Indian mutiny

Behind the shock results of India's elections.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

The past week has been a long time in Indian politics.

First came the shock defeat of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at the hands of Sonia Gandhi’s Congress Party. Then came Sonia Gandhi’s surprise refusal to assume the position of prime minister, which was passed to the economist Manmohan Singh.

All of those who had confidently predicted victory to the BJP scrambled to find explanations for its defeat. Some have seen the vote as the rural poor rejecting the BJP’s neoliberal economic policy; others have seen it as a vote for enlightened secularism against Hindu fundamentalism.

But these classical political frameworks don’t really seem to fit. It might be better to see events as the outcome of more inchoate, anti-political trends – trends that can be seen playing out in different ways across the world, from the UK to Argentina.

Commentators had unanimously predicted the victory of the BJP. In March, the Guardian’s India correspondent Randeep Ramesh said ‘the result is already known…. Only the extent of the Congress Party’s losses is in doubt’ (1). The BJP described the vote as a ‘foregone conclusion’, and ran a feel-good campaign around the slogan ‘India shining’, emphasising booming economic growth (currently at eight per cent) and success in negotiations with Pakistan over Kashmir (2).

The Congress Party looked a mess, beset by internal feuds and running a badly organised campaign. Since independence in 1947 India was dominated by Congress, the party of Mahatma Ghandi and Jawaharlal Nehru. Congress, with the Ghandi dynasty at its forefront, governed India for much of the post-independence period, save for two brief periods in the 1970s and 80s.

The party’s demise in the 1990s, following a series of corruption scandals, was swift, topped by the coming to power of the BJP’s coalition in 1998. The return of two thirtysomething Gandhis to campaign for their mother in this month’s election was seen as a further sign of a decrepit party playing the dynasty card. Yet in the event, Congress swept the board, winning with its allies 217 seats to the 185 won by the BJP’s coalition, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) (3). This was a striking turnaround for a party that had been all at sea – possibly even giving some hope to Britain’s beleaguered Tories.

According to many commentators, this shows the masses revolting against the BJP’s ‘anti-people’ economic policy of liberalising markets and developing hi-tech industries. They pointed out that the eight per cent growth of a ‘shining’ India hasn’t trickled down to rural regions, which remain in dire need of electricity, running water and usable roads.
‘This is a verdict against globalisation’, said political columnist Kuldip Nayar (4). Another Indian political commentator said that the results paved the way for a more ‘pro-poor economic policy’ (5).

But this doesn’t ring true. While economic growth in India has certainly been uneven, the Congress Party has pretty much the same economic policy as the BJP. In fact, it was Congress who oversaw economic liberalisation in the 1990s, under the guidance of Manmohan Singh, soon to be prime minister. ‘[T]he election result will not mean the stalling of economic reform’, The Economist reassured its readers (6). In any case, the BJP suffered setbacks in urban as well as rural areas; it seems that many urban middle-class voters failed to get out to support them.

Others saw the election as a vote for secularism against the religious fanaticism of the BJP. One commentator argued that the results were a sign that ‘tolerant cosmopolitanism could prevail over narrow ethnic nationalism’ (7); another said that the elections had ‘jolted the fascists out of their wits’ (8).

But the BJP in power have not acted as the Hindu fundamentalists they are characterised as – the party played down religious issues in the election, and fielded a number of Muslim candidates (9). In power, the BJP national leadership had been relatively moderate, negotiating with Pakistan over Kashmir, for example – the idea that they are Hindu fascists is largely a construction of the Western-based left-wing media. And while the elections have been marked by ethnic violence – 11 people were killed by a bomb at a rally in Kashmir, and three party workers were shot dead in Bihar – this was relatively mild by the standards of
Indian elections in the past.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta, who teaches government at Harvard University, says that it is hard to pin down the reason for the BJP’s losses. ‘Growth? Low inflation? Unemployment? Corruption? None of these criteria will singly measure up. Nor will outdated explanations like caste and vote bank politics illuminate the outcome.’ Instead, he says, ‘the only thing
there is a consensus on is the fact that the electorate will not let anyone take it for granted’ (10).

It might be better to see the election results as Indian voters rebelling against the political class. If politicians were being punished for their policies, this could be a good thing. But it seems that more negative sentiments were behind the vote – a kind of indiscriminate reaction against all those in power. The BJP’s ruling elite was badly hit, with a series of high-profile ministers losing their seats. But Congress also faced setbacks in areas where it had been in charge of state governments, such as Punjab and Karnataka (11). Randeep Ramesh noted a growing suspicion of politicians in India, suggesting that ‘this law of diminishing political returns’ makes for ‘more volatility’, with voters repeatedly turning against those in power (12).

Here there are strong parallels with international trends. The suspicion of politicians has become entrenched in European and American societies – in Britain, we see it across public life, from the endless succession of political scandals to declining turnouts in general elections. Meanwhile, the recent Spanish elections that followed the bombings in Madrid showed a similar India-style political volatility, with voters chucking out a government for reasons that had nothing to do with its ability to govern (see Spain: a victory for peace, or for defeatism?, by Mick Hume).

Sonia Gandhi’s decision to ‘humbly decline’ the post of prime minister at the last minute was in keeping with these anti-political trends. It is thought that concerns for personal safety might have motivated her decision (her husband and mother-in-law, prime ministers in the past, were both assassinated). But some have greeted her renunciation
with acclaim. The Asian Age ran with the headline, ‘Sonia switches off power, turns on hearts’. A columnist for the Hindu said that Sonia had ‘restored the faith of the people of this country in the nobility of politics and public service’ (13). By these accounts, it would seem that the only good politician is a non-politician, somebody
who bows out deferentially to the sidelines.

It is hard to see much good coming from this long week in Indian politics. Instead of speaking in support of a new kind of politics – be it economic redistribution or enlightened secularism – the vote seemed merely negative, a sign of voters indiscriminately turning against those in power. The result is a party with much the same policies as before, only with a leader who ‘humbly declines’ to lead.

(1) Decline of a dynasty, Guardian, 24 March 2004

(2) ‘The greatest show on earth’, The Economist, 15 April 2004

(3) Indian general elections, 2004, Wikipedia

(4) Shock defeat for India’s Hindu nationalists, Guardian, 14 May 2004

(5) Indian elections: Left, Right, and Centre, Znet, 15 May 2004

(6) ‘The voters’ big surprise’, The Economist, 15-21 May 2004

(7) International Herald Tribune, 20 May 2004

(8) Indian elections: Left, Right, and Centre, Znet, 15 May 2004

(9) ‘The greatest show on earth’, The Economist, 15 April 2004

(10) How India’s elections were won and lost, BBC News, 13 May 2004

(11) Indian elections: Left, Right, and Centre, Znet, 15 May 2004

(12) Decline of a dynasty, Guardian, 24 March 2004

(13) Indian press lauds Gandhi decision, BBC News, 19 May 2004

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Topics Politics


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