General Election in India

The Indian election result (announced on 13 May), following a marathon 4-stage poll which commenced on 20 April, saw the emergence of Congress as the largest party, with 149 seats in the lower house of the Indian parliament (the Lok Sabha). This was the best result achieved by Congress since 2001. By comparison, the BJP’s strength was reduced from 182 seats in the previous parliament to 135 in the present. The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) of 23 parties, which ruled at the centre for 6 years, had a strength of 299 in the outgoing parliament, whereas in the current parliament its strength has been reduced to 188. By contrast, Congress and its allies has 219 seats in parliament while in the previous house it had only 135 (of which Congress accounted for 112). Non-NDA parties command a strength of 340 – well over the 272 needed to attain a simple majority to form a government. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)] secured 44 seats (one of these being independent but supported by the CPI(M)). With 3 other left parties securing 17 seats, the total strength of the left in the new parliament amounts to 61, the highest number ever achieved by the left in India. Let it be said in passing that although Congress won more seats this time round, its share of the vote actually declined from 28.3% in 1999 to 26.7%. The BJP’s share of the vote also declined – from 24% to 22%.

The Congress Party and its allies, operating under the name of United Progressive Alliance (UPA) have formed the government, with Manmohan Singh as the prime minister and the left parties extending their support to the new government – without, however, joining it.

Unexpected Result

The election result was unexpected, as it was generally believed – by winners and losers, political analysts and politicians alike – that the BJP-led NDA would have a comfortable win. So sure was the BJP-led government of winning that it had brought forward the date of the election by 6 months. With the slogan “India Shining”, the BJP opened its campaign, in which it outspent Congress by a multiple of 5, with an estimated $100 million campaign budget. The BJP’s confidence, not to say complacency, was encouraged by impressive economic achievements, especially in the pharmaceuticals and software sectors, a good monsoon, an improvement in India’s relations with neighbouring Pakistan, the rising prosperity of the urban middle class, and the de facto acceptance by US imperialism of India’s status as a nuclear power (India conducted its first overt nuclear test in 1998).

Why NDA lost?

The NDA campaign appealed to the India of blue screens, white consumer durables and brand new shopping malls, a country attempting to lure the comfortable sections of society, especially the urban middle class, with unprecedented consumer delights. Doubtless the demand for televisions, refrigerators and mobile telephones has shot up by a fifth in just one year and the sales of personal computers has literally skyrocketed. Lately mobile telephones have been attracting 3 million new subscribers each month. Spurred on by its touching faith in this new culture of consumption, the BJP attempted to relay its feel-good euphoria by transmitting pre-recorded messages from Mr Vajpayee through mobile text messaging and over the telephone. The fatal miscalculation in this approach is that the overwhelming majority of the Indian population does not own telephones, let alone mobile telephones. The rising prosperity of a handful of Indian monopolies, as well as of the urban middle class, collided with India’s unshifting reality of the grinding poverty and misery of the rural and urban masses. Not unnaturally, the BJP’s ‘India Shining’ slick campaign merely served to repel the masses and galvanise them into deserting the NDA outfit.

Of the 1.05 billion people of India, two-thirds (600 million) live in the 650,000 villages. A mere 10% of them are connected to a metalled road, and fewer than 50% have access to clean running water and electricity. 450 million Indians live on less that $1 a day, with the result that close to 40% of the world’s poorest people are Indians, even though India accounts for only 17% of the global population. A third of the population is illiterate after 57 years of independence from British rule. Half the Indian children are undernourished and stunted, and half its women are anaemic. Government expenditure on health has declined from a miserly 1.3% of GDP in the mid-90s to the criminally low figure of 0.9%, as against the World Health Organisation’s norm of 5%. India experiences thousands of starvation deaths and farmers’ suicides each year.

The majority of India’s women get up very early every morning to begin the several miles’ trudge to collect water and use the cover of darkness to relieve themselves because Shining India lacks the benefit of toilets. According to the World Bank, India’s water shortage is such that it provides only 130 cubic metres per person, which compares very badly with China’s 2,400 – and that of 5,000 in most advanced countries. The impact of this water crisis on the lives of India’s farmers, its women and children (1 million of whom die each year of water-borne diseases) is truly intolerable.

While India exports 17 million tonnes of foodgrains each year, starvation deaths in several parts of the country and suicides by debt-ridden farmers have become common. India exports not because its people do not need food, but because the poor cannot afford to buy food and thus go hungry. One third of India’s population is not lucky enough to have two square meals a day. Precisely because this section of the population lacks purchasing power, the supply of food exceeds demand. This is just one more example of the functioning of the economy under capitalism, which is characterised by scarcity in the midst of plenty. Under this system, the masses frequently “…are in want of the means of subsistence, because they have produced too much of the means of subsistence…” (Engels, Anti Dühring).

