India speaks

by Chris Bertram on May 13, 2004

Amid all the bad news, we should celebrate the fact that in the world’s largest democracy the forces of secularism have triumphed and those of communalism have been defeated. Congress is far from perfect, but it is a great deal better than the alternative. Sonia Gandhi may well become the world’s best Italian prime minister as a result (not that the competition in that field is all that stiff).

{ 42 comments }

1

neil 05.13.04 at 5:59 pm

Surprise election results throwing conservative parties out of office have been remarkably common this year. Is this a fluke or part of the trend? By which I mean, was Vajpayee seen as being a close ally of Bush? One might think the opposite since Bush and Musharraf are somewhat close, but I just don’t know.

2

JD 05.13.04 at 6:04 pm

This is remarkably good news. It has transported me from a sterile office in New York.

Perhaps I should temper the elation, recalling that Congress is an unwieldy, compromised party –and that much remains to be done in the struggle against the soldiers of Hindutva. Still, cheers all around for today, just as when New Labour swept the Tories out some years ago.

3

Ophelia Benson 05.13.04 at 6:14 pm

Goddam right. Best news I’ve heard in a long time. Sure, Congress is very far from perfect, but the BJP is a nightmare.

Congress gained 12 out of 26 seats in Gujarat, too, where the BJP was expected to do well. Gujarat is where that anti-Muslim massacre happened, two years ago. The BJP did little or nothing to interfere.

BJP out! Yip!

4

ji 05.13.04 at 6:28 pm

Buongiorno. I imagine the triple alliance of the Vatican, CIA and Mafia will immediately be plotting against her. She’ll be ousted or assassinated within 18 months.

5

h. e. baber 05.13.04 at 6:35 pm

Encouraging. I wonder when Americans will stop being bamboozled by right-wing economic policies that trash the poor and right-wing religious rhetoric geared to get the masses on board with an agenda that’s to their disadvantage.

6

Tom 05.13.04 at 6:44 pm

Excellent news. Great to see the BJP ousted: my fear was that the BJP would have a narrow margin, and start exploding nukes again to consolidate their far-right support.

7

Scott Martens 05.13.04 at 7:28 pm

Notice how this happened despite 8.5% annual growth. The Beeb is crediting the rural poor vote for Cogresses victory, saying that India’s economic growth has, if anything, left them worse off.

That a majority of voters could be worse off despite rapid growth is a real indictment of neoliberal growth models.

8

Vish Subramanian 05.13.04 at 7:41 pm

The comments above and the post show a dramatic ignorance of Indian politics. While the BJP is indeed a Hindu-nationalist party, religious violence is a regional phenomenon and its champion – Narendra Modi of Gujarat state – had won a resounding victory and is well ensconced in power. Indeed, the lesson that the BJP is learning from this result is that the secular approach of Prime Minister Vajpayee failed – look for more power to Modi’s ilk.

In Vajpayee’s place is Sonia Gandhi – a mediocrity, a intellectual and political non-entity who is there because of her family name . And while it is true that rural voters were put off by BJP’s economic triumphalism, the victorious Congress party has no plans to alleviate poverty – just more handouts and subsidies, less modernization. Throughout India the modernizers lost – especially Naidu in Hyderabad and Krishna in Bangalore – while the panderers won – Yadavs in Bihar and U.P. and the Gandhis.

Indian politics is back to the dark days of behind-the-scenes puppetering, corruption and dynastic socialism.

9

Danto 05.13.04 at 7:46 pm

I don’t know why, but I am happy NOT because the Congress has won, but because the BJP has lost.

10

jd 05.13.04 at 7:56 pm

A quibble with Scott:

The BBC article does not suggest that the majority of Indians are, if anything, worse off now than in times past. If one wishes to indict “neoliberal growth models” one must look for other damning evidence.

Maybe the fruits of fast growth have not been distributed in a way that is considered just. The conceit of India Shining may well have struck the less advantaged as a hollow and misplaced slogan. There is plenty to object to in the particulars of the Indian economic reforms.

Interesting recent research — by Brad DeLong, by Dani Rodrik and Arvind Subramanian — suggests that the origins of India’s recent economic growth may run several years before the 1991 reforms. These characters raise a different possibility: That the story of India’s recent growth is not in a straightforward sense the story of a neoliberal growth model.

For instance, Rodrik insists on the distinction between pro-market and pro-business policy tacks, and argues that “the trigger for India’s economic growth was an attitudinal shift on the part of the national government in 1980 in favor of private business.”

Whatever the source, one can only hope the 8 percent rates persist.

11

Decnavda 05.13.04 at 7:56 pm

Hear, hear! I too toast the BJP defeat. Congress needs serious reforms, but the BJP scared the bejeuses out of me.

12

Lance Boyle 05.13.04 at 8:02 pm

“This is a verdict against globalisation. Now the next government will have to think how to employ more hands, than machine.”

Kuldip Nayar, in the Guardian May 13

13

jd 05.13.04 at 8:48 pm

V. Subramanian writes that the comments celebrating the BJP’s defeat “show a dramatic ignorance of Indian politics.” I think this is a rather ungenerous assessment.

He makes several interesting points. He argues that “while the BJP is indeed a Hindu-nationalist party, religious violence is a regional phenomenon.” He suggests that “the lesson that the BJP is learning from the result is that the secular approach of Prime Minister Vajpayee failed” – and hence that it must presumably return with renewed vigor to Hindutva. He observes that Sonia Gandhi is “a mediocrity” riding on her family name. He argues that Congress party has no plans to alleviate poverty. Most grandly, he suggests that, “Throughout India the modernizers lost…while the panderers won.”

