The Indian Elections of 2004

Nobody expected these results. Across the country, the hundreds of millions of Indian voters rejected the economic “reforms” associated with IMFundamentalism. The most dramatic repudiation of these “reforms” came in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, where the Chief Minister and leader of the Telugu Desam Party, Chandrababu Naidu, fashioned himself as the state’s CEO. The people refused to allow the TDP any representation in the lower house of the Parliament, the Lok Sabha. The international media, by which we mean everything owned by Fox mogul Rupert Murdoch, anointed Naidu as the favored child of the new world order, being ruthless against small farmers and generous toward information technology. He thought he had renamed Andhra Pradesh’s capital, Hyderabad, to Cyberabad. Nothing of the sort.

The right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which led the coalition government (in which Naidu’s party played a crucial role), also felt the wrath of the voters. The BJP had relied upon its politics of cruel cultural nationalism against Christians, Muslims and the Left. This did not play well with voters who denied victories to the BJP’s most virulently cruel cultural ideologues, including the former Minister for Human Resource Development Murli Manohar Joshi. In Gujarat, where the BJP’s Sangh/Jang Parivar had engineered a pogrom against Muslims in 2002 (in retaliation for the murder of fifty-eight of its activists), the BJP could only win half the seats. In Uttar Pradesh, where it played its strongest chauvinist card, all its heavyweights could not win.

But did the people reject the BJP mainly for its cruel cultural nationalism? That might have been the case in some regions, but as far as exit polls and other evidence suggests, what was most on the minds of the voters across the country was the BJP’s enthusiastic embrace of IMFundamentalism, the rights of global corporations and the arrogance of the new middle class in the metropolitan areas. Its campaign slogan, India Shining, reflected its craven disregard for the suicides of farmers, the decrease in wages for day workers, the sufferings of the survivors of the Gujarat pogrom, the hardship of the millions who have been put out of work by the “disinvestment” policy to sell the public sector to the most corrupt bidder, and much else. The slogan irked the voter, who saw the reality of their lives mocked by the shallowness of the PR blitz.

The Congress Party is not immune to criticism for these economic “reforms.” Indeed, it was the Congress that initiated them, first in the late 1970s and again, with the collusion of the IMF, in 1991. The man who leads the Congress, Manmohan Singh, was the Finance Minister when the Indian government turned to the IMF to conduct the structural adjustment of its relatively self-reliant economy. But, people also remember that the Congress once came to the voters, even if cynically, with the slogan, Garibi Hatao – Remove Poverty. In the main, however, the voters did not so much vote for the Congress as they voted against the BJP and its allies.

That is clear across the country. The Congress benefited from a vote against the last six years of economic harshness. Despite this transparent fact, Manmohan Singh quickly announced that as far as economic policy is concerned, the United Progressive Alliance led by the Congress would alter nothing. Such words portend the suicide of the Congress Party. Even after these reassurances, the gangster brokers at Dalal Street scuttled the stock market so that it registered an incredible decline, and terrified the middle class. This was Big Money’s undemocratic way to tell the Congress not to mess with the “reforms” which benefit it, even as it runs the country into the ground.

The main beneficiary of the elections has been the Left. The major Communist Parties won more seats than ever before and will play an important role in the next period. They have decided not to join the government because the Congress has failed to learn the lesson of this election. The Left will support the government from outside, which means that it will be able to offer opposition to the economic policies that the Congress will pursue, give support to the liberal cultural policy that the Congress alliance will most likely implement (given its allies, such as the Samajwadi Party and Rashtriya Janata Dal), and continue to fight against any tacit agreements that opportunists within the Congress might make with the BJP and it allies.

The real lesson of this election is that the BJP faced defeat not just because of its policies, but crucially because the Communists and the social movements generated mass struggles across the country on a number of issues. In Andhra Pradesh, the Communist Parties fought the rise in electricity rates and the starvation of farmers since 2000. In late August 2000, the parties organized a massive demonstration against the Naidu government, put the issues of inequity on the table and faced a barrage of bullets from the police. Two activists lost their lives. Then, the Communists set up gruel centers in the areas where the farmers had been hardest hit by the entry of global agro-businesses, as well as by the rise in prices of fertilizer, water and power. At these centers, the left provided free food as well as analysis of the situation in the state. Such actions pushed the generally turgid Congress Party to get into the act, and because they have a much broader organization, they were able to capitalize on the Left’s efforts.

Much the same thing will have to be reproduced across the country. There is no substitute for sustained political struggle to build mass movements. Only a politicized population that backs a progressive government with a genuine program written in the people’s interest can make Indian shine. Not the glibness of a PR firm hired to rewrite the ghastly reality of the BJP’s six years in office.

2004 is a historic year for the ballot box. Up to May, thirty-three countries have held elections, including El Salvador, Georgia, Greece, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Russia, South Africa, Spain, and Taiwan. The right has been defeated in many of these countries, but for Russia, which has an electoral system that is the envy of most authoritarian politicians. India joined Spain in rejecting a political party that slavishly wanted to follow George Bush into the valley of Armageddon. One can only hope that when we go to the polls in 2004, we’ll learn from the Indian voters, and we’ll landscape the White House and get rid of the Bushes.

VIJAY PRASHAD teaches at Trinity College, Hartford, CT. His latest book is Keeping Up with the Dow Joneses: Debt, Prison, Workfare (Boston: South End Press).


Vijay Prashad’s most recent book (with Noam Chomsky) is The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and the Fragility of US Power (New Press, August 2022).