the Gangetic plain of northern India). This election was not kind to them. One of their leaders, Ram Vilas Pawan, holds a record in the Guinness Book for the largest margin of victory in a democratic election; but that was in 1977. He lost his seat this year. The Congress went alone in the politically fertile belt along the Ganges, and it emerged more victorious than even it anticipated. It won 22 of the 80 seats in Uttar Pradesh, a much better showing than its 9 in 2004, and the Samajwadi Party, which will certainly support the Congress government, won an equal number. Regional parties remained strong, although most of them held power in their states based on the reasonably good governance of their parties in the state governments (so that Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal-United and Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal both won in Bihar and Orissa respectively). They have limited national ambition.

Contributions of the Left.

Fawning supplicants hastily said that the turn-around in the Congress came because of the energy expended by the descendants of the Nehru family. “All credit goes to Rahul Gandhi for single handedly reviving the Congress in Uttar Pradesh,” said Jyotiraditya Scindia, the scion of an ex-royal family who is in the Congress high command. This is not a scientific judgment. More is gained by looking backward. The Congress went into what seemed like terminal decline from the 1970s to the mid-1990s. The emergence of regional parties with a commitment to political devolution put paid to the idea that such a vast region as India must have only one highly centralized party; local issues lost out in the centrifugal Congress. Apart from this institutional thrust against the Congress, the main reason for its decline was ideological. Till the 1970s, the Congress’ claim to legitimacy rested on the immense prestige of its anti-colonial role, and upon this foundation grew the two pillars of its policy, secularism and socialism. The socialism began to fray after the two oil shocks, and as India’s midnight’s children, those of the elite born after 1947, felt compelled to liberate themselves from India’s poor. This is what they meant by “liberalization,” and one of its main architects was the current Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh. A brief foray into populism in the early 1970s was abandoned as the Congress tried to govern without democracy (through an Emergency regime in 1975-77) and then through the politics of identity rather than the politics of well-being (in the 1980s). But as the Congress walked the identity road, it was outflanked from the Right by the BJP. The Congress limped on, but always a pale shadow.

In 2004, the Congress was able to return to power at the head of a vast coalition that was united by its disgust at six years of BJP rule. It is at this juncture that the Left forced the Congress to slightly shift its disregard for social democracy, and to enact several measures to benefit the impoverished rural workers, in particular. The Congress needed the Left, whose outside support not only gave stability to the government, but it also provided the Congress with the policy positions to reach populations abandoned by New Delhi. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) was one such instrument, brought into force in 2005 to give adults who live in rural areas hundred days of employment a year to do public works at the minimum wage. Despite sneers from the Congress’ own economists (many of whom cut their teeth in Washington with the World Bank and IMF), the Congress political brass agreed with the Left that this project should be a priority. The NREGA provided a floor beneath families devastated by rural unemployment. Mihir Shah of the Central Employment Guarantee Council says that although “India’s countryside continues to be characterized by a sluggish agrarian economy, marred by malnourished children and anaemic women, as also suicide by farmers in distress, there is no question that NREGA has put money into the hands of the poorest of the poor on a scale that is unprecedented in the history of independent India.” The NREGA burnished the Congress’ image.

In July 2008, when the Left broke its tie with the Congress, the Finance Minister P. Chidambaram hastily told the business press that the Left’s departure will speed up the process of the “economic reforms.” Chidambaram, one of those least enthused by the NREGA and other social welfare provisions, was keen to move on the GDP. “What do they want us to do,” he had earlier asked of the Left. “Do they only want to distribute poverty in this country? Those who say the market growth is irrelevant and those who say the growth only helps the rich are the worst enemies of the poor.” The Left blocked the Banking Regulation Bill that would have given Indian banks over to their counterparts in London and New York, Tokyo and Hong Kong. The Left also protected both the insurance and the pension sector from control by the wiles of international finance capital. India has been buffered from the current financial crisis largely because the border guards of finance were not withdrawn. Had they left the financial borders unguarded, the crisis would have been even deeper (about 600,000 workers lost their jobs in these past few months, crop prices have dampened the hopes of an agricultural recovery, and agrarian suicides continue – but things could have been worse). The Congress benefitted from the Left’s vigilance.