One line of response would be the following.

We are celebrating not because we identified the BJP and its cadres as the primary immediate source of communal violence, but because of its associations with many who are. Even where those with tridents in hand are not members of the BJP, we can object strongly to the BJP’s involvement in the relatively soft side of Hindutva.

It may be that the defeat will lead the BJP to renew its ties with the more extreme forces of Hindu nationalism; there are already calls for it to do so from noxious elements in India. Whether this will happen remains uncertain.

We agree — Sonia Ghandi is a mediocrity. The dynastic business she represents is blight.

We again agree — Congress’ plans for reducing poverty are wanting. We who are happy are well advised to consider how welcome we find the defeats of Naidu in Hyderabad and Krishna in Bangalore.

But it is not the case that the BJP represents a desirable modernity and its electoral adversaries are mere “panderers.” The economic reforms we hear lauded so often were initially devised by a Congress government. Meanwhile the BJP has yoked certain desirable economic policies with a social vision that while modern — its pretended historical roots notwithstanding — is distasteful to those who prefer a secular polity.

There may be a sort of wager here. We bet that the policies of Congress and its allies will not shackle economic growth, that there will not be a return to the license raj, that secular tolerance and economic development can be enjoyed at the same time. We’ll see.

14

drapeto 05.13.04 at 9:35 pm

The comments above and the post show a dramatic ignorance of Indian politics.

Exactly. “Forces of secularism” strikes me as a nauseating way of describing the Congress’s role in Delhi 84, Bombay 91, Meerut, Bhagalpur, launching Bhindranwale and Shiv Sena etc. I personally would not go along with Imam Bukhari’s line in this election, but I find his view less deluded than that of the champagne-uncorking Westerners.

15

Vish Subramanian 05.13.04 at 11:50 pm

jd (who does not show any ignorance of Indian politics) says “We bet that the policies of Congress and its allies will not shackle economic growth, … that secular tolerance and economic development can be enjoyed at the same time.”

I suppose that is possible – India’s architect of reform Manmohan Singh is likely to be Finance Minsiter again. However I fear that Ms Gandhi will be hopelessly out of her depth, as a leader or as a politician juggling constituencies. We will see a feeding frenzy of corruption in a rudderless government. I predict indecision will destroy peace with Pakistan (who else but Vajpayee could credibly deliver that?). And at the state level, I fear that “good governance” is now irrelevant again and its back to being all about caste and subsidies.

16

Amardeep Singh 05.13.04 at 11:50 pm

I think jd’s cautious attitude of ‘there’s a wager here’ is probably the right one. At least people are talking about numbers and development strategies for once — not all the pseudo-religious about ‘Hindu culture’. The BJP is leaving power without a scandal, without an economic crisis, and without the prospect of war with Pakistan. If the right people are appointed, the new govt. should be able to get right down to business.

So maybe we’ll keep the champagne corked after this particular victory. I’ll save it for a year from now if the coalition is still there — by then it will be vintage: ‘Laicite’.

If not bubbly, how about laddoos? (These laddoos were made in an Italian bakery)

17

Jimbo Jones 05.13.04 at 11:55 pm

I’m rather ignorant about the nuances of Indian politics, but it seems odd to not consider the possibility that the “triumph of secularism” referred to the unexpected defeat of BJP, rather than the victory of Congress.

The reasoning goes something like this.

1) Voters find BJP’s religious bigotry to be problematic.
2) Voters look for an alternative that has a chance of unseating BJP and rightly conclude that Congress is the only game in town for such purposes.
3) Examining the shortcomings of Congress, they find fewer troubling shortcomings, and thus vote for them.

Note that nothing here paints Congress paragons of secular good government. That needn’t be the case for the statement to hold.

18

Ophelia Benson 05.14.04 at 12:03 am

I want my champagne right now – if only in order to induce further nausea in commmenters who like to talk about deluded Westerners. It’s fun to ponder how such commenters would react if people sneered at deluded Easterners.

Yo, pass the bubbly!

19

drapeto 05.14.04 at 2:55 am

It’s fun to ponder how such commenters would react if people sneered at deluded Easterners.

I realize facts don’t count very much to you, but perhaps you’d like to turn from your imagination’s white rage to the actual body count of these triumphant forces of secularism. Perhaps you’d like to rebut Imam Bukhari on factual grounds? Perhaps you’d like to actually consider what Congress’ secularism has consisted of? Or is bien pensant sentiments supposed to give you a white liberal pass from actually *thinking* about the people whose blood was uncorked as glibly as your champagne.

Or more succinctly: it would rather depend on whether the Easterners (?) had in fact been deluded, and had rather an unsavory history of having such delusions.

20

drapeto 05.14.04 at 3:10 am

The reasoning goes something like this.

1) Voters find BJP’s religious bigotry to be problematic.

Why do you think that this is the reasoning of the Indian electorate, rather than say, anti-incumbent pressure (viz Karnataka and AP?), regional issues of allied parties, caste politics in the Hindi belt etc.? I haven’t seen the level of fine-grained analysis I’d have to see to draw a conclusion, but considering Gujurat, Vish S. argument that Vajpayee’s “softness” failed is certainly one I hear a lot.

21

Ikram 05.14.04 at 4:40 am

Those wishing to uncork the bubbly should take a look at the vote-share totals first (they can be found on the India abroad website).

Both Congress and BJP dipped between 1% and 2%. Both the Congress alliance and the BJP alliance (NDA) took about 35% in the polls. This is not so much a victory for secularism or for Congress as it is for judicious pre-poll alliances. And if it is a verdict on anything, it is a verdict on the First-past-the-post electoral system.

