For political aficionados, the Indian parliamentary election is the superbowl of superbowls. The largest electorate in the world moves, and in that movement, scoffs at elites and cynics all around the world who say democracy is not for the poor, the illiterate or the backward. As its hand hovers over the ballot box (or in this election, the touchscreen), it makes and breaks the rich and the powerful in distant Delhi.
Twice in the last thirty years, a profoundly anti-democratic dispensation in India has been overthrown by the ballot. On both occasions, the coup de grace came not from the urban literates mouthing the shibboleth of the day (‘law and order’ in 1977, ‘economic reforms’ in 2004), but by the masses who saw things for what they were. As the results gushed in on May 13, 2004 (electronic voting making the counting of 400,000,000 votes a mere matter of hours, plus the advantage of India not having a state called Florida), it became clear that the people had defied TV-anchor and editorial page wisdom and showed the ruling coalition the door.
This election was also the first to be conducted entirely in electronic format. That it went flawlessly is a tribute to the world’s largest democracy, and testimony to the country’s increasing facility with the computer.
The new government
I wish one could say that the inheritors were clean knights in shining armor. The Congress Party,which will form the next government, imposed a fascist rule on the country between 1975-77. It was responsible for the mass murder of sikhs following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984. It was also the originator of economic liberalization (though it was never so axiomatic about it as the current government) when it reassumed power in 1991. And as soon as it seemed to have acquired enough support to form a government, its first statement was the obligatory one — “economic reforms will continue”. Through the five years of the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA)’s cultural assault, the Congress often did little to resist. But there will be time enough to deride the Congress during the rest of its term. Today is a day for cheering.
Reasons for the upset
The opinion and exit polls — almost uniformly — predicted either a majority for the ruling alliance led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or at the very least an assured position as the largest bloc in Parliament. The Congress Party, led by Italian-born but India-settled Sonia Gandhi (whose foreignness is strangely troubling to expatriate Indians settled in far corners of the world), was at first billed to do worse than the last time, and though slowly upgraded, never expected to emerge as the largest single party (its position for the first 30 years of independent India).
How did this upset take place? Who knows? As the Urdu couplet goes, “Ya subah ka ehsaan ho, ya meri kashish ho, Dooba hua khursheed sarebaam to aaya…” (Whether it was the kindness of the morning, or my irresistible attraction, the sunken sun did come up after all).
But we can recount some possible reasons.
Mom, can I be the 51st State?
The NDA, and its leading constituent, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s BJP, became the standard bearers of globalization, zealous in their pursuit of ‘economic reforms’, ardent water carriers for America. To its shame, official India remained mute when Iraq was attacked. Mr. Vajpayee’s administration was threw its weight behind the Strategic Defense Initiative, and was mightily proud of a projected US-Israel-India alignment in a new world order.
The globalization policy, while delighting a rudderless urban middle class drooling over the prospect of luxury at any price, devastated much of the urban poor and village India. The aftermath of joining the WTO has wreaked havoc among the farmers, of whom it is reported that more than 25000 have committed suicide in recent years — a development not deemed worthy of serious front page coverage in Indian newspapers, many of whom have far more important stories to carry, such as Oscar Night and Emmy Nominations.
The identification with America came at a time when America’s stock was on the downswing the world over. Even the BJP’s Hindu vote base, though possessed of no great love for Muslims, could see that Indian silence in the face of the invasion of Iraq, and the frenetic energy with which Mr. Vajpayee’s government tried to preempt Pakistan and get in bed with the Bush Administration in the latter’s post-9-11 muscle-flexing, were hardly in keeping with India’s tradition of anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism. And if America could launch a pre-emptive attack on a country merely suspected to be developing nuclear weapons, it did not take much imagination to see that a country with actual nuclear weapons could be considered just as much of a target.
India on Sale, POTA
On the domestic front, the government proceeded to systematically carry out a controversial privatization initiative involving the selling off of billions of dollars of public assets. India’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of the government, declaring that workers had no inherent right to strike. State high-handedness was rampant, and to seal the deal, Mr. Vajpayee’s government pushed through a law called POTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act), which basically did away with large sections of India’s constitutional protections regarding arbitrary arrest, detention and due process.
To compound this general attitude of callousness, the BJP, as its allies looked on mutely, oversaw the worst communal pogrom in post-partition India. Thousands of muslims were killed throughout Gujarat state, in response to the killing of Hindus in Godhra, a town in the same state. The response of the central government was the rough equivalent of ‘Stuff happens’. The Gujarat state government, also led by a BJP chief minister, saw in all this nothing more than the manifestation of the universal law of action and reaction. Even now, many BJP supporters view this as just a tit for tat. They would also tell you (quite factually) that thousands of Hindus have had to leave the state of Jammu and Kashmir owing to fear of militants. They miss a vital difference: in Gujarat, the killings, rapes and lootings took place with the deliberate inaction (and in some places, the active connivance) of the state government (see, “Riding the Tiger in India,).
