2004 Elections and After

The results of the general elections for the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian Parliament, held in four phases during April-May 2004, surprised many political pundits, especially those whose views on what the masses think are conditioned by the views expressed in the mainstream media. Not surprisingly, a deluge of political analysis followed in the media largely to cover up for the deficiencies of earlier analysis. Let us call the sum total of this new body of analysis ‘standard interpretations.’

Standard Interpretations

The first interpretation, pronounced by much of the media in volte-face, and officially and repeatedly proclaimed by the obedient new prime minister Dr. Manmohan Singh, is that the verdict is for Sonia Gandhi. The claim is so farcical that its empirical basis need not even be reviewed in detail. Although the Congress did improve its own tally by about 40 seats to end up with about 28% of the total seats, its vote tally remained virtually the same. We will presently see where these additional seats came from. This is not to deny that Gandhi did an admirable job with the campaign against much odds. It is to her credit also that she had personally denied that the verdict is either for her or for the Congress. Sycophancy in the Congress culture infects even its most distinguished members.

The second interpretation, pronounced most prominently by the (establishment) left, including left-wing commentators such as Praful Bidwai, that the verdict is for ‘secularism and democracy’ is so ambiguous, perhaps by design, that it is hard to attach any meaning to it. If secularism is to be indicated by the vote-share of the BJP, then the verdict is not secular since its vote share remains virtually the same as in 1999. No doubt, the party has lost about 50 seats, but that is largely because of astute alliances formed by the Congress to increase the non-BJP tally. In fact, wherever there was a straight fight between BJP and Congress – in the big states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Gujarat – Congress has lost heavily. There has been some refreshing turn-around in Gujarat (nothing definitive), but that is because the phenomenon of huddling under power of state-terrorism unleashed during the carnage has lost its edge. The biggest losers indeed are the non-communal parties that aligned with the communal BJP to form the NDA. Even there, there is no evidence that the non-communal parties such JD (U), TDP, AIADMK etc. were punished because of their association with the communal BJP.

The only real effect of a secular vote, especially in UP and Bihar, that might have resulted in NDA’s defeat in about 30 seats was the consolidation of the Muslim vote against it. The community just voted for whoever was in a position to defeat the BJP; little of this translated into an actual increase for the Congress. So, the major gainers are the non-Congress anti-BJP groups including the left, while the major losers are the pro-BJP ones. Therefore, there is no direct national-level interpretation. That interpretation can only be reached by the cumulative effect of how different sections of people voted in their own regions.

When we go region by region, it is clear that people, as usual, voted from their class interests although every effort was made by each contesting party to divert attention to ‘national’ issues such as communalism, democracy, etc. The BJP in fact tried to impose the view of the elites on the entire nation with the ‘India Shining’ campaign. No doubt, these issues are more serious than gun-laws, drugs and ‘religiosity’ routinely propagated as the only issues in US elections, but they are not quite the livelihood issues for the vast impoverished masses.

Class war

This is not to deny that people did take matters in their own hands. Several otherwise disjointed (or even conflicting) features seem to support this thesis. First, the BJP did win quite handsomely in some states where the incumbent Congress or other non-BJP governments indulged in massive neo-liberal policies. As the analysis of the psephologist Yogendra Yadav shows, even where BJP and its allies, while in government, lost the elections, the upper classes basically voted for them. Where the votes of the lower class majority got fragmented, the NDA scraped through; where the votes consolidated, it lost. Second, even where Congress or its allies lost while in government, the upper classes voted for them or for the BJP; the poor in those cases voted for third parties.

The sole exception to this pattern is West Bengal where the incumbent left government was voted back to power. But the contemporary history of West Bengal is too different – and outside the scope of this essay – from other regions to fall under a general pattern anyway. For example, it will be facile to conclude that the left government enjoys an overwhelming support of its people. It is well known that the Congress vote (INC plus Trinamul) has remained more or less static at over 40% throughout the 27 years of left rule, while the left vote has hovered at around 45%. However, this consolidation of votes between the left and the Congress does support the class factor raised below.

Returning to the general pattern, it will also be facile to conclude, following the third standard interpretation, that the vote was essentially decided by the so-called anti-incumbency factor. As we saw, in most cases, even when the incumbent governments have been thrown out, the upper classes have voted for them; so, there was no discernible anti-incumbency with respect to the upper classes. It turns out, however, that the poor are in a vast majority. So, the class rejection by the poor gives an over-all picture as if the people, as a whole, have rejected a given government, when in fact it is largely the poor who have acted ‘anti-incumbently’.