The only clear and striking result, when looking at the vote share totals, is the rise of the Bahujan Samaj Party. You can spin that any way you like.

22

Amardeep Singh 05.14.04 at 4:49 am

people whose blood was uncorked as glibly as your champagne.

Drapeto: Imam Bukhari has lost his mind. If we’re attempting to get justice for the crimes you pointed out, it makes more sense to work within the Congress party and the Indian judicial system to do it than to go to a party who rose to power on a specifically communalist agenda (Ram temple), and that stood by while 3000 Muslims were killed scarcely 2 years ago. The only other sane option is to go to parties that are further left than Congress. The CPI and CPM are about the only people who have their hands relatively clean at this point…

I do have my problems with the Congress: I still can’t comprehend that people like Sajjan Kumar were acquitted for their role in the massacres of 1984 — and that it took 18 years and nine official government commissions for the govt. to decide to let everyone else off scot-free. I’m outraged that people like him are still in the Congress party. But the sad truth is that people vote for him year after year (& they voted for him again this year). That is the callousness and short-attention span of Indian democracy. Realpolitik allows us to be pro-Congress and at the same time anti-Sajjan Kumar.

I don’t know what you mean exactly about also blaming Congress for the rise of Bhindranwale. It’s about as pointless as blaming the CIA for Osama bin Laden. Ultimately you have to hold the criminals themselves accountable for what they do, not some govt. agency that gave them a little money 15 years earlier.

I also don’t know how you mention Bombay 1991 in your list with events for which you hold Congress responsible. Weren’t the anti-Muslim riots then primarily Bal Thackeray’s doing? Are you trying to argue that he is some kind of Congress functionary? I think that is a stretch.

23

Conrad Barwa 05.14.04 at 6:01 am

This is a good result and a deserved exit for the BJP govt. but the Congress is hardly a champion of secularism itself. In addition to what other commenters have pointed out about the past; as late as the last assembly elections we were treated to the egregious site of a ‘soft Hindutva’ plank being put forward by supposedly progressive state govts like that of Digvijay Singh in MP; one should also remember that this election result comes on the heel of a series of assembly elections where the BJP won all the states with the exception of the Delhi NCT despite predictions otherwise. Where one goes from here depends much on how the Congress handles things and what its coalition looks like for the future. To me soft saffronism is obviously an improvement over hard saffronism; though clearly a second best alternative – reminding me of say the dilemma many left of centre voters face in Western democracies; there might not be an awful lot of distance between New Labour and the Conservatives or the Democrats and the Republicans on many key issues (at least from an orthodox leftist perspective) but one is clearly to be preferred than the other.

Re the poverty issue: obviously this played a role but I don’t think there is a simple direct linkage here with either the reforms or with economic liberalisation. For a start it should be noted that it is debatable whether the reform process can just be linked to the 1991 BoP and debt crisis; it started actually much earlier in the 1980s on a smaller scale, the 80s also saw a huge upturn in fiscal outlays and large anti-poverty and rural development programmes – much of which was wasted or siphoned off by the rural elite and bureacratic/political rent-seekers, but this made a real dent on most accepted poverty ratios and saw a secular decline in poverty – not that this helped the Congress much. The gross failure of most parties to do something about this is one reason why there is such a strong anti-incumbency bias in so many elections; as govts get thrown out when they don’t come good on their promises. Decennial growth rates have been alright for the last two decades but they need to be broken down into their sectional and geographic components to examine the real impact on the poor. Other key issues like that of farmer suicides (not exactly the poorest class in the countryside) after bad harvests and problems with adulterated pesticides, unregulated private credit and the failures of GM crops played an important role in states like Andhra Pradesh.

Both Congress and BJP dipped between 1% and 2%. Both the Congress alliance and the BJP alliance (NDA) took about 35% in the polls. This is not so much a victory for secularism or for Congress as it is for judicious pre-poll alliances. And if it is a verdict on anything, it is a verdict on the First-past-the-post electoral system.

Yes and No. In a FPTP system small percentages obviously make a big difference – the post-Godhra elections in Gujarat only saw a small rise in the vote shares for the BJP but which was turned into a large majority in the assembly seats over the Congress. So even a small movement is quite important in terms of which direction the electorate is leaning towards; one needs to make allowances for the fact that many people are not going to change their votes based on various ascritpive and ideological grounds; the number of swing voters and those amenable to changing their say is not going to be large in a polarised and fractured polity such as India. In another sense though, it is very important since this is the first reasonably big victory Congress has scored at the national level since it went into terminal decline from the mid-90s onwards. Frankly, the very reversal of this downward slide is quite big news in my opinion; as the the relative platuea of support for the BJP. Now that the fervour of the Ramjambhoomi campaign had dulled; there isn’t a lot that the BJP can do that the Congress can’t; since the latter can play the patriotism card and the economic management one without having the rider of periodic episodes of communal violence and chauvinist nationalist waffle against minorities speweing forth. Considerably better in some senses as rollback Sinha and Jaswant Singh weren’t exactly big successes as Finance and Foreign Ministers. Secondly, it one looks at the electoral map, the BJP simply doesn’t exist in large parts of India such as the South and the East; it has only an indeterminate presence in Karnataka and a weak one in Assam, only in Orissa where it was lucky in its choice of regional ally in the BJD did it do well. This says a lot for the limits to its brand of saffronist politics, given that it faces serious challenges from OBC and Dalit parties in the Hindi states.

The only clear and striking result, when looking at the vote share totals, is the rise of the Bahujan Samaj Party. You can spin that any way you like.