The Cultural Taliban
Another aspect of BJP rule (again as its allies, including the anti-fascist stalwart of 1975, George Fernandes, stood shamelessly by) was the attempted cultural transformation of the country in the name of ‘Hindutva’. This term, originally coined by VD Savarkar, the spiritual father of the BJP — and incidentally an accused in the murder of Mahatma Gandhi — means ‘Hinduness’. In the dispensation of the last five years, the BJP and its cohorts got to decide who was Hindu enough. Led by a bumbling Hindutva enthusiast called Murli Manohar Joshi (who lost his seat in the elections), the BJP pushed through the rewriting of Indian history according to the Hindutava interpretation, and created revised textbooks now used by millions of schoolchildren throughout India. A friend of mine, who worked at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) — one of the most prestigious technical institutions in the world — told me how Joshi was forcing IIT meetings to begin with a Hindu prayer (the Muttawain would be proud), something spineless officials, swayed by the atmosphere, readily acceded to. My friend died of cancer earlier this year — how I wish he had been alive to see this clown trounced!
Aside from such backdoor efforts to leave its imprint on Indian history and culture, the NDA also countenanced with little demur the burning of libraries, art exhibits, the threatening of artists and others because they were deemed not to conform to the Hindutva view of things. For all its cravenness towards things American, the BJP had no time for the spirit of the First Amendment. When the world-famous Bhandarkar Library in Pune, India, (a repository of ancient Hindu manuscripts, among other things), was ransacked and trashed in January because an American author of a book critical of an Indian folk hero had thanked it for its help, no political leader said a word, and both the state and central governments stood by watching. No wonder the looting of the Baghdad Museum did not strike the NDA Government as calling for an outcry.
All this may yet not have been enough to ensure the NDA’s ouster. But in the last few months, it spent public money like water to blanket the airwaves and roadsides with ads and billboards of “India Shining”, showing off the great progress India had made (neither the message nor its context was lost on anyone during the election season). I was in Chennai (Madras) early this year, and the city (run by a recent NDA ally) was without drinking water, with the worst dry season still to come. People were buying and storing water by the truckfull, and even scheduling that was getting difficult. In the neighboring state of Andhra Pradesh, the chief minister, another NDA ally, who prided himself as the chief globalist of India and habitually went about with a laptop computer, forgot that his state was in the throes of a drought and that rural indebtedness had driven many to despair. Three days before the parliamentary election results, his party was thrashed in the state assembly polls, presaging the rout of his partners on the national scene. “India Shining”, was a slap in the face of the average Indian, something only a tone-deaf administration with its ear cocked solely toward praise from the west would have missed. Instead of pulling the plug, they continued the campaign for months before being ordered to stop by the Election Commission for being violative of election campaign laws. Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani made much of what he called, “the Feel Good Factor” under the BJP. It turned out to be Feel Good Riddance Factor.
Bye, bye, Mr. Vajpayee
All in all, Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee, veteran of Indian politics and regarded (wrongly, in my view, for what politicians do matters more than what they say) as a moderate, came across as out of touch, and some of his colleagues as epitomes of downright chest-thumping zealots. Like the myth of George W. Bush being strong on terrorism, there is one about Vajpayee being the master of foreign policy. If India is regarded with greater respect in the world today, it has little to do with Vajpayee, and a lot to do with the purchasing power of its economy, a product of liberal education and technological strength for which one must thank Jawaharlal Nehru.
One is tempted to make an analogy of Mr. Vajpayee’s defeat with that of Winston Churchill in 1945. Would that it were true… Churchill left behind the legacy of a nation united in wartime and prepared to sacrifice. Mr. Vajpayee leaves behind a culture of callous divisiveness and selfish consumerism. If Churchill challenged the British people asking for blood, sweat and tears, Mr. Vajpayee scarcely said anything inspiring, projecting only a smug, don’t worry, be happy attitude. Churchill’s words can ring with power even today. The only place where Vajpayee’s clever wordplay evokes appreciation any more is amidst inebriated Indian audiences in foreign countries. I speak as one who has attended many of his public meetings and enjoyed his oratory (See ‘Wanted, An Orator‘ .
Conventional wisdom in India is that Mr Vajpayee brought about, after several attempts, a kind of a rapprochement between India and Pakistan. One may say his heart was in the right place, of his surefootedness one is less certain (see ‘Neither Pragmatism nor Principle — The Vajpayee record on Pakistan’). His visit to China was considered a success in building bridges between the two Asian giants. This too is an imperative of the times, and Vajpayee’s abandonment of India’s traditional sympathy for the Tibetans has came in for criticism. The one achievement for which he deserves credit is the holding of free elections in Jammu and Kashmir.
In the end, Atal Behari Vajpayee’s tenure as prime minister of India will be remembered, like that of Bill Clinton’s as a squandered opportunity, mistaking galloping consumption for real upliftment, spiritual or material, leaving little lasting positive imprint on the country’s ethos.