Liberation at last!

Published : Jun 04, 2004 00:00 IST

The Indian people have sent the National Democratic Alliance packing and ended a dark phase in India's evolution, when communalism, chauvinism and anti-poor elitism ruled. This is a historic chance to impart a forward-looking, progressive, transformatory momentum to Indian democracy.

WE must all celebrate the resounding rebuff delivered by the electorate to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its brand of elitist, soak-the-poor economics, and chauvinist, exclusivist and cynically communal politics. The anti-NDA verdict is all the sweeter because it was largely unanticipated and declared near-impossible by a collusive media.

The election results mark the first clean, decisive, unambiguous and potentially sustainable break from the 20-year-long rightward shift in Indian society and politics under the impact of neoliberalism, Hindu communalism and the burgeoning of a middle class that is profoundly callous towards the underprivileged and deeply uncomfortable with the culture of democracy. On two recent occasions too, India witnessed events that very nearly produced such a break: in 1989-91, and more importantly, in 1996-98 under the United Front. But these were nowhere as complete or decisive as the present conjuncture. And they did not last long. They could not even begin to combat the basic trends underlying the rightward shift before they ran out of steam.

The present moment is pregnant with far richer possibilities - including a genuine enrichment of our democracy and a return to the project of building a plural, modern, multicultural, just and egalitarian society which is free from want and misery and in whose cohesion the people have a vital stake. The BJP mounted the most potent challenge to that project, itself closely related to the inspirations behind the freedom struggle and its modernist Enlightenment-based ideas. That challenge has been repulsed - at least for now.

Those who want to minimise and trivialise the significance of the electoral verdict are now depicting it as the result of good or bad campaigning and of tactical "mistakes" by the NDA and competent tactical moves by the secular parties - such as striking the right alliances - "anti-incumbency", State-level misgovernance (a question-begging blanket term), minor "local" vote shifts (L.K. Advani's explanation), and the success or failure of different "political brands" for a variety of contingent reasons.

In reality, the NDA's defeat is strategic. It is comprehensive. A certain overarching coherence is visible in the voting patterns in different parts of the country. It is as if the same mind was at work. Tactful alliance-building by the Congress - or so-called electoral arithmetic - cannot alone explain the NDA's countrywide humiliation. Besides Tamil Nadu, the Congress had significant alliances only in Maharashtra, Bihar, Jharkhand and Andhra Pradesh. But it outperformed the BJP virtually everywhere, and exceeded its own score by 33 seats (the BJP lost 44). The Congress had no major allies in Uttar Pradesh, but still stole a march over the BJP, whose strength fell to almost a third of that in 1999. The margins of the Congress-led alliance's victory are far higher than those explained by electoral arithmetic - especially in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.

The Telugu Desam Party's rout is a powerful rejection of N. Chandrababu Naidu's shameful neglect of farmers in acute distress, his pampering of Information Technology investors, his abuse and diversion of State funds (some Rs.350 crores was allegedly spent on publicity alone) and his CEO-style leadership, which reduces democratic politics to a corporate management function. His claims of an IT "revolution" were always hollow (see this column, Frontline, February 18, 2002). The people realised that they were made at their expense. The NDA has lost outright or suffered a setback everywhere barring three west-central states - Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, where it was already firmly implanted - and in Karnataka and Punjab. It broke no new ground whatsoever. Equally significant, it has lost nearly half its strength in Gujarat, its forte and "Hindutva's laboratory", where it has been in power on its own, continuously, and longer than anywhere else. The loss was concentrated in the very same central and northern areas where the 2002 violence was at its ugliest. The vote is tantamount to political punishment for the BJP.

The NDA's gains in Karnataka had more to do with drought and agrarian distress than with a positive sentiment in favour of the BJP. BJP MLAs comprise barely one-third of the Assembly's strength. A secular coalition government comprising the Congress and H.D. Deve Gowda's Janata Dal (Secular) is on the cards. In Punjab, the verdict is partly a "correction" in favour of the Akalis, who were routed in 1999. Partly, it is the result of Congress infighting.

The Congress' performance improved in most States, barring those ruled by the Left. It is not alliances, but disaffection with and rejection osf the anti-poor character of the BJP-NDA that explains the voting pattern. The Congress did well where it took a clear, unambiguous, combative stand on livelihood issues and on secularism. It was most successful when its stance resonated with the people's concerns. Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi added to the impact, especially in Uttar Pradesh. But that happened because an anti-BJP sentiment already existed. The Congress' adoption of a broadly left-of-centre position corresponds to the people's mood. Where it fought the Left by adopting a conservative Right-leaning stance (as in West Bengal and Kerala), it did badly.

The present verdict at long last brings the actual centre of gravity of Indian politics in line with its "natural" centre. In a country where half the population suffers from serious deprivation amidst entrenched hierarchies and hideous inequalities, democratic politics has to define itself through the classical agendas of the Left. With this landmark election, the greatest concerns of a majority of Indians have returned to the political centre stage.

The verdict is, equally, a powerful rejection of the politics of ethnic-chauvinism and communalism. The Gujarat results reflect the people's disgust with the BJP for engineering independent India's worst state-sponsored communal carnage. But no less important, the BJP has been reduced to just 15 seats in U.P., Bihar and Jharkhand put together. In the North as a whole, it has shrunk into a minor party. Only slightly less striking is the BJP's defeat in Ayodhya, Mathura and Kashi, which confirms that the temple issue has lost all popular appeal after many recent attempts to revive it. The defeat of Vinay Katiyar, Murli Manohar Joshi, "Swami" Chinmayanand, Ram Bilas Vedanti and other Hindutva hardliners reinforces the same conclusion.