I don’t think the BSP results were all that good, though they are the only caste-based party to be accorded ‘national’ status – this makes sense as Dalits are the only caste cluster that have a significant cohesive presence in all the regions with the sole exception of their counterparts at the other end of the caste spectrum. Other notable results include the complete sweep across the board for the DMK rainbow alliance in Tamil Nadu where it won all the seats – a first I believe and the incredibly strong showing for the Left parties with 59 seats – this is another reversal of a decline. If one looks at the general LS results in tripartite terms instead of bipolar ones; the non-Congress and non-NDA groupings form a considerable chunk of seats and votes. Granted they represent a disparate and fragmented assortment of constituencies and interests but it is an important sign that they can no longer be subsumed under some sort of Hindu Nationalist politics or by appeals to dynastic populism. This is I feel a far better guarantor of pluralism and diversity for Indian democracy than any single party and it is a result I think bodes well for the long-term health of the polity. This is obviously a view that the urban middle classes and elites don’t by large share but this is to be expected given the social realities of the political landscape.

24

drapeto 05.14.04 at 6:02 am

Are you trying to argue that he is some kind of Congress functionary? I think that is a stretch.

that wasn’t my point though in fact ss were indeed congress “functionaries” to break the backs of the unions, and there is indeed a long history of collusion btw the ss and the congress. as for congress’ role in the 91 riots, see the srikrishna report, naik&co. refused to transfer the communalist police chief and other wise behaved triumphantly like a force of non-secularism. naik claimed in his deposition that he had no idea that the ss was communalist!

ig’s connection to bhindranwale was far far more direct than cia/osama, though as a matter of fact, i’d think someone who called the cia “a force for secularism” was delusional. on the contrary, cia, congress and bjp are all happy to use fundamentalism to get over, and the congress’s use of religious violence did a great deal to make the bjp’s mainstreaming possible, even wrt the babri masjid issue.

and i see you name sajjan kumar but not sonia’s husband, whose actions in 84 is scarcely a secret. bukhari is being provactive, but his point about the body count of the congress is at worst worthy of serious argument and at best worthy of shame. not champagne, not laddus, but shame.

i thank ikram for the point about the bsp.

25

drapeto 05.14.04 at 6:18 am

Secondly, it one looks at the electoral map, the BJP simply doesn’t exist in large parts of India such as the South… This says a lot for the limits to its brand of saffronist politics

“its brand” being key, bc as mss pandian has been showing, both the dmk and aiadmk have been rolling in saffron in the last decade.

26

Tom T. 05.14.04 at 6:22 am

Bear in mind that Congress has “exploded nukes” (1974), and cannot claim clean hands as to religious violence (Golden Temple).

27

Avinash 05.14.04 at 6:33 am

Vish Subramanian writes:
“religious violence is a regional phenomenon..”

Really? There have been religious riots across India at regular intervals. Gujarat may be the worst in recent memory but to describe communal violence in India as `regional’ is a ridiculous statement.

“…and its champion – Narendra Modi of Gujarat state – had won a resounding victory and is well ensconced in power….”

Only partially correct now. One of the big shockers in this election (as Ophelia benson pointed out in an earlier post) has been the fact that Modi won 14 out of the 26 seats in Gujarat when he was widely expected to win all.

“… Throughout India the modernizers lost – especially Naidu in Hyderabad and Krishna in Bangalore – while the panderers won – Yadavs in Bihar and U.P. and the Gandhis…”

Naidu lost for the very good reason that he forgot the vast majority of people in his state who committed the sin of not owning a laptop or an internet connection. He completely ignored agriculture and the poor farmers, hundreds of whom have committed suicide in the state over the last few years because of drought and crippling debt burdens that the `moderniser’ did little to alleviate. The muslims in his state went against him because, as a member of the ruling BJP coalition, he failed to take a strong stand against the massacres in Gujarat. So Naidu definitely deserved what he got. Hobnobbing with Bill Gates is ok in itself but he made the cardinal mistake of forgetting who the people in his state really were and what they really wanted. The fact that he suffered a massive defeat (and not just the loss of a few seats here and there) bears out the fact. Krishna’s loss was more ambiguous – the verdict wasn’t as decisive as that against Naidu.

And the victory of the Yadavs in Bihar is a symptom of a much larger force in Indian politics – the rise of the lower castes who have been oppressed for generations. So calling them `panderers’ is a tad dismissive, wouldn’t you think?

It’s true that the Congress doesn’t have much to commend it. It’s hardly innocent of many of the crimes that the BJP itself is accused of, like religious hatred. But to paint the BJP as a bunch of do-gooders who got stiffed by the ungrateful Indian electorate is to miss all these broader points –they failed to generate employment, that they failed to solve the problems faced by Indian agriculture (on whom the vast majority of Indians still depend) and they condoned the pogrom in Gujarat.

28

adi 05.14.04 at 7:14 am

personally, im in favour of alliances, post or pre-poll. as people, we have to bargain everyday to get what we want from anyone. so why not have that fact reflect in the political sphere which is supposed to represent our concerns in policy decisions? we have all dealt with certain people that we didnt want to ever have to deal with, but sometimes its not an option and so it is in politics(except its like that almost all the time)

On a different but related note, i dont get this “fractured” democracy stuff that a lot of pundits think of a multi-party system. i feel(with no particular factual basis) that multi-party systems are a more accurate representation of the needs of any multicultural nation since each group has its own needs and ideals. i thought democracy was about getting your voice heard and not subjugating yourself to whatever structures the power elite throw at you to keep themselves in power. isnt there some quote about not putting all your eggs in the same basket?

sorry for rambling, but thats all i seem to do anymore.

