At stake in India’s elections

May 11, 2009

India will complete its month-long elections for the Lok Sabha (the lower house of the Indian parliament) this week, with the votes due to be counted on May 16.

The elections will likely cause a shift in the political balance of forces, with the two leading parties, the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Indian National Congress, reorganizing their coalitions and dealing with a changing political landscape.

The main issues dominating these elections are the economy, the growth of communal violence, the ongoing Indian "war on terror," and the corruption of official politics. In the main, though, these issues will find their expression in strange ways because the official left in Indian politics--the various Communist Parties organized under the Left Front coalition--has abandoned its commitment to politics from below and is widely discredited.

Snehal Shingavi and Rohit Negi provide an analysis of the political dynamics at play in India's elections.

The main players

The Indian National Congress (known simply as Congress) originated as part of the anti-colonial movement against British rule. Founded in 1885, it became a major political party after independence and governed India for the first 40 years.

Currently, the Congress Party heads up the governing coalition, the United Progressive Alliance. Despite its long heritage linked to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that played an important role in India following independence, the Congress Party became synonymous with state corruption in the 1980s.

Since the early 1990s, Congress has presided over the "liberalization" of the Indian economy, which has meant widespread privatization and the shrinking of social services, while throwing open the country to various factions of multinational capital.

Congress has also declined as a national player, and is today marginal in the heartland of the country, where it was once dominant. It therefore has to enter into coalitions with other parties, and not always on terms it sets.

Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister of Gujarat, who oversaw violent communalist attacks there
Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister of Gujarat, who oversaw violent communalist attacks there (Norbert Schiller)
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is the political expression of a constellation of forces widely known as "Hindu nationalist." At its core, this ideology imagines India as a Hindu nation, and seeks to either eliminate Muslims altogether or make them second-class citizens.

The BJP exploded onto the scene in 1989 with a nationwide campaign for the construction of a Ram Temple at the site of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya, a city in the state of Uttar Pradesh (UP). This campaign reached its height in 1992 when the Babri mosque was demolished by so-called 'volunteers' owing their allegiance to the BJP and its ideological partners.

Since then, there has been a steady polarization along religious lines in Indian politics, with the BJP banking predominantly on Hindu support, while other parties enter into alliances favoring a "secular" (or multi-religious, in the Indian context) alternative.

The BJP, though, has been frustrated by its inability to bridge the North-South divide in Indian politics, and despite its rise, it has never managed to win more than a third of the total vote in national elections.

The Third Front is an ad-hoc coalition of relatively smaller, so-called "regional" parties. The geographical bases of the regional parties reflect the sub-division of the Indian state. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, for example, draws on Tamil nationalism in the state of Tamil Nadu. The Telugu Desam Party is an exclusively Telugu party with a base in the state of Andhra Pradesh.

Joining these regional parties in the Third Front are others based on caste interests. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), for example, is essentially a Dalit party (the colloquial term for the low-caste "untouchables"), though it has benefited in the recent past from strategic alliances with sections of the Muslim population in UP, which is India's largest province.

The BSP leader Mayawati has stated her desire to become the first Dalit prime minister of India, and if neither the Congress nor the BJP can muster a majority, there is a chance her dream might be realized--because the left and the Congress could be compelled to support a Third Front-led government with a common interest in keeping the BJP out of power.

The Left Front is comprised of a variety of parties that define themselves as Marxist, but they should be viewed as varieties of Stalinism--nominally socialist parties committed to socialism-from-above, which often means abandoning the interests of workers in favor of "pragmatism."

Though its numbers are significant--the Left Front regularly wins one-tenth of the total parliamentary seats--it is also, more or less, a regional grouping, with strong support in the states of West Bengal and Kerala, and some influence in Bihar and Andhra Pradesh, but not elsewhere.

West Bengal is the largest of these states, and the Left Front has been in power for three decades, under the leadership of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM). While some of its policies, like large-scale land reforms in the 1970s, have been progressive, the CPM has undertaken a neoliberal turn recently, and found itself being challenged by the victims of dispossession. Because of these eruptions among its base, the Left Front is widely expected to lose seats in this year's elections.