It is only in the west-central States (and Orissa) that the NDA can claim to have done well - although that too is partly a function of the Congress' demoralisation after its drubbing at the last Assembly elections.

THE electoral verdict punctures three myths. First, that the "naturally xenophobic" normal Indian would not trust a "foreigner" to lead the nation. The BJP strove hard and in any number of ways to campaign on the "foreign-origin" issue to put Sonia Gandhi on the defensive. This simply did not wash with the electorate. In part, the issue lost steam with the entry of Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi who can be declared "aliens" only on the basis of some arcane medieval reasoning. But at a more basic level, the Indian people simply did not fall into the xenophobes' trap. For them, a person who was born abroad, but has voluntarily chosen to be an Indian and to live here, is as authentic a national as any other. What matters is citizenship, not ethnicity. Accepting the naturalisation of people of foreign origin is part of the agenda of inclusion. And it is this agenda that the electorate has strongly endorsed.

The second myth to burst is that of the validity of "managerial politics" or manoeuvring in the style of the corporate manager. Managerial politics robs democracy of its participatory content, and reduces it to an exercise in marketing, the selling of brands and images, rather than of mobilising and expressing the concerns and interests of flesh-and-blood people and social groups. Within the NDA, the shenanigans of mind-benders and not-so-hidden persuaders replaced real politics. The people were excluded. They became mere passive consumers in the political marketplace, with no agency or will of their own. They would swallow whatever is offered, perhaps the most palatable of what is offered, but they would never set the agenda. This politics-as-marketing idea has been decisively trashed.

The third myth pertains to the (non-existent) Vajpayee "mystique" or "magic", which is supposed to charm voters from North to South out of their wits. Because Vajpayee's acceptance ratings are more than twice as high as the BJP's, it tried to present him as its mascot, its most recognisable symbol, principal campaigner, its source of inspiration, the supreme leader, everything. It even manipulated media perceptions of this parliamentary election, distorting it into some kind of presidential contest between Vajpayee and Sonia Gandhi. Many in the BJP and its supporters in the media convinced themselves that Vajpayee is a leader with unbeatable mass popularity, in the same league as Nehru, or Indira and Rajiv Gandhi at their respective peaks. In the event, Vajpayee turned out to be something different. Even in popularity, he was never in the same league as Nehru - and has a long history of losing elections and shifting constituencies. In Lucknow, he demonstrated tremendous nervousness and started begging for Muslim votes in an undignified way. The April 12 saree stampede convinced the public that the person who is the BJP's tallest claimant to the top office might only be a pretender who has to bribe the poor to get their votes.

Then, when the BJP switched from trying to win Muslim votes to splitting them - what U.P.'s political public calls "dividation" - Vajpayee openly courted Mulayam Singh Yadav and asked Muslims to vote for him, not the Congress. It was bizarre that the Prime Minister should be asking people in his own constituency to vote for his party's rival. In general, attendance at his rallies was far poorer than at Sonia Gandhi's or even Rahul's.

Confirmation that "Brand Atal" is not very popular came on polling day. Only 35.4 per cent of Lucknow's electorate bothered to cast their votes. This polling rate is probably unprecedented in a senior politician's constituency, leave alone a Prime Ministerial aspirant's. Vajpayee has dented his stature over the five weeks of campaigning even more than his six years in power. He has turned out a very pedestrian politician. He descended to raucous and tasteless personal attacks on the Gandhis and generally showed little dignity, poise or gravitas.

THE self-assertion of the plebeian masses has given the Left parties their highest-ever Lok Sabha tally - and a unique opportunity to influence policy as well as pilot the building of a broad ruling alliance. The prevalent mood among the people gives the Left parties a special advantage. They can and should play a pivotal role both programmatically and in bringing in other groups like the Samajwadi Party, the Janata Dal (Secular), and the Rashtriya Lok Dal. Such a broadbased coalition would represent the electorate's mandate more authentically. It can also lend stability to the government.

However, the Left's biggest contribution would lie in drafting the common programme of the coalition. Such a programme must have a progressive orientation on secularism/communalism, economic policy, and foreign and security policies. There are bound to be divergences between the Congress and the Left on some issues. But here a clear principle must be enunciated at the outset. Where the differences over a policy are sharp, and it seems to violate an ally's core-beliefs or principles, that party should be allowed to veto it out of the common programme. The Left's essential task is to take further and give a concrete, radical shape to the Congress' somewhat hesitant and uncertain commitments (including those in its manifesto) to progressive measures. It must push the ruling coalition to adopt left-leaning policies in keeping with the logic of the electoral mandate. For instance, it has to demand that the new government invest heavily in the social sector, revitalise and universalise the public distribution system for food, abandon deflationary policies, and stop the loot of public assets through privatisation and corporate tax-breaks.

The new coalition must combat communalism actively by bringing to book the perpetrators of the Gujarat pogrom, promoting a just and equitable temple-plus-mosque solution in Ayodhya, and revising communally corrupted textbooks. Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh and other Hindutva elements must be purged out of state structures and the numerous institutions which they have infiltrated. They must be replaced with people of high integrity. People like Praveen Togadia should not be allowed to indulge in hate-speech. Besides abolition of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, an anti-hate-speech law must become a high priority.

A great deal needs to be done on the foreign policy agenda to re-orientate India's obsession with the United States (at the expense of the rest of the world, including Western Europe). India must return to the policy of non-alignment and campaign for a multipolar, multilateral, democratic and peaceful global order. The Left has a big job on its hands.

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