29

Conrad Barwa 05.14.04 at 7:17 am

“its brand” being key, bc as mss pandian has been showing, both the dmk and aiadmk have been rolling in saffron in the last decade.

I am sceptical about this, Jayalitha tried to push some typical saffronist angles like the anti-Conversion bills but the DMK has been more muted; despite the short-lived stab Karunaidhi had at ‘Dravidian Hinduvta’ much of this is combined at the mainly symbolic level – which is still important but not as central I would argue. I can’t see some parts of the ‘brand’ playing all that well, I mean Ram wouldn’t exactly have the same iconic significance and the greater downward percolation of political power and development in the social hierarchy makes it difficult for the BJP to play the same games that it does in northern India. What I think is key is the fact, as you note that this ‘rolling around’ has only emerged in the last decade (quite late to jump on the saffronist bandwagon, given that Congress had been doing so in an opportunistic fashion for years before this); and is due simply to the power politics in TN; since the Dravidian parties reign supreme at the state level any govt at the centre has to reach an accommodation with either one of the Dravidian formations in the state and will inevitably incur the enmity of the other one. The very fact that the DMK and the AIDMK change partners in Delhi more often than Yashwant Sinha changes political parties; indicates that what they really care about is allying with one of the dominant national formations at the Centre in the hopes of scoring an advantage against their opponents at the state level. To this end, they are quite willing to compromise on idealised values like secularism – which in any case make limited impact in most of the South given the predominance of the Caste master narrative over that of the Communal divide, unlike the north. I doubt that they care much of a fig about saffronist politics, as long as they can outmanoeuvre their main rivals within the state. Laudable, no but such are the unpleasant realities of compromise in politics to gain power. One doesn’t need to have a saffronist agenda to back the BJP, as the case of the TDP shows and of the splinter factions of the JD which are a part of the NDA in Bihar. While this is not a positive development, such adoptions are strictly contingent on prevailing political calculations of obtaning office and so are liable to change as circumstances do.

30

Ikram 05.14.04 at 7:24 am

Conrad wrote:

Other notable results include the complete sweep across the board for the DMK rainbow alliance in Tamil Nadu where it won all the seats – a first I believe and the incredibly strong showing for the Left parties with 59 seats – this is another reversal of a decline

These results were notable, but they should not be read as voters endorsing a particular party. The vote share of the rainbow DMK rose by 50% less than the ADMK. And the CPI/CPM saw no change in their vote-share. Both of these notable results were an artifact of FPTP.

I’m not making a negative comment, I’m a fan of FPTP. And I know that the election will be analyzed by pundits as if the NDA had lost a major ‘popular mandate’ and Congress had gained one. But this isn’t the case from a voter perspective.

As for the BSP, it is now the fourth most popular party in India (INC, BJP, CPM, BSP), increased its vote share by more than any other party (1.14%), and has gained popularity in every election i the past decade. That’s really striking.

31

Conrad Barwa 05.14.04 at 8:15 am

Ikram,

These results were notable, but they should not be read as voters endorsing a particular party. The vote share of the rainbow DMK rose by 50% less than the ADMK. And the CPI/CPM saw no change in their vote-share. Both of these notable results were an artifact of FPTP.

I disagree, it is best to break down national voteshares as they are too aggregated to provide much of a picture particularly for regionally based parties. One would need to look at the shares at a state level to be able to tell the difference to a large enough degree; particularly for parties like the LF which although ‘national’ political organisations and which contest a large number of seats are really limited to certain regional belts of influence. I think the statewise figures will give a better indication – though the swing won’t be very large – it never is in most FPTP systems as a rule. But frex, given that the CPI and CPI (M) were part of the DMK coalition in TN; it is difficult to disaggregate their respective contributions at the state level and the same can be said for NDA support for the AIDMK.

I’m not making a negative comment, I’m a fan of FPTP. And I know that the election will be analyzed by pundits as if the NDA had lost a major ‘popular mandate’ and Congress had gained one. But this isn’t the case from a voter perspective.

Well, I am not a fan of the FPTP a way overrated system particularly when the political scenario doesn’t easily fit into a simple two-way contest. Some form of PR is much better suited to Indian conditions, the FPTP is much favoured by those enamoured of ‘stable govts’ but in practise these usually mean ones that inclines towards the status quo which isn’t really in the interests of the bulk of the electorate in this case. As for the ‘pundits’ yeah, well they will say that because they are interested in outcomes not in voter intentions for the most part (despite their ostensible denials here) for them what matters is who forms the govt and who gets the most votes is looked at through this prism rather than through some notion of democratic election for its own sake. Of course in FPTP systems, this is the norm as even dominant parties which can carry out wide-reaching changes will rarely have what can be said to be a ‘popular mandate’ and it will be highly unusual for them to carry the majority of the electorate with them. Think of Maggie Thatcher and her peak support of 40% to put things into perspective.

As for the BSP, it is now the fourth most popular party in India (INC, BJP, CPM, BSP), increased its vote share by more than any other party (1.14%), and has gained popularity in every election i the past decade. That’s really striking.