On average, an Indian today consumes 154 kg of food in a year, compared to 174.2 kg per head in the 1990s. Over the past 5 years, growth in India’s agricultural sector, accounting for a quarter of its GDP but home to two-thirds of its people, has on average been 2% a year. With the population growing at about 1.7% a year, the incomes of the rural population have registered hardly any increase since 1998.

Notwithstanding the BJP’s assertions to the contrary, economic growth has slowed down to 5.7% a year since 1996-1997, compared with the 6.7% achieved during the four years prior to 1996-97. Since 1996-97, industrial growth has only been around 5% and agricultural growth a mere 2%. The 8% annual growth since 1998 in the service sector, with the booming software sector in the lead, only serves to bring into relief the languishing rural economy. But this 8% growth has little impact on employment, as the IT sector accounts for fewer than 1 million employees out of a total workforce of 430 million. Over the past 5 years, employment growth has averaged at half the rate of the growth of the labour force, with the result that an additional 5 million youths join the ranks of the unemployed each year. Between 100 million and 200 million (depending on the season) Indians are either unemployed or under-employed.

In the light of the above figures, it is difficult to disagree with the following observation by Praful Bidwai, which appeared in the Hindustan Times of 30 March 2004:

“India fails the development criterion in health, longevity and freedom from bondage and deprivation; in equality of social opportunity and gender equity; the general cultural and intellectual level of the population; or, equally important, in liberty, rule of law and enforcement of citizens’ rights” (‘Shining delusions’).

India was undoubtedly shining, but not for the majority of the population, especially the rural population which, along with the slum-dwellers in the cities, was not much impressed by the BJP’s election propaganda. To quote Bidwai again:

“The NDA campaign of lies can only be sustained by cynics who refuse to understand that what matters to flesh-and-blood people is not GDP’s ‘achievements’, but jobs, wages and access to public services.”

And it is in this context that the disconnection between India’s undoubted economic rise and the reality of the miserable existence of the majority of the Indian people become only too painfully evident. The Indian economy registered 10% growth in the first quarter of 2004, but these figures mean nothing to most Indians who feel, and actually are, excluded from this growth.

On top of the above economic factors, which were the most important reason for the rejection of the BJP combine by the Indian electorate, there were any number of scams involving ministers and party officials. On top of all this came the Gujerat carnage, a product of the BJP’s stock-in-trade of obscurantism and anti-Muslim bigotry. In a country where Muslims account for 14% of the electorate, the BJP-led NDA could hardly expect to escape unscathed after the murderous attacks on innocent Muslims in Gujerat. Apart from the Muslims, the BJP’s divisive communalism does not much appeal to the broad masses of the Indian people who, in rejecting the NDA, were at least partly motivated by a desire to defend secularism against the onslaught of BJP-inspired Hindu fundamentalism.

Congress to continue NDA economic policy

The incoming Congress-led government is set to carry on with ‘reforms’ and the same economic policy pursued by the previous NDA government. After all, the whole process was set into motion by a previous Congress government. And it was Manmohan Singh, the new prime minister, who as finance minister launched India on this path. So one should not expect any meaningful departure by the new UPA alliance from the economic policy of the previous NDA government. This is particularly so as the Congress Party represents now, as it has done in the past, the interests of Indian monopoly houses and big landlords. The rural poor and the urban slum dwellers have little reason to expect improvement in their lives from the accession to power of this Congress-led government. After all, Congress has ruled India for 45 of the 57 years since Independence. It has had a whole number of poverty removal (garibi hatao) and suchlike gimmicks without translating any of them into action. The grinding poverty and pestilential existence of the Indian masses cannot simply be dumped, as is being attempted by some, at the doorstep of the NDA government. The latter has doubtless participated in a similar fraud on the Indian people – serving the privileged sections of society while pretending to be on the side of the poor and underprivileged. That is in the very nature of bourgeois politics, for how otherwise can a bourgeois party get electoral endorsement from the vast masses to serve a tiny minority of exploiting and privileged sections of society?

Some tinkering will doubtless take place, but the chief concerns of the new government will be: to reduce the central and state governments’ budget deficit (which today stands at 10% of GDP) by slimming down the administration and getting rid of subsidies; to make India more investment-friendly with a view to attracting more Foreign Direct Investment (last year India attracted $4 billion of FDI in comparison with China which was home to $50 billion of FDI), by making it easier to hire and fire workers; to open further sectors of the Indian economy to the penetration of international monopoly capital; and to continue the process of privatisation through further disinvestment in the public sector.