Little distinguishes the Congress from the BJP on matters of “economic reform.” But the Congress has a softer spot, making it more amenable to the kind of social welfare schemes that capital can swallow. Additionally, the Congress is programmatically opposed to communalism, the politics of hatred that is central to political Hinduism. The Congress has a historical link to secularism, and it long recognized that for it to recover its political ground it must once more be seen as the party of Muslims and oppressed castes. Hence, early in the tenure of his government, Manmohan Singh appointed the Sachar Commission to investigate barriers that hold back Indian Muslims from full equality. The Commission’s frankness earned it plaudits from all sections, but especially from Indian Muslims, who had faced over two decades of ascendancy by the very nastiest face of political Hinduism. Rather than riots the Congress promised degrees and capital. Soberness marked the Congress-led government’s approach to things that mattered directly to Indian Muslims – its response to the Mumbai attacks was not jingoism, which would certainly have led to attacks on Indian Muslims. The seriousness of purpose to seek a diplomatic solution prevented the outbreak of a pogrom, something that had become commonplace when the BJP held the reins of power. Indian Muslims and other minorities took shelter in the Congress.

These gestures from the Congress government have much to do with the Left’s role in New Delhi. The probity of the Left gave it more influence than its parliamentary presence should have allowed. But it was this commitment to honesty and its program that also moved the Left to break its tie with the Congress in 2004. The issue here was the Congress’ foreign policy, a part of governance that is often least important during an election, unless the issue is one of war. Since the 1990s, the Congress has been eager to forge a political alliance with the United States (and Israel), a logical step if India was to become one more platform for the Washington Consensus. Small steps brought the ruling elites of Washington and New Delhi closer together, and by 9/11, the links had become very close. The Indian Left and wizened nationalists within the Congress threw themselves in the middle, preventing the complete fusion of Indian foreign policy with Washington’s needs. It was this alliance that refused Bush’s request for Indian troops to Iraq in 2003. But the Left could not win all the battles, having failed to prevent India’s agreement on the US policy to isolate Iran. As part of a quid pro quo, the US government validated India’s nuclear program and India voted with the US against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency. It was on the issue of the nuclear deal that the Left withdrew its support to the Congress government in 2008. The issue remains important, but it is not one that is immediately related to more pressing questions of hunger and homelessness.

The Confederation of Indian Industry hailed the new election result and said that the “reforms” must be “fast tracked.” The Congress’ spokesperson, Jairam Ramesh, explained to the New York Times that this kind of speed could now be the order of the day because “the Left will not have a stranglehold. There will be better cohesion on economic policy. Right now, the priority is to restore high economic growth.” Those in the Congress who lean Left are weakened by the Left’s loss; Mani Shankar Aiyar, who is a Congressman in the Fabian Socialist tradition, lost his seat, which means that that singular Nehruvian voice is lost to the Congress’ parliamentary delegation. It will be filled with those who are enthused with high-tech and stock exchanges, and care only for rural policy when it impacts their own vote banks. If the Congress does follow the advice of Ramesh, as all indicators assume it will, then it will shoot itself in the foot. The mandate it received is not for more “reform,” but for policies such as the NGERA and the Sachar Commission, policies that stem from its original social democratic ideology. But it no longer has the Left as conscience.

Defeat has come to the Left. In its three bastions, the Left held on only to Tripura. In Kerala and West Bengal the verdict was split, but that is not enough for the Communists. In West Bengal, in particular, the Left has over the past few decades swept the parliamentary elections. This was largely a function of its impressive work in the construction of rural democracy, and in the fragmentation of the camp of reaction. This time, the latter united, as the Congress joined hands with its long-time adversary, the Trinamool Congress and various extreme left cults. They united in opposition to the Left Front’s controversial industrialization policy, and in particular to the struggle in Singur (where a Tata car factory was to be built) and in Nandigram (where a ferocious battle broke out over land utilization). The Left was unable to defend both the broad policy and the interpretation of the events in Singur-Nandigram. In Kerala, the Left was undone by factionalism, and once more disagreements over development policy. The largest Communist Party, the CPIM, recognized that this election is a “major setback” for the movement, and that the party must now conduct a “serious examination of the reasons” for its poor performance.

VIJAY PRASHAD is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His new book is The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, New York: The New Press, 2007. He can be reached at: vijay.prashad@trincoll.edu