The Great Quinquennial Cacophonic Political Symphony:
some thoughts on the Indian elections
letter from Chennai by PM Raman, economic historian
India, the world’s largest democracy, holds parliamentary or general elections every five years. But this time round it has attracted considerable global media attention: there is a lot at stake for transnational capital as well as for the Indian bourgeoisie, sections of which have major interests outside the country.
The sixteenth general election, for 542 parliamentary seats to the Lok Sabha (lower house), was held in nine phases between 7 April and 12 May. Counting starts on the morning of 16 May. By early afternoon we should have a clear picture of which party or combination of parties has crossed the magical figure of 272 seats, or is within striking distance of it. This is the simple majority required for forming a government in Delhi. Wielding enormous power, this government will shape the destiny of a billion and a half Indians, at least for the coming five years.
As with previous elections, the principal contest is between two major parties: the incumbent Indian National Congress, a bourgeois centrist liberal party, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a right wing Hindu ultranationalist party, also very much pro-bourgeois. There is no major difference between the two parties with respect to crucial economic questions. Both favour aggressive capitalist development, smoothed through via policy initiatives to facilitate the process for domestic and foreign capital. The “liberalisation” or pro-market reform programme initiated in the early 1990s has come to stay. All parties, including regional players, have not just come to terms with it but become zealous competitors vying with each other to establish “pro-reform” credentials.
Yet despite being pro-capital in its overall approach, the Indian government cannot risk of disregarding the social fallout of this market-induced growth project, regardless of which party takes power. The stark reality of glaring inequality and deprivation, masses of working poor across urban and rural India barely able to eke out a living, with little to no access to basic necessities – this is something that will dog those in power. Once both parties would have been compelled to pursue social welfare programmes to soften the harshness of the growth project and preempt widespread social unrest.
The crucial difference between the two major national parties lies in their ideological worldview. Congress is broadly more inclusive and non-discriminatory in its overall approach to communities and religious identities. The BJP is distinctly more exclusive and partial towards Hindus. It unabashedly espouses what it describes as Hindu nationalism. There will be an unmistakable right wing tilt to government police if the BJP win power.
UPA in dire straits
The United Progressive Alliance, centred around Congress won in 2004 and 2009. But this time round it is expected to perform dismally. The electorate is weary of an incumbent coalition that has spent ten years in power. The UPA is besmirched by widespread corruption and scams, involving of ministers, government functionaries and corporate houses. These include the infamous 2G spectrum allocation scam, the Commonwealth Games scam, the irregularities in grant of licenses for coal and other mining leases, defence purchase deals and, most recently, the controversy over gas pricing involving the Ambanis, India’s wealthiest corporate group. Inflation is rising, manufacturing is sluggish, and agriculture is declining. This has resulted in what has best been described as jobless growth.
Exit polls suggest the BJP will emerge as the frontrunner to form the next government. Almost all English-language TV channels and online news resources (with a total audience of I’d guess 5 to 8 per cent Indians) have been going to town projecting Narendra Modi as the strongest contender for prime minister. Obscene sums of money have been thrown at election campaigns – and leading the pack in terms of sheer media saturation is the BJP.
The major difference between previous and present elections is a sharp electoral polarisation along communal lines. This is largely an effect of the relentless projection of Narendra Modi as a prime ministerial candidate, something initiated by the BJP almost six months before the campaign proper got started. Modi is a hardcore right wing politician, chief minister of the state of Gujarat for three successive terms, with an ignominious reputation for complicity in 2002’s communal carnage where several thousands Muslims, including women and children, were slaughtered by Hindu lynchmobs.
Modi was head of Gujarat, but did not act swiftly to control the frenzy. He has not even bothered to apologise in over ten years, or accept any responsibility for this ghastly crime. This only contributed to the distrust Muslims across India feel towards Modi. Yet he has conveniently avoided these uncomfortable issues during this election, instead concentrating on “governance”, unashamedly projecting himself as a model administrator, and Gujarat as a model developmental state.
Left on the wane
This election has also seen the gradual but perceptible decline of the organised left parties. The radical political space vacated is being occupied by new liberal voices. There is a noticeable drop of the Communist Party of India, CPI (Marxist), Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) and others in Indian democratic space. The CPI(M)’s mass base has been significantly eroded even within its traditional strongholds, such as Bengal and Kerala.
The leadership of the two principal left parties has been found wanting – inept even – in guiding the left movement to higher stages of struggle, squandering objective opportunities presented to them. There was no serious attempt to develop an Indian Marxian line of political struggle, to create the space for parties to emerge as serious contenders for power, or to even project an alternate discourse of development. It’s a classic case of lost opportunities and bankruptcy of ideas.
This has allowed liberals to step in and fill part of the void. This is best reflected in the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party (Common Man’s Party). AAP was an offshoot of the anti-corruption crusade launched by Anna Hazare, a Gandhian, a year ago. The anti-corruption crusade itself was a manifestation of growing angst among a large and vocal middle class against crony capitalism and brazen government corruption. It took the shape of a popular movement with a demand for a strong and independent ombudsman to curb and root out corruption. The AAP took the country by storm through making the fight against crony capitalism the central plank of its programme. It began to attract support from India’s growing middle class. Ideally it should have been the parties of the left that focused on tackling corruption. But the AAP took the wind out of the left sail, as it were.
The discourse of these liberals has acquired a distinctly radical tone. A number of retired civil servants have come out, openly expressing displeasure and misgiving over increasing malfeasance in the administration. Even the illustrious Gopalkrishna Gandhi, a former civil servant, diplomat and governor of West Bengal, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, sharply criticised the government:
Corporate greed has crossed all bounds, as has corporate tastelessness. We used to talk of black money as a parallel economy and so it continues to be. But Reliance is a parallel state. I do not know of any country where one single firm exercises such power so brazenly, over the natural resources, financial resources, professional resources and, ultimately, over human resources as the company of the Ambanis. From Ambedkar who spoke of economic democracy to Ambani who represents a technocommercial monopoly of unprecedented scale, is a far cry indeed.
Similarly we find Father Frazer Mascarenhas, principal of St Xavier’s College, one of the oldest and most reputed colleges of Bombay, exhorting students to use their critical faculties while exercising their franchise. He cautioned students not to be carried away by media hype around Modi-personified Gujarat model of development:
The Gujarat model has been highlighted for our consideration. Is the growth of big business, the making of huge profits, the achievement of high production – what we seek? Or is it the quality of life for the majority in terms of affordable basic goods and services and the freedom to take forward the cultural aspirations of our plural social groups that make up India?
The prospect of an alliance of corporate capital and communal forces coming to power constitutes a real threat to the future of our secular democracy. Support people who pledge to work to take Human Development Indicators higher and who commit themselves to a pluralistic culture in diverse India.
The left needs to wake up from its stupor and reinvent itself to connect with the masses if it is to avoid becoming irrelevant in years to come. Some sections of corporate capital are gung ho about Modi as the best bet to ensure a capital-friendly economic environment. But India’s complex political arithmetic across regions, mediated by caste and communal identities, may not work to Modi’s advantage. It’s more the urban, aspirational, middle class young voter who has been swayed by Modi’s theatrics. The countryside could well move in a different direction. Regional satraps, especially in the south and east, may make it difficult for the Modi juggernaut to get a smooth ride. There is always a slip between the cup and the lip.