If the Indian masses cannot hope to receive any economic benefits from the new government, can they expect to safeguard secularism and end corruption? It requires a touching leap of faith to believe in any of this. Corruption is inherent in the bourgeois system, and it is endemic in a society where capitalism has not fully developed. In India corruption is an industry and a profession, and bourgeois politics provides access to this vast sources of riches. Bourgeois politicians in India can best be described as looters of the state Treasury, pickpockets and thieves of the worst kind. Corruption in India is a source of primitive accumulation.

As to secularism, Congress’s secular credentials are suspect in the extreme – except for people who are guided by lifeless formulas (see elsewhere in this issue, which continues the publication of Cde Grewal’s article on the subject). After all, it was the Congress government of Rajiv Gandhi which opened Pandora’s Box by opening the door of the Babri Masjid (mosque) in Ayodhya to prayers by Hindu fundamentalists for the sordid purpose of outdoing the BJP and securing Hindu votes. And it was a Congress government in office at the centre when the said mosque was demolished by a frenzied mob while the security forces looked the other way.

CPI(M)’s stance

In view of this, the question arises: why have the left parties, led by the CPI(M), decided to extend support to the new government without joining it? The Central Committee (CC) of the CPI(M) took this decision at a meeting on 16-17 May. The editorial in CPI(M)’s English language weekly paper, People’s Democracy (PD) of 16 May says that the party had three objectives during the latest elections – to defeat the communal forces (which to the CPI(M) means the BJP), install a secular government (in CPI(M)’s mode of thought Congress is synonymous with secularism), and increase the parliamentary representation of the CPI(M) and other left parties. With satisfaction the editorial declares that all these objectives have been achieved. Certainly the CPI(M) and the left have increased their parliamentary strength. As to the other two (basically only one) objectives, their achievement must be in doubt in view of the actual, not imaginary, record of Congress and the class interests which it represents. It is these class interests which propel bourgeois parties in the direction of communalism, as a means of sowing divisions among the masses, and which compel them to use this weapon as a means of safeguarding the rule of the propertied classes.

In the same issue of PD, Cde H S Surjeet, the General Secretary of the CPI(M), says that the election result is clearly a mandate “in favour of a secular government at the centre” and which “no anti-BJP, anti-NDA party can afford to go against” In other words, the Congress-led new government must be supported by those parties who oppose the BJP and the NDA.

As to the tricky question of the class character of Congress and the latter’s economic policy, Cde Surjeet attempts to wriggle out of these by meaningless, vague and amorphous phrases and promises. “It is true,” he says, “that there are serious differences between the Congress and other secular parties on issues like economic policy and some other issues. Yet [this Shchedrin’s ‘yet’, as Lenin might have said], one must remember that differences are natural and bound to remain between any two parties. The basic thing is that, given political will and acumen, these differences can certainly be resolved in a satisfactory manner” (‘Mandate for a secular government’).

So the whole question of conflict between the Indian ruling classes, whose interests are represented by the Congress Party, and the Indian masses is reduced to differences between two parties, as though these parties did not represent certain specific and definite class interests, as though these parties operated in a situation of class vacuum. Class politics is thrown out of the front door and party politics – bourgeois party politics at that – is smuggled in through the back door. All that is required is will and acumen, presumably of the type possessed by the optimistic and incorrigible representatives of class conciliation, to resolve “in a satisfactory manner” questions which crucially concern the interests of hostile classes. “The only [only!] requirement is”, he adds by way of re-assuring his own constituency, “that the interests of the country and its common people must be given precedence over everything else. Here one can only assure that the secular and democratic parties will resolve their differences in a principled way. It will not be an opportunistic way of resolving differences…”

Further on, he assures us that “…we will always be standing by the side of the people…” and will not “allow the people’s interests to be sacrificed at the altar of the pro-imperialist, IMF-World Bank dictated policies”. He returns to this question in an article in the PD of 30 May, in which he makes the following democratic demands of the new government:

1. separation of religion from public life and adherence by Congress to secularism, the desertion from which, he says, caused the erosion of its mass base. (Why an Indian communist should want to restore the mass base of this virulently anti-communist representative of the Indian ruling classes and deadly enemy of the Indian people we leave to the imagination of the reader); 2.

3. bringing to justice the culprits who demolished the Babri Masjid on 6 December 1992 (he forgets to demand the punishment of the culprits who organised the systematic slaughter of thousands of Sikhs in Delhi, namely the high functionaries of the Congress Party, in the aftermath of Mrs Indira Gandhi’s assassination); 4.

