BJP’s surprise defeat in Indian elections does not change fundamental problems in Indian society

Developing Just Leadership

Qazi Umar

Rabi' al-Thani 13, 1425 2004-06-01


by Qazi Umar (World, Crescent International Vol. 33, No. 4, Rabi' al-Thani, 1425)

On May 22 Dr Manmohan Singh was sworn in as the "first Sikh prime minister of India". He is the head of a 68-member Congress-led United Progressive Alliance coalition government. Although the Congress and its pre-poll allies failed to secure a majority in parliament, Congress is guaranteed the support of the 62 MPs of the Left Front...

On May 22 Dr Manmohan Singh was sworn in as the "first Sikh prime minister of India". He is the head of a 68-member Congress-led United Progressive Alliance coalition government. Although the Congress and its pre-poll allies failed to secure a majority in parliament, Congress is guaranteed the support of the 62 MPs of the Left Front. The Left Front concedes that Congress' socio-economic programme is all but identical to the BJP's, yet claims that a Congress-led government must be supported because it is the only means of preventing the BJP-NDA from wrecking India's "secular democracy". Yet Congress has pledged its full support for big business' export-led growth strategy, which aims to make India a low-wage haven for transnational corporations by means of privatization, deregulation, tariff-cuts, and reductions in public services and corporate taxes.

Martin Hutchinson, a Washington-based ex-international investment banker, said on May 18 that the economic future of India rests partly on who gets the prime minister's job. "A reformer [like Singh] locks in economic progress, whereas an old-guard socialist, or a weak leader without intellectual background [Gandhi], raises the risk profile of foreign investment in the country considerably," he said.

In its lead editorial on May 19 (two days before Manmohan's candidacy), the Wall Street Journal rejoiced over the success of international capital in using the recent stock sell-off to send a blunt message to the incoming government: it also declared Manmohan Singh "the most reassuring candidate." Said the Journal, "The lesson of the past week... is that if India truly wants to become an economic power it has to pay heed to the global voters known as investors, in addition to its own voters at home. India now attracts attention as well as capital, and the same market forces that have helped to promote an economic revival will ruthlessly punish policy mistakes." This is Indian democracy in a nutshell. Even democracy is privatised these days, and this cannot be more obvious than in India, where the interests of global investors are increasing fast. It is interesting that Sonia Gandhi was accompanied by Manmohan Singh during her visit to Washington in 2001.

One of the first diplomatic decisions that the new prime minister will have to make relates to the official dialogue with Pakistan on nuclear confidence-building measures. These are scheduled for the week after his appointment as PM. In the agenda document on foreign and defence policies, released last month, Congress had declared that it "will take the initiative to have credible, transparent and verifiable confidence-building measures in treaty form to minimize the risk of nuclear and missile conflict with Pakistan and China."

Senior Congress leaders who have served Congress for more than three decades may not be as enthusiastic as Sonia Gandhi about accepting Manmohan Singh as PM. Pranab Mukherji, a ‘socialist Brahmin', himself appointed Manmohan governor of the Reserve Bank of India when he was the finance minister in Indira Gandhi's cabinet. Manmohan is also regarded as a less experienced politician. He was made finance minister by Narasimha Rao in 1991 to open the Indian economy to foreign investors. Before that Manmohan had only served as a bureaucrat or financial expert. In 1991 he was elected from a Congress-favoured constituency in Assam. The only other election that Manmohan contested was in 1999 in Delhi; he was defeated.

Manmohan Singh's elevation happened after the dramatic withdrawal by Congress president Sonia Gandhi following the stock-market crash. Her decision came after meeting the president, Abdul Kalam ‘Iyer' (as he is known in Brahmin circles), on May 19. It is not known for certain whether Kalam played any role in the process. However, it is known that in a letter written on May 15 to the president of the Janata Party, Subramanya Swamy said that "Italy does not allow a naturalized citizen to become Prime Minister of that country. Given the reciprocity clause in Section 5 of the Indian Citizenship Act, Sonia Gandhi should not likewise have the right to become Prime Minister of India". Another factor in Sonia Gandhi's change of heart could be the increasing pressure opposing her Catholic origins. Sonia would also prefer to ensure that the future of her son Rahul Gandhi (who contested this election successfully) remain intact. Whatever the reason, the Sangh Parivar, who planned to exploit her ‘foreign origin', has been outmanoeuvred.

The mandate of the recent general election is not for Sonia Gandhi or Congress; the election results have shocked Congress as much as the BJP. The fact that, in the states where it ruled, the Congress party performed dismally, speaks volumes. In Kerala and Karnataka, where Congress-led governments had initiated reforms attracting foreign investors, the Party was humbled. The media's post-election analysis that BJP's ‘India Shining' campaign frustrated the poor thus fails to tell the full story. What really went wrong for the BJP was its choice of allies and a failure to split votes, which has usually been its strength.

