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Crushing Loss for India’s Right Wing
by Ganesh Lal
May 20, 2004
First Published in Socialist Worker

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The right-wing coalition that ruled India for the past six years suffered a humiliating defeat in last week’s elections for the country’s parliament. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA), led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), lost more than 100 seats in a stunning upset.

Leading officials in the BJP-led government, like Human Resources Minister Murli Manohar Joshi and Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha, were voted out of parliament altogether. The next government will be led by the centrist Congress Party, with support from left-wing parties--most prominently, India’s two Communist Parties.

The unexpected electoral defeat of the right-wing alliance was a massive blow to the Hindu chauvinists and fascists lurking behind the NDA. Late last year, the NDA called for early elections, hoping to capitalize on a booming economy and what the BJP called a "feel-good factor."

But the right’s campaign slogan, "India Shining," fell on deaf ears--as millions of poverty-stricken voters, particularly in rural areas, threw out the politicians responsible for implementing "neoliberal" economic policies dictated by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

Claiming to make India into a world power, the BJP and its allies privatized state-run industries and slashed government jobs to create a "favorable climate" for foreign investment. Agricultural support programs and subsidies on food and health care for the poor were cut drastically.

Until this election, the international media had nothing but praise for India’s "reforms." Cities like Bangalore and Hyderabad became centers of software development and business process outsourcing. Shopping malls and country clubs opened up for the children of the rich who found high-paying jobs in the offices of multinational companies.

But these gains were enjoyed by a tiny minority of the population. An estimated 80 percent of India’s population remains too poor to afford a bicycle, and nearly half of Indian children under age three suffer from malnutrition, according to writer and activist Arundhati Roy.

The other main hallmark of the BJP is its appeals to nationalism and Hindu chauvinism. In 1998, the new NDA government tested nuclear weapons in Pokhran, provoking a tit-for-tat response from neighboring Pakistan. The following year, it led the country into a war with Pakistan in the remote mountain region of Kargil. And in 2002, the two countries massed 1 million troops on their borders, bringing the region dangerously close to a nuclear war.

The NDA years also saw an escalation in attacks on religious minorities, particularly Muslims. In the BJP-ruled state of Gujarat, some 2,000 Muslims were massacred and more than 100,000 displaced in a state-sponsored pogrom in 2002.

The architect of this pogrom, Narendra Modi is a member of the fascist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which is closely tied to the BJP. But in last week’s vote, the BJP lost in key Hindu-dominated states like Uttar Pradesh--and in cities like Ayodhya, where it has been agitating for the construction of a Hindu temple on the site of mosque that it helped demolish in 1992.

Congress’ comeback means a return of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that ruled India in the years following its liberation from British colonial rule. Sonia Gandhi, the widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, looked set to become the head of the Congress-led coalition government as Socialist Worker went to press.

But Congress can’t be expected to deliver significant change. It is as beholden to big capital, both Indian and foreign, as the BJP was. The move towards privatization and neoliberalism was initiated by Congress-led governments in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The likely candidate to run India’s Finance ministry is the architect of Indian neoliberalism, Dr. Manmohan Singh. When India’s stock market, the Sensex, plunged last week after Communist leader Sitaram Yechury called for dismantling the Ministry of Disinvestment (responsible for privatization), Singh immediately reassured investors that "the new government will pursue policies to create a favorable climate for growth."

And despite its claims of being a "secular" party, Congress has often used appeals to Hindu chauvinism during election campaigns, especially in states like Gujarat. Nevertheless, Congress won this election on a populist platform, attacking the pro-corporate policies of the NDA.

This, combined with the best-ever showing by parties to the left of Congress, will boost expectations for a more progressive government. Left-wing parties, led by the two Communist Parties, won 60 seats in parliament, which will give them considerable leverage--though they have decided not to join the Congress coalition government, but to support it "from the outside."