Well, like I said this is because it has a broad social constituency that it can reach but I don’t think it is as striking as it appears. Firstly, the IND registered a larger increase in voteshare (1.44%), but this aside, such an outcome is not untypical for caste-based and peasant parties in the northern belt; as you can see from the JD(S) and SP performances; given the realignment of caste-equations and the floating Muslim vote this is to be expected. Also the performance of the BSP looks a lot less impressive when you consider some of the states where it has seen oscillating support – such as Punjab and MP where its record on voteshares has been much more uneven. As different OBC and MBC groups move between the SP, BSP and JD factions one can see this figure fluctuate quite significantly over time as will the local dynamics of state politics – frex an anti-CPI(M) vote won’t mean much in most of West Bengal but can do so in Kerala. Again, I would have to add that national figures need to be broken up into their geographic constituents as well as examined over time for these changes.

32

dsquared 05.14.04 at 9:16 am

Sonia Gandhi is not an intellectual mediocrity and is no more “riding her family name” than did Benazir Bhutto or Corazon Aquino.

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vinod narayanan 05.14.04 at 9:38 am

I think that another significant feature was how the Communists fared. Their best performance ever. The Congress only needs their support to form a government, since the parties like the DMK, RJD etc were part of their pre-poll alliance.* So, I would think that predictions about Ms. Gandhi’s problems managing an unwieldy coalition are premature.

On the other hand they are the Communist bloc and they have been against the economic reforms process from the get-go. Plus, should they decide to be a part of the government, they would be the second largest section of the ruling coalition after the Congress. They could just as well decide to throw a spanner in the liberalization works for all I know. It will be interesting to see if Manmohan Singh will indeed be made the FM, since the Communists have often held him responsible for the reform process and therefore, the architect of India’s problems in the rural sectors.

And, unlike the BJP-led coalition, no one need expect any sort of pro-US foriegn policy positions to be taken by any Indian government in which the Communists are a part.

I think that Vish’s slightly alarmist point of view, where he predicts the emergence of more Narendra Modi’s, is partially inaccurate since the man himself has suffered a serious reverse in his home state of Gujarat. Clearly, selling sectarian violence will not guarantee votes all the time.

*We’ll just let the fact that the Communists had a pre-poll alliance with the Congress in many places outside of West Bengal and Kerala slide, since they don’t seem to have gained too much out of it and because they got most of their seats by opposing both the Congress and the BJP in West Bengal and Kerala.

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vinod narayanan 05.14.04 at 9:54 am

As a follow-up, I’d like to point out that the Sonia would do well to discourage the Communist’s present gambit of trying to rope in the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and form some sort of grand ‘secular’ coalition . Obviously, the Left hopes to create a larger pressure group within the coalition (although I don’t know how the pro-industrialist SP and BSP would sqare withe the Left’s anti-capitalist ambitions).

Anyone who is famialiar with the machinations and history between the SP and BSP in Uttar Pradesh (UP) will tell you that this is one concept which, if realized, will self-destruct fairly quickly, and in a pretty spectacular fashion.

And it’s usually not a good idea to include parties whose turf you’re trying to take over, in a coalition which you’re going to head up. Otherwise, the Congress might as well write off the seat-rich state of UP altogether for the next couple of decades.

So, Sonia, just say no.

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Conrad Barwa 05.14.04 at 10:46 am

Sonia Gandhi is not an intellectual mediocrity and is no more “riding her family name” than did Benazir Bhutto or Corazon Aquino.

Hmph, I don’t know what standard one is using here but I don’t think the term mediocrity is entirely inaccurate here but this is an old complaint that stretches back through her husband and mother-in-law. High intelligence isn’t necessarily what makes a good prime ministerial candidate as other qualities are more desirable and Indian politicians aren’t exaclty know for their intellectual attributes these days and what talents they have in this area, tends to be grossly inflated – and I speak as someone who actually knows several members of these species quite well. I am also less than enthused by the comparisons with Pakistani and Filipino candidates; with all due respect I don’t think this is something that one should seek to emulate and neither of these politicians ended all that well (with the partial exception of Aquino). My simple point is this, given the history here dynastic politics have not been exactly a positive development alongside democracy and the leaders they have produced, in the Indian context have left much to be desired. The Nehru-Gandhi dynasty are very much a case in point; I just don’t think this is something that should be continued; regardless of what is happening in other countries.

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roublen vesseau 05.14.04 at 12:00 pm

>Sonia Gandhi is not an intellectual mediocrity

based on? I’ve seen no evidence one way or another.

>and is no more ?riding her family name? than did >Benazir Bhutto or Corazon Aquino.

according to someone I respect Benazir Bhutto is really bad news. Like … [POTENTIALLY LIBELLOUS ALLEGATION EDITED-OUT HERE BY MODERATOR] … bad.

After Gujarat, the BJP deserved to lose, but I don’t think voteres were rejecting communalism in any serious way, and I cannot get enthusiastic about Vajpayee, a very good PM, getting replaced by Sonia Gandhi or some other Congress hack. What’s interesting to me is the complete collapse of the Janata Dal. If you assume that the main reason people vote for the Congress in such high numbers is name and symbol recognition, how many people would have voted for the “wheel”, if it had been offered?

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roublen vesseau 05.14.04 at 12:06 pm

Also, there’s a big difference between a child inheriting a political position and a wife. It’s as if Queen Noor were to become ruler of Jordan, albeit not with the tense America-Jordan relationship.

I’m just saying. . .

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Tom 05.14.04 at 6:00 pm

“It’s as if Queen Noor were to become ruler of Jordan, albeit not with the tense America-Jordan relationship.”

Considering Queen Noor is American, one would suspect her becoming ruler of Jordan to be more controversial.

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Decnavda 05.14.04 at 6:26 pm

Sonia Gandhi is not an intellectual mediocrity and is no more “riding her family name” than did Benazir Bhutto or Corazon Aquino.

Or Hillary Clinton?