In region after region, people have thrown out governments (including Congress governments as in Karnataka and in Madhya Pradesh and elsewhere in the recent past), whose policies led to massive impoverishment and loss of democratic rights. What are these policies? In each case, people’s anger was targeted at the consequences of the neo-liberal economic policies initiated by the Rajiv Gandhi-Narasimha Rao governments, continued by Deve Gowda-Gujral governments, and taken to the limit by NDA. The nexus between the NDA and the Sangh Parivar and US imperialism, pro-Israeli lobbies, mainstream media, Indian big business, and MNCs, especially financial corporations, has led to a class war between the elites and their hangers-on (top 20%) and the rest of the people. Election 2004 is very much a non-violent expression of this class war.

Not surprisingly, the real picture is beginning to dawn on the mainstream media and the political pundits represented there. What we have termed ‘standard interpretations’ have slowly given way to expressions such as ‘India must shine for everyone, not just the rich’, ‘the poor are angry because they have been left out’, and the like. The built-in assumption in these remarks is that the poor agree that the current economic policies are fine in themselves, except that their reach needs to be enlarged. In other words, the poor have no problems with the rich staying rich or even getting richer, as long as the poor get a share. The lesson is that, although the poor are ‘angry’, the solution is to pursue neo-liberal policies with more vigour, albeit with a ‘human face’.

So the picture is clear. If basic policies remain untouched, then the class war continues in its present diffused form. As long as the class war is expressed in the absence of democratic movements, the communal-fascist forces always have a big chance to come back although they are the latest and the biggest perpetrators of these policies.

NCMP and the Budget

Class war then is the context in which the meaning of the National Common Minimum Programme (NCMP), announced by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), and the Union Budget presented in July as a starting implementation of this programme, is to be understood. Commentator after commentator, including those from the left, have hailed the NCMP as something of a watershed in pro-people pronouncements. There is no space here for a detailed analysis of the NCMP. Suffice is to note the following: it does not give up privatisation of public sector undertakings, does not restrain direct foreign investment, does not tax the rich or withdraw the subsidies enjoyed by the rich, does not comment on the imperialist aggression in Afghanistan and Iraq. There is to be no review of the sale of BALCO. The NCMP advocates closer ties with all states including the US, universally denounced as the biggest rogue state in history. NCMP has much rhetoric about helping the rural sector, advancing literacy and education, increasing employment, curbing the saffronisation of society etc.

However, except for some half-hearted attempts on the last item by the Human Resources Department ministry, most of its promises remain rhetoric as the features of the budget show. As economists have pointed out, the allocation for the rural sector is in fact less than that announced in the interim budget by the BJP finance minister Jaswant Singh. Although NCMP promised at least 6% allocation for the education sector, the budget imposes an education cess to the tune of 2% of all taxes to raise a fraction of the money promised. There is no significant increase in investment for health and unemployment. The work-for-food programme guaranteeing 100 days of work to each household is restricted to just a handful of districts and is mostly a continuance of earlier programmes anyway.

On the other hand, the budget aims to open crucial sectors such as insurance and aviation to direct foreign investment. The military budget shows a ‘one time’ acceleration of over 11000 crores of rupees; under some estimates that include salary expenditure, the ‘growth’ is even higher. The budget makes no progressive tax proposals while reducing the rate of interest for the Employees Provident Fund. The list goes on. The glaring discrepancy between even the modest goals of NCMP and its virtual abandonment within two months helps only to bring out the known untenability of the concept of ‘liberalisation with a human face’.

On other areas, it is surely coincidental that the new Foreign Minister Natwar Singh could make a trip – his first abroad – to the US ostensibly to attend the funeral of one of the greatest criminals in recent history, Ronald Reagan. It could not be coincidental that he used the opportunity to give a joint press conference with Colin Powell in which he declared that the issue of sending Indian troops to Iraq requires ‘rethinking’. Immediate public outcry compelled him to modify his remark. Nonetheless, within two months of the assumption of office by the Manmohan Singh government, Richard Armitage, the US Deputy Defence Secretary, paid a red-carpet visit to India. According to reports, all protocol was set aside so that this mass-murderer could meet the prime minister, the defence minister, and others within a day. It was further reported (and vaguely denied by the government) that one of the items of discussion concerned the training of the renegade US-controlled Iraqi police in India.

The NCMP promised the repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA). The draconian act has not only not been placed before the parliament in the first available session, atrocious violation of human rights continues under this Act. There are reports that POTA will be replaced, not repealed, in the next session of the parliament; the replaced act is said to be essentially POTA without the name. The government’s refusal to withdraw the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which is even more draconian than POTA, gives some indication of the line of thinking of the UPA government on matters concerning civil and human rights.

Despite these violations of the will of the people as expressed in the Elections 2004, almost the entire ‘secular-democratic’ attention, except for the rhetoric, is now geared to getting into councils, government committees, advisory bodies, media, and the like, with the agenda of ‘rectifying the mistakes of the past’ and to create and implement ‘pro-poor’ policies of governance. We surveyed a sample of these ‘pro-people’ policies and their implications for the future. As Arundhati Roy pointed out soon after the results, the poor of course have been left behind already.


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