In general, the Left Front aligns itself with the Third Front, with the aim of keeping the BJP out of government. During the past four-and-a-half years since elections in 2004, it supported the Congress-led government.


The main issues

The Indian economy is suffering as a result of the global economic downturn. While the ruling Congress Party has been on a campaign to promote the idea that recovery is around the corner, ordinary Indians have been feeling the effects of the recession in devastating ways.

For rural India, the crisis dates back to the liberalization of the economy through the 1990s. Since 1997, more than 200,000 farmers have committed suicide because of the high rates of indebtedness, rampant crop failures and rapidly falling prices. In Chhattisgarh alone, more than 1,500 farmers committed suicide in the month of March, when irrigation failures led to a disastrous harvest.

Overall, according to the United Nations' Human Development Report, 80 percent of India lives on less than $2 a day.

In the midst of economic despair, the leading parties have turned to scapegoating.

For the right-wing BJP, the favorite scapegoats are Muslims and Christians. The BJP and parties to its right have had alarming success in heaping blame on minority communities for the country's poverty--while pretending that their own aggressive neoliberal schemes of the 1990s had nothing to do with the problem.

The outcome of this scapegoating has been horrific. In the state of Gujarat, whole areas of cities have been ethnically cleansed of their Muslim populations, while the state's Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, who oversaw the attacks, hasn't faced a single serious judicial challenge. In fact, Modi is widely popular in Gujarat, and the candidates he supports are likely to win this round of elections handily.

In Orissa, Hindu mobs have killed Christians and burned their homes to the ground. Thousands of people are currently living in refugee camps.

The BJP in recent years has attempted to export its brand of communal politics to other parts of India beyond its base--especially the southern states of Kerala and Karnataka, where it hopes to build a base in new regions.

One reason this kind of violence goes unchecked is because the Congress and the official left denounce it, but do little to stop the spread of communalism.

For the centrist Congress Party, the favored scapegoats are often Maoist rebels, called Naxalites in India.

While the Congress sees the Naxalites as cross-border terrorists funded by China, the movement is, in the main, fueled by the economic and social deprivation of peasants and indigenous people (called adivasis) in the eastern part of India. Their armed uprising has been going on for almost 40 years and the Indian armed forces, while inflicting a heavy toll on the rebels, have been unable to wipe them out.

Long-scale armed uprisings necessarily rely on looting in order to fund their movements, and the Naxalites themselves oscillate between political and criminal activities. But they are supported by large sections of the peasantry because of the failures of the Indian state to deliver on significant economic development projects and to stop seizing pesant lands and forests.

The two main parties have different strategies for dealing with the Naxalites, but both are cruel. In Congress-controlled Andhra Pradesh, the central government has used the military to crack down on the Naxalites, killing innocent civilians in the crossfire. In BJP-controlled Chhattisgarh, the BJP government organizes paramilitary outfits--really, legal lynch mobs--called Salwa Judum ("the fight for peace") to attack anyone associated with the Naxalites.

The results have been bloody in both states. Both Congress and the BJP want to portray themselves as the party that will more aggressively take on the "Naxalite threat."

The same is true for how the two main parties want to deal with the issue of Pakistan and the so-called "war on terror."

Since the coordinated shooting and bombing attacks in Mumbai last November, the BJP has been out for blood, and the Congress is desperately trying to shore up its tough-on-terror credentials. Taking a harder line with Pakistan has been a key project for both parties, as has the signing of a deal with the U.S. on India's civilian nuclear program, which goes a long way towards normalizing India's role as a nuclear power.

In many ways, the BJP and the Congress overlap to a significant degree, not only in their neoliberal economic agenda, but in their desire to join the American-bloc in international politics.


The political maneuvering

The ruling Congress has suffered setbacks during the election season, which have less to do with "third-party spoilers," as its supporters claim, than with the contradictory ways it has dealt with economic and social questions.