It must be recalled that the BJP-led government originally captured centrestage with the help of its allies. Some of its alliance parties in south India performed pathetically. The TDP, led by chief minister Chandrababu Naidu, was defeated for his ‘IT Revolution' policies that led to the suicides of thousands of farmers who were ruined by the state government's decisions on agricultural matters. The defeat of TDP led to the defeat of the BJP. In fact the election campaign of Congress revolved around the promise that farmers would be provided free electricity. This ‘promise' was not kept because the new chief minister of the state did not get the policy approved by Dr Manmohan Singh (this decision was made two days before he was even suggested as the prime minister of India).

Another South Indian ally of the BJP was AIADMK in Tamil Nadu, led by chief minister Jayalalitha, whose performance was equally dismal. Jayalalitha immediately lifted the "ban on conversions", which the vast majority of lower-caste Hindus and Muslims in the state had opposed. However, the irony is that the DMK party, allied with Congress, which emerged victorious in the state, was an ally of the BJP during the last elections and had served in the BJP-led government. This is what can happen in Indian democracy.

In Maharastra, the BJP and Shiv Sena were humiliated. The BJP failed again to split the electorate. Last time Sharad Pawar, the Congress stalwart in Maharastra, who was chief minister of the state for four full terms and a senior Congressman at the centre, helped the BJP's cause. Pawar split from Congress on the issue of Sonia Gandhi's foreign origin, and formed a new party. The votes were split among the Congress factions, and this helped the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance. This time Sharad Pawar agreed to contest the elections in close cooperation with Congress, and hence contributed to the BJP's fall. Sharad Pawar is being rewarded with a cabinet minister's berth.

In states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, caste-based votes played a major role. The elections galvanised Dalit aspirations in these states, and hence anti-BJP parties emerged strongly. In states such as Rajastan and Madhya Pradesh, the BJP's Ram politics held up well. The VHP and other Sangh Parivar leaders accused the BJP of "betraying" its hindutva agenda, which eventually contributed to its downfall. The Vajpayee-led government had done much to establish a pro-Brahmin, pro-Sangh Parivar infrastructure. The administration, from education to the armed force, has been infiltrated by pro-Sangh Parivar personnel. They can trust Congress as they have done before, but not as long as a non-Brahmin occupies the top post.

Racism in India is officially approved, unlike in most other countries in the world. The superiority of the Brahmins (who comprise less than 5 percent of the population) and their right to be rulers and priests are sanctioned by ‘religious' scriptures. Dalits, the black ‘untouchables' of India, are among the most exploited and oppressed peoples on earth, victims of a centuries-old experiment in forced political integration. They are not allowed to enter temples or touch the Hindu scriptures, yet they are called Hindus to give substance to the myth of India's being a "Hindu-majority nation".

Such is the acceptability and importance of official racism in India that it is probably impossible for a non-Brahmin, be it Sonia Gandhi or Manmohan Singh, to be the first non-Brahmin prime minister of India and last a full term. In addition, the Communist-led Left parties' major support to the government makes it unlikely to last a full term. The question is not whether a Congress-led government can survive: Brahmins within Congress will dismantle Manmohan Singh, and the Left Parties will do their best to pressurise the new government. The real question is how far it can stretch itself to prevent the re-emergence of the BJP onto the centre stage of Indian politics. To put it simply: it doesn't matter whether the BJP or Congress rules India, as long as the Brahminist agenda is kept intact. As the late Dr Ambedkar, the "father of the Indian constitution", said: "Brahminism has no parties. It has only interests."

Muslims may be relieved that a ‘secular' government has replaced an anti-Muslim government. The sooner they realize the true nature of Congress the better. They should recall that the BJP has never initiated a policy that the Congress has not touched before.

Thousands of anti-Muslim riots and pogroms occurred during Congress rule, before Gujarat. The Babri Mosque was opened for Hindu puja (worship, devotions) by Congress prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. The 464-year old mosque was demolished during Congress rule. Then prime minister Narasimha Rao watched his governor, Jagmohan, shoot unarmed protesters in Kashmir. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister and Congressman, jailed Sheikh Abdullah despite the loyalty of the "Lion of Kashmir" to him and Congress.

Nehru's daughter divided Muslims by creating Bangladesh. Her brutal anti-Sikh ‘blue star' operation, which resulted in a massacre of the Sikh community in the vicinity of their holy temple (Amritsar), can never be compensated by the appointment of a Sikh prime minister by her daughter-in-law. More than 3,500 Sikhs were killed during the riots after the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguard.

The move by Congress that will most interest Muslims is its stand on Israel. India did not subscribe to the partition plan for Palestine, and it voted against the admission of Israel to the UN. India recognised Israel in 1950, but was always keen to maintain good relations with the Arab world, and so waited until 1992 before the Congress government established full diplomatic relations. It will be interesting to see what line the new government decides to take, and whether or not it amends the relations with Israel that the BJP government has established.

Apart from that, the other questions that affect Muslims are about their security. What next: a return to "Ram politics"? Revival of the Ram temple issue and anti-Muslim carnages are very likely. Only time will tell whether India's Muslims can do anything to help themselves, or whether they must wait to see what Congress and its allies have in store for them.

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