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An Anti-Congress Wave in India Propels the Hindu Right to Power
May 16, 2014, 11:01 am

For the first time since 1984 a single party will have a majority in the Indian parliament. That year, the Congress Party led by Rajiv Gandhi secured 414 seats (out of the 533 seats in the Lok Sabha, the parliament). Mr. Gandhi’s mother, Indira, had been assassinated not long before the election, and the Congress won decisively on a massive sympathy wave. It did not matter to the electorate that the Congress had engineered an anti-Sikh pogrom that resulted in the death of 3000 Sikhs in two days. The 1984 election was the Congress’ largest victory yet.

Narendra Modi (center) has delivered a rousing victory for India's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2014 general elections [Xinhua]

Narendra Modi (center) has delivered a rousing victory for India’s main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2014 general elections [Xinhua]

In the 1984 election, the Hindu Right’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won only 2 seats. This year, the tide has turned. The BJP is projected to win a large majority, not near 414 but as decisive. It did not stop the Indian voters that the BJP leader, Narendra Modi, is accused of having a hand in an anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat in 2002. The Congress, led by Mr. Gandhi’s son, Rahul, has posted its lowest ever total. It will limp into second place.

India will now have a powerful Hindu Right government with a very weak opposition. It is the worst of all worlds.

To come to power, the BJP wiped out several major political parties across northern India – the major parties of Uttar Pradesh (BSP, SP) and of western India (including the NCP). It also decimated the Congress. How did the BJP manage this feat?

An Anti-Congress Wave

The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) has been in power since 2004. In the first UPA, the Congress’s commitment to neo-liberal policies had been constrained by a substantial Communist bloc with which it had to ally in parliament. Despite that, the Congress was able to deepen its LPG agenda – liberalization, privatization and globalization, an explosive mix that brought India in line with the planet’s rising inequality. An Indian Planning Commission study from December 2012 found that urban inequality was rising “steadily over the years, with a sharp rise in the 2000s. This rate of inequality exacerbated the condition of deprivation suffered by 680 million Indians, according to a study by McKinsey & Company. The McKinsey study suggested that the “empowerment gap,” namely the additional consumption needed to bring the deprived Indians to the “Empowerment Line,” is seven times greater than the cost of poverty elimination. The Congress led government fell short not only of bringing the population to the poverty line (which is very low), but it was no-where near providing an agenda for the 680 million who were below the Empowerment Line.

The policy slate of the Congress-led UPA intensified inequality, allowing a narrow slice of the Indian population to accumulate vast amounts of wealth and another slice to benefit from the expenditures of this small moneyed elite. Policy options that sought to enhance the entrepreneurial class as the engine of growth also provided that class with the mechanisms to benefit through corruption. The number of scandals that rocked the second UPA government (2009 onward) began to define the administration of Dr. Manmohan Singh. By the time the Indian electoral went to the ballot, they saw the Congress as the party of corruption. That was something that the incumbent party could not shake.

A Closeted BJP Agenda

The BJP’s record in governance is not any different from that of the Congress – with inequality and corruption being the order of the day in its bastion of Gujarat, for instance. To take one indicator as illustrative, in Gujarat the mal-nutrition rate is so high that it is worse than the average level of malnutrition in sub-Saharan Africa (where the rates of mal-nutrition remain very disturbing). Gujarat’s ‘development model’ also favored the privileged businessmen of the ruling party, the BJP, and its chief minister, Narendra Modi. Family firms such as the Adani group earned substantial gifts from the BJP government, which enhanced their profits, and helped Gujarat increase its own profile as “open for business.”

Modi was able to dodge questions of the “Gujarat Model.” He was quickly anointed by the BJP as its Prime Ministerial candidate and hastily favored by the media with far more coverage than any other politician. Modi ran as the development candidate with a carefully calibrated argument – he suggested that it was not neo-liberalism that created inequality, but its symptom, namely corruption, which the BJP tied to the mast of the Congress. In other words, the BJP never ran against the roots of inequality or deprivation, but only what it deemed to be its symptom – corruption. This was a clever strategy. It both rode the anti-Congress wave, which had been produced by anger at the inequalities in the country, and it mollified the corporate community, which would not have been interested in any criticism of the policies of neoliberalism.

Unlike the rest of the BJP leadership, Modi had no need to take recourse to the language of the Hindu Right. He had been the Chief Minister of Gujarat during the riot, and despite no finding of guilt has worn the odor of responsibility. A man of the Right, Modi simply had to gesture toward his base to comfort them about his commitment to their ideology and demands: it was sufficient to journey to the headquarters of the powerful Hindu nationalist organisation called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – the brain center of the Hindu Right – was one indicator, and to deliver his wink and nudge speeches about Muslims and their need to be Indian. He did not have to ride on the chariot of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya, although not one of his hard right supporters doubted his commitment. It freed Modi up to be the pro-Business leader rather than the anti-Muslim one. It was a campaign run with a masterful touch.

The Rest?

Modi will form his government in the weeks to come. He will have to decide whether he governs from the ideology he concealed in plain sight or from the campaign rhetoric of good governance that he delivered. If he does the latter, he will be able to cement the BJP in power for a considerable time. If he does the former, his will be the last BJP government in a generation.

A portrait of India's next prime minister Narendra Modi is displayed on a screen on the façade of the Bombay Stock Exchange in Mumbai, India, Friday, May 16, 2014. Indian stocks jumped Friday as preliminary results from national elections indicated the pro-business opposition had won a landslide victory [AP]

A portrait of India’s next prime minister Narendra Modi is displayed on a screen on the façade of the Bombay Stock Exchange in Mumbai, India, Friday, May 16, 2014. Indian stocks jumped Friday as preliminary results from national elections indicated the pro-business opposition had won a landslide victory [AP]

The weakened secular opposition in the Indian parliament will have to ensure that rights of minorities are protected, that jingoism is combated, that full-bore neoliberalism is prevented, and of course that an alternative view is heard. The Congress is currently unable to do this, and most of the other major parties are too weak to mount any effective challenge. The Left has also been considerably weakened, and will have to build its strength outside parliament through popular political struggles.

Did the Indian people get what they wanted with this election, where 66% of the electorate voted in the BJP in a landslide? At one level the people get what they vote for – but on the other, did they vote for good governance or Hindu nationalism? It seems to me that they voted for the former. It would be characteristic of the BJP – and desolation for India – if they believe that the people voted for Hindu nationalism.


The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the publisher's editorial policy.