I don’t know anything about Sonia’s intellectual abilities, but I would like to comment on this discussion of the fairness of wives getting political power due to their (sometimes late) husbands. Technically, I think dsquared is wrong, but his point here is still generally valid. These women did, in fact, ride their family name, in the sense that they would never have gotten where they were without it. It gave them a leg up over many other qualified candidates, and yes, that is unfair.

However, this unfairness is useless to single out. Untill someone comes up with a fair system for offering political opportunities in a democracy, this is no worse than any of the ways that most male politicians in democracies get their opportunities. As has been pointed out here, Sonia is part of a dynasty, and it is just as unfair that many of the men in that dynasty got their opportunities through it as the women. I live in a state whose governor got his chance to run because he was an excellent bodybuilder and movie star (as apposed to actor). How fair is that? And it even seems unreasonable to complain about that when we have running for president two members of the Skull & Crossbones society. Our last Presidential election pitted a President’s son against a Senator’s son.

Politicians should only be judged on what they do with opportunities, not the unfairness of how they got them, unless you can suggest a fair alternative vetting system.

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Vish Subramanian 05.14.04 at 8:33 pm

A few rejoinders:

” to describe communal violence in India as `regional’ is a ridiculous statement.” I dont think so. Religious violence is almost always perpetrated by local leaders for local reasons (the significant exception being the Babri Masjid riots, somwething that did not repeat when the BJP was in power and that some BJP folks are probably looking back fondly to).

People pointed out that Narendra Modi won “only” a majority of seats this time – Im not sure why that is a cause for much celebration. The fact remains that Vajpayee is the moderate face of Hindutva and he lost.

“Sonia Gandhi is no more “riding her family name” than did Benazir Bhutto “. Yikes! Does anybody actually remember the disaster that was the Benazir Bhutto government?


Naidu lost for the very good reason that he forgot the vast majority of people in his state …”. Note the first act of the new Andhra CM – “Dr Y S Rajasekhara Reddy, the new Congress Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, today fulfilled his party’s poll promise of providing free power to farmers and waiving the dues of their power charges, amounting to Rs 1,100 crores.” If thats not pandering and a return to the days of misguided socialism, I dont know what is. Certainly the opponents of Naidu and Krishna won because there is still frustration in India and they exploited it to the full – but that doesn mean they are right. It is a step backward.

The Yadavs do not represent the lower classes – they represent what are quaintly called “Other Backward Castes” which are not backward at all. If there is a better example of populist panderers, please let me know.

Anyway, let me end on a note of hope – there may not be a need for a monstrous coalition, and even the left is not totally anti-business these days. And finally, Indians will always find a way to muddle through the mess that is their government.

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Conrad Barwa 05.14.04 at 10:37 pm

I don’t know anything about Sonia’s intellectual abilities, but I would like to comment on this discussion of the fairness of wives getting political power due to their (sometimes late) husbands. Technically, I think dsquared is wrong, but his point here is still generally valid. These women did, in fact, ride their family name, in the sense that they would never have gotten where they were without it. It gave them a leg up over many other qualified candidates, and yes, that is unfair.

Look the discussion is veering off-track from the real issue at hand here. The point is not whether selection of candidates in most representative democracies are fair or not (though this is an important topic in itself) but whether dynastic politics and specifically the case of the Nehru-Gandhi family in India has/is a good thing. Whether it is fair or not is not really my concern here, what is more important in my view is whether it is good for the democracy in question and for the political situation and I have to say that in the long-term it is not and only debatably so in the short-term. In this particular case, I don’t think it is illegitimate to desire an alternative to this route; political families in Indian politics have tended to incredibly corrupt and nepotistic, combining the worst aspects of patrimonialistic rule without any of its (admittedly limited) benefits – one of the reasons why hijras make popular candidates as they don’t have any of these drawbacks.

However, this unfairness is useless to single out. Untill someone comes up with a fair system for offering political opportunities in a democracy, this is no worse than any of the ways that most male politicians in democracies get their opportunities. As has been pointed out here, Sonia is part of a dynasty, and it is just as unfair that many of the men in that dynasty got their opportunities through it as the women.

Again, I should point out that this is not a ‘just outcomes’ argument, at least from my perspective. If you read the above comments by other contributors you can get a sample of why people are less than happy with the record of the Congress in the past and when you understand that for the periods in question it has been led by this political dynasty, reservations as to having yet another go on this merry-go ground make more sense. Appeals to dynastic populism, have historically involved an attempt to subsume various social and communal conflicts by focusing loyalty and the locus of attention on a single figure and this kind of demagogic Bonapartism has always been shored up by playing one community against another including damaging appeals to majoritarian sentiment from time to time. Both Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi have been guilty of this in the past and the kind of crude votebank politics they played in the name of foundational constitutional values such as secularism, democracy and development went a long way in discrediting these aspirations and allowing them to be hijacked or de-legitimised by saffronists who derided them as a ‘pseudo-secular’ worldview. This is overlooking the rather dubious contributions to the de-institutionalisation of politics, suspension of democracy and pervasive corruption that have also been the hallmarks of the Gandhi family’s time in power since the 70s. But this is also to some degree besides the point; the most important concern is that Sonia Gandhi didn’t want to enter politics and didn’t want her husband to enter politics but was in many ways forced into doing so (one should recall that she rejected the supine conferral of leadership made by the CWC in the immediate wake of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination); my problem lies not only in the brand of dynastic politics being promoted here (which has never boded well for our democracy) but in her ability and capacity to rule. Unlike the BJP, the Left or the regional/caste parties, the Congress has no well worked out ideology anymore to give it purpose, lacks a highly motivated and powerful party machinery and cadre network for grassroots activism and doesn’t have the kind of readymade social constituency to anchor its goals as easily. In such a scenario and having to lead a rickety coalition govt it will require some considerable skill and agility as well as vision; which I don’t think will be found in the current Congress President.