Perhaps most egregious blunder was the airing of a triumphalist Congress Party campaign ad, set to the song "Jai Ho" from the famous movie Slumdog Millionaire, at the same time that the number of suicides by farmers continues to climb to astronomical levels. The more Congress touts its alleged credentials in advancing the Indian economy, the more out of touch it seems to be with the population.

Still, not one to miss a moment to be opportunist, Sonia Gandhi, the leader of the Congress Party, campaigned in West Bengal with a fiery criticism of the CPM's actions against dispossessed farmers in Singur. While she's right about West Bengal, Gandhi would have done well to look at her own party's record with respect to the peasantry and industrialization, not to mention her own family's history of corruption.

The BJP also expected it would come out ahead in this election cycle, and had made a series of deals in the hopes of building a ruling coalition. In places like Orissa, the BJP's vicious anti-Christian campaign has led to increased support in the absence of a strong, combative left opponent. Nevertheless, at the national level, BJP insiders are worried that they may not do as well as expected this time around.

Traditionally, the third player in the national government has been the secular left, led by the CPM. It is part of the Third Front coalition with other left forces, whose reputations hang on their willingness to challenge the corrupt and chauvinist policies of the two leading parties.

But as the official left succeeded in local elections and came to power in states like Kerala and West Bengal, it pursued policies that were identical in many ways to the BJP and the Congress. Most recently, in West Bengal, the CPM attempted to forcibly remove peasants from their land in order to offer it to an Indonesian multinational.

Both the Congress-led coalition and the BJP-led coalition have begun coming apart at the seams. Long-time Congress allies like the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal have even broken away to join the Third Front coalition. This reflects the political realities locally, with regional players now seeing no advantage to allying themselves with the big two leading parties.

Both the Congress and the BJP have picked unsavory figures to contest a few important seats.

In Punjab, where the Congress was hoping to pick up seats, the selection of Jagdish Tytler resulted in large protests. Tytler was responsible for leading violent mobs against the Sikh population in Delhi in 1984, in the aftermath of the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her two Sikh bodyguards. Tytler's recent acquittal for his role in the events inflamed passions in Punjab, and the Congress was embarrassed into dumping him.

The BJP has put up a fanatical anti-Muslim candidate, Varun Gandhi, in Uttar Pradesh. The 29-year-old was arrested in March after allegedly telling supporters at an election rally that he would "cut the heads of Muslims." Now, released on bail, Gandhi is still running, and he may do well.

But the failure of the Congress and other established parties to do anything but posture rhetorically against communalism in this instance has led Muslims to break ranks and start their own parties.

"The Muslim minorities have been repeatedly let down by the leadership of all the secular parties," Tahir Mahdani, leader of the Ulema Council, told Frontline magazine. "For 44 years since independence, the upper-caste leadership of the Congress took the minority community for a ride, while those like the SP and the BSP, with non-upper-caste leaderships, also did the same after 1991. This serial betrayal has made sincere secularists within the community and outside come together and look for new alternatives."


What comes next?

Observers agree that India's elections are proving extremely difficult to predict. Both a Congress- or a BJP-led government are possible, and depending on the numbers, the Third Front and the Left could cobble together a coalition.

What is clearer is that none of the parties has an agenda related to the issues that matter to the majority of the Indian population, which has suffered due to increasing inequalities since the institution of "economic reform."

Though India earlier this year claimed two of the top 10 spots in Forbes magazine's list of the world's billionaires, for millions of Indians, poverty is a continuing fact of life, and the increasing communal hatred threatens them in profound ways. The Left Front itself is complicit in this state of affairs, and those on the left who seek progressive change see the need for independent organizing outside the established Communist parties.

Without a coherent left alternative in Indian politics, it's unclear who the beneficiaries of popular discontent will be. All of the parties are talking populist this election cycle, and all have long records of disappointing those who vote for them.

Whatever the outcome of the elections, the long-term reality will remain the same for ordinary Indians until a genuine alternative to poverty and communalism emerges.

E-mail alerts

Further Reading

Latest Stories

From the archives