5. a purge of communal elements from the education system; 6.

7. maintenance of the public distribution system and an end to corruption; 8.

9. electoral reform; 10.

11. a re-alignment of foreign policy, with an emphasis on revitalisation of the Non-Aligned Movement and closer relations with Russia, China, Brazil and South Africa. 12.

‘Forgetting’ that in his 16 May article he had vowed to fight against “pro-imperialist, IMF-World Bank dictated policies”, in the 30 May article he unfurls the white flag, saying “…we are not in favour of continuing with the perpetually loss-making units. What we say is that profit making units must not be disinvested”, while the process of disinvestment in the loss making units “must be fully transparent and valuable assets not sold for a song”. In other words, let there be some privatisation, but with sops.

Cde Prakash Karat, member of the politburo of the CPI(M) and tipped to succeed Surjeet as its General Secretary, makes a serious attempt at explaining why the CPI(M) decided to extend support to the Congress-led UPA government without joining it. This is his reasoning. Having stated that the CPI(M) cannot “contemplate an alliance or front with the Congress” because owing to its “class character” as a “representative of the big bourgeoisie and the landlords”, the Congress “has not been able to break away from the polices of liberalisation and privatisation”, he goes on to say:

“Joining such a government would have done violence to the Party’s political line as formulated in the 17th Congress. It would have blurred the identity of the Party as an independent force representing the interests of the working class and other sections of the working people. Becoming part of a Congress-led coalition government would be tantamount to accepting the status of a junior partner to the Congress”.

He goes on to quote at length from the CPI(M)’s 16th Party Congress report which, inter alia, summed up the experience of the 1996-1998 United Front government, which was supported by Congress from the outside. The report noted that the UF government continued to pursue “virtually the entire framework of the economic policies of liberalisation in great earnest. The process of privatisation, opening the economy for foreign capital in core sectors, imposing greater burdens on the people through increased indirect taxes, big concessions … to the rich through cuts in direct taxes. The Congress (I) policy was being continued and many of the pro-people policies in the CMP [Common Minimum Programme] like providing foodgrains to the people … below the poverty line at half of the prices were being ignored.”

If this was when the Congress supported the government from outside, what hope is there of any relief when this same Congress Party heads the government? Comrade Karat correctly observes in this instance that:

“When there is a Congress-led government, there should be no illusion that participation by the CPI(M) can lead to a reversal of the basic thrust of economic policies.”

This leaves a very big question unanswered, which Cde Karat does not even attempt to answer, namely, if the Congress government pursues policies of liberalisation and privatisation, if it maintains the basic thrust of the economic policies which it has pursued when in government, and advocated in opposition, will the CPI(M) and other left parties be prepared to pull the rug from under the Congress’s feet and bring down the government it heads? If they do, will they not be risking their entire enterprise of safeguarding secularism by making way for a government headed by their bête noir – the BJP? The CPI(M), having invested so much in portraying Congress as a secular party, are more likely than not to continue supporting the Congress-led government, no matter what economic policies it pursues, simply to prevent a comeback of the BJP.

In his May 16 article, Cde Surjeet emphatically stated that in the recent election, the issue was communalism versus secularism. “Nothing less than our national unity and civilised existence were at stake”. That being the case, the CPI(M) and other left parties surely would not like to jeopardise “our national unity and civilised existence” by throwing out the Congress-led UPA government and making way for the barbarian hordes of the BJP.

The CPI(M) is caught by this dilemma of its own making. If it brings down the government to protect the interests of the masses, it is in danger of letting in a BJP government. If, on the other hand, it continues to support the economic policies which the UPA government is only too likely to pursue, it would, whether in or out of government, whether it likes it or not, be “accountable for the programme and record of the government”, to use Cde Karat’s own words.

There are only two consistent policies on this question. One is the bourgeois policy of joining the Congress government in the name of secularism and safeguarding “our national unity and civilised existence”. The other is the proletarian policy of exposing and opposing all bourgeois parties and mobilising the Indian masses in the struggle for a people’s democratic revolution, which in due course, and with the necessary preparedness of the masses, will lead to the socialist stage – all under the leadership of the proletariat. If the CPI(M) wants to fight for such a vision and outcome, as it says it is committed to do, and to which its programme commits it, then it must stop supporting bourgeois governments and get on with the task of propagating, and working for, the fulfilment of such a vision and programme, which alone can guarantee secularism, fraternal harmony and freedom of the masses from economic bondage. Cde Karat’s position is neither one thing nor the other. It is merely a futile attempt to bridge the unbridgeable gap between the above two irreconcilably hostile propositions.

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