Politicians should only be judged on what they do with opportunities, not the unfairness of how they got them, unless you can suggest a fair alternative vetting system.

Yeah, we need to bring back a level of appointment by pure lottery along classical lines to shake the system up a bit; but as this is not going to happen one should settle for the next best thing; which I don’t think dynastic politics are.

Also a few rejoinders on some inaccurate points:

People pointed out that Narendra Modi won “only” a majority of seats this time – Im not sure why that is a cause for much celebration. The fact remains that Vajpayee is the moderate face of Hindutva and he lost.

I can’t believe people are still seriously pushing this line; the difference here is minimal as the BJP needs to present a number of different faces to different audiences but there is a stronger underlying unity. Which face is put forward when, is strictly a matter linked to prevailing demands of the situation at the time; the communisation of politics and ‘riot systems’ that are in place to spark off such confrontations are as much a part of the ‘moderate’ BJP as it is of the more hard-line elements. The primary function of the so-called moderates is to allow supposedly ‘modernised’ middle class Indians a more comfortable face when dealing with the BJP and the illusion that they are removed from the violence and the chauvinist politics it espouses.

If thats not pandering and a return to the days of misguided socialism, I dont know what is. Certainly the opponents of Naidu and Krishna won because there is still frustration in India and they exploited it to the full – but that doesn mean they are right. It is a step backward.

Not really, ‘pandering’ to the kisan lobby isn’t really a ‘socialist’ policy as far as I am aware. It has its origins in the rise of the cultivating peasantry which benefited from the Green Revolution and the expansion of state subsidies and was very much a strategy to prevent and class re-orientation in the countryside – part of the point of the Green Revolution was that it would circumvent the pressure for a Red one. Being able to extract subsidies from the state sector is hardly a form of socialism either, just another variant of state capitalism and everyone in India plays this game, from the farm lobby, to the corporate sector and the bureaucracy. Much of Indian industry wouldn’t exist without public subsidies/investment and tariff barriers in one form or another; so it is a bit rich to start denigrating this now. Given the strength of the rural peasantry in most food surplus states it is difficult to ignore their electoral power; both constituents of the NDA like the Akali Dal and others like the SP and JD have realised this. The one thing that is the kiss of death for most mainstream parties is to be construed as ‘anti-farmer’ and few, if any can survive a successful labelling as such easily. This has little to do with socialism or populism and more to do with the socio-economic composition of the countryside and the realities of power there on the ground and as such is an unavoidable aspect of electoral politics.

The Yadavs do not represent the lower classes – they represent what are quaintly called “Other Backward Castes” which are not backward at all. If there is a better example of populist panderers, please let me know.

This depends on the definition of ‘backward’; there are wide social inequalities which have persisted despite the acquisition of political power at the state level by most OBC and Dalit parties. The OBCs have certainly improved their position greatly but could still be considered as part of the ‘lower classes’ on most HDI indicators; it should be noted that ‘lower’ classes are not the same as ‘lowest’ classes and internal differentiation as well as contradictions remain here as well. These are emphasised by both the left and lower caste politicians who want to eradicate these gaps by closing or reversing them and by upper caste ones who see it as a convenient way of dividing challenges to the established power matrix at the rural level and de-legitimising the rising tide of lower caste assertion. The BJP is not averse to similar sorts of panderings and the Uma Bharti govt in MP can be seen as a variant of this as the Chattisgarh one as well, with its genius idea of providing a cow for every adivasi family in the state to combat rural deprivation. Of course, it is only the lower caste parties that are daubed as populist when they indulge in such measures.

Anyway, let me end on a note of hope – there may not be a need for a monstrous coalition,

Again there is a play of words here; we have already seen several large and at least at the ideological level highly contradictory coalition tie-ups. What else can explain an old style Socialist like George Fernandes as the convenor of the NDA? Jumbo size ministries are the name of the game in states where the party spectrum is very fragmented like UP and everybody has to play if they want to win – the BJP included.

and even the left is not totally anti-business these days.

There is a lot that has been said about the supposed ‘anti-business’ nature of the Left; to be expected I suppose given the virulent anti-Communism that exists in large sections of the pro-BJP middle class. If one spent less time listening to the rhetorical flourishes of Stalinist-style members of the Politburo in New Delhi and paid more attention to the actual functioning of LF govts in states such as West Bengal, it becomes quite apparent that the Left is not all anti-business but rather quite reverse. It has reached highly pragmatic accommodations that it needs to stay in power and there is little reason to assume this will not be done at the national level, since it has already be done at state level. Any LF coalition will obviously be less keen to pander to the corporate sector and the desires of the dominant propertied classes (less keen but still willing), but this of course arouses far more howls of outrage than would otherwise be the case.

And finally, Indians will always find a way to muddle through the mess that is their government.

The burden hardly falls equitable across the board, and is shouldered most heavily by those closer to the bottom than those in the middle or at the top of socio-economic hierarchy. One hopes for the sake of the former at least, that it will not be an intolerably heavy one that has usually been their lot to have to quietly put up with.

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Scott 05.16.04 at 6:50 am

“communalism have been defeated”-
Just the opposite is true–
The working class banded together to defeat a elite that promoted racism, mysticism, and nationalism over the shared plight of working poor.
The secular won, as did the communal and rational over the
mystical and national.

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