The viciousness of the now-defeated right and the success of the CPs explains the euphoria among liberals and the left in India today. As Arundhati Roy put it in a post-election commentary, "Hopefully, things will change. A little. It’s been a hellish six years."

Many other left-wing commentators have written in optimistic terms about the prospects for a new era of progressive politics in India. Some, like journalist Praful Bidwai, have gone so far as to predict that "[t]he BJP could shrink into what it was before the mid-1980s--a relatively minor party."

This premature celebration of the death of the BJP comes along with wishful thinking about Congress as well. Bidwai hopes that the Congress will revert to its social-democratic past, suggesting that it "must now rediscover the worth of good ‘populism’" and recognize that "[t]he future lies in ordinary people’s sensibilities, not the Sensex, leave alone global finance."

But Congress has moved to the right over the past three decades, and there is little reason to believe it will "return to its roots." Others are putting their hopes in the strong showing of the parliamentary left. "Fortunately, Congress will be hobbled by the fact that it needs the support of left parties to form a government," wrote Arundhati Roy.

Sudhanva Deshpande, editor of Leftword Books, which is affiliated with one of the Communist Parties, argues that the elections have decisively--though temporarily--shifted the balance of forces from right to left. The left, Deshpande wrote, can "force the Congress to adopt policies that will mitigate the sufferings of the poor to an extent."

But only "to an extent." The new government will be answerable to popular anti-communal and anti-neoliberal sentiments that pushed it to victory, and the parliamentary left will be able to exert some pressure in this direction. Some of the worst excesses of the previous government may be corrected. The perpetrators of the Gujarat massacres, for instance, could be brought to justice, and there could be a reversal of the communalization of education and culture.

But on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Congress’ "realism" is certain to trump the left’s rhetorical opposition. In fact, the record of the left-wing parties in Indian states where they have been dominant is not inspiring.

In the state of West Bengal, which has been controlled by the left for more than 25 years, the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI-M) projects itself as a more "reliable" ally for Western multinationals than the right. Following its own path toward neoliberalism, the government bulldozed shantytowns and evicted nearly 100,000 slum-dwellers from the streets of Kolkata (Calcutta) alone--with the promise of a paltry $25 compensation.

The CPI-M may rail against "reckless privatization," but it wishes merely to "slow down" the pace. That’s why it has itself attracted foreign multinationals like IBM, Pepsi and Mitsubishi--and hired the U.S. public relations firm McKinsey & Company to sell its image abroad. Meanwhile, it has increased restrictions on unions to prevent strikes and job actions.

Furthermore, the BJP and its fascist allies in the RSS aren’t finished. Now in the opposition, the BJP may well revert to its more virulently chauvinist politics. Combating the right will take on more urgency in the coming months--and put the Communist Parties to the test.

Left-wing commentators like Achin Vanaik have consistently argued that the struggle against communalism must be linked up with class struggle and the fight against caste oppression. But the CPs have used their influence among workers to further their electoral gains and little more. Unable to effectively link the issues of class and caste, they abdicated leadership of the movements of the oppressed castes and tribes to regional and issue-based parties--such as Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party and Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party.

In the coming months, the parliamentary left will face a dilemma. Congress will doubtless use the threat of the lurking BJP as an excuse to demand compromises from the left. But every concession made by the left will threaten its credibility among its mass base.

Although the CPs are led by ossified bureaucracies, their rank and files have been energized in recent years by the growth of the anti-globalization and antiwar movements. India’s social movements--especially the dalit and women’s movements--have also had an impact on activists. The CPs are struggling to catch up to maintain their credibility.

This was evident at the World Social Forum in Mumbai in January this year--where the left’s organizational role was as impressive as its relative disconnect from the social movements, which tend to be dominated by NGOs.

Whether CP politicians now in a position of considerable power in the central government will respond to the pressures of the Congress and multinational corporations or to the demands of workers and the poor remains to be seen. This will depend on the energy of the movements themselves in pressing their agenda.

Ganesh Lal writes for Socialist Worker. This article first appeared on the SW website (