A More Ruthless but Clearer Struggle Ahead

June 1, 2014

election_results

By Debarshi Das

Abstract: The general elections of 2014 reiterate certain medium run trends. Regional parties have held their ground. The parties implementing deleterious neoliberal policies have been rejected by people to the extent they can do so by votes. That the new government would follow the same policies forecloses political possibilities in the existing electoral democracy. The unprecedented sum of money invested by big business houses makes one apprehensive if the little democratic content that elections had would remain.

Introduction

As the protracted elections season draws to a close it would be pertinent to take stock of what transpired. We begin with a few factual points.

First, the fortune of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) is on the wane. This is particularly true of its mainstay, the Indian National Congress.

Second, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is on the upswing. Again this is courtesy the improved performance of its fulcrum, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Third, the corporate houses have been backing the BJP-led NDA with greater vigour than they did the UPA.

Fourth, likewise, the media and a large part of the liberal intellectuals have shown keener preference for the NDA than the UPA.

Fifth, the aggressive, personality-based campaign by the NDA was reciprocated to an extent by the UPA. Consequently it looked less like an election of Lok Sabha members than a direct vote for prime ministership.

In this article we shall discuss each of the above points with a medium run perspective, and try to understand what the future holds for the people of the country.

The first two points are interrelated. In many states the Congress and the BJP are locked in a bipolar contest – rendering the loss of one equivalent to the gain of the other. However, it is worth remembering that the two largest national parties’ total vote share has been declining over time (see table 1). In other words, the game at the all-India level is not zero-sum. The sum of the big two has been declining. Their lost grounds are being claimed by regional parties, which are multiplying fast. This year’s election has been an aberration to the trend. The combined vote share of the top two rose by 3 percentage points. However, a 3 percentage point rise is modest when the country is supposed to have got swept by the BJP. Further, except UP and Bihar, regional parties in other parts have held their ground, e.g., Northeastern states barring Assam, Bengal, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu. Contrary to popular perception informed by the tale of a wave, vote share of regional parties vis-à-vis national parties as a whole has not fallen. It has remained unchanged at 40%.

INC

BJP

Total

1989

39.53

17.79*

57.32

1991

36.26

20.11

56.37

1996

28.8

20.29

49.09

1998

25.82

25.59

51.41

1999

28.3

23.75

52.05

2004

26.53

22.16

48.69

2009

28.55

18.8

47.35

2014

19.3

31

50.3

Table 1: Percentage of vote secured by the top two parties in Lok Sabha elections. * The figure is of Janata Dal. Source: Election Commission of India.

Things Fall Apart

Growth of regional parties is a sweet irony of Indian polity. Builders of the republic wanted a top-heavy centralized structure. This was prompted by distrust towards the unwashed, wayward provinces. After granting universal adult suffrage they stopped short of devolving power to the sub-central level. In the cliché ‘unity in diversity’ the accent is decidedly on ‘unity’. A hierarchical structure where significant financial, constitutional, military power is vested with the centre would guarantee this unity.

When the formal power structure is centralized, political parties could enable democratization. They could transmit the aspirations from the grass root to the centre. But absence of inner-party democracy within parties meant that the transmission belts from the people to power centres were jammed.

Democratic impulse suppressed in a rigid centralized mould has found alternative, non-structural ways to assert itself. There has been a spawning of regional parties and fragmentation of popular votes. If the states had more meaningful power, which part of the tax money to retain for example, there would have been less complains against the party ruling the centre, consequently less tendency to break the party.

Proliferation of political parties renders policy making difficult. Since the mandate is fragmented, the principal party running the government has to seek support from a puny regional outfit. When the latter vetoes a policy considered important by the establishment, ministers sigh helplessness about coalitional compulsions. The media fulminate on the audacity of a 10 MP party. In absence of a regular democratic route these are precisely the ways in which a constituency represented by those 10 MPs can have a say.

This does not mean that regional parties ensure greater empowerment of people. In most cases they deal in tokenism. Their growth is often attributed to the accumulation of provincial capital in the aftermath of Green Revolution. They have very limited democratic content. That they continue to proliferate however indicates a hidden tension.

Despite the growth of regional parties it’s true that the Congress and BJP have remained the two main points of attraction around which alliances are forged. When these parties are not in power, simply providing outside support to a ruling alliance, the governments have been short-lived. If Congress withdrew support in 1998 from United Front government, BJP did so from V P Singh-led National Front government in 1990. In short, although smaller parties have proliferated, so far it has been the strength of the main two which lent longevity to governments. Alliances therefore have formed around these two parties.

He Who Pays the Piper

Given the importance of the two parties in forming governments and given the bearing of government policies on profits of business houses it is not surprising that top two have been receiving generous corporate backing, declared or otherwise. Congress has been the traditional party of the big bourgeoisie since colonial times. It has been the political bulwark of the ruling classes. There existed occasional wrinkles in the seamless relationship as evidenced by bank nationalization drive during Indira Gandhi’s first term.

The frictions dissolved greatly in 1980s and 1990s as the Congress-led governments inaugurated a regime of economic reforms. The reforms pushed profits of favoured corporate houses to stratospheric levels. Needless to say, this came with a price tag. Dent on poverty decelerated. Economic inequality between the rich and poor, between cities and hinterlands, between forward and laggard regions widened. Impact of reforms on provision of health, education has been deleterious.

The Congress-led governments were vacating more space so that the corporate capital can engage in unrestricted surplus extraction. They did so by several means: by allowing private capital and foreign capital in areas which are important to general welfare (health, education), crucial for the functioning of the economy (banking, insurance), sectors which could have devastating impact on environment (mining, hydroelectricity). For understandable reasons these sectors had enjoyed protection from private capital. This protection was provided not because the government imbibed supra-ruling class convictions. The big bourgeoisie itself advocated an economy where the government would play a major role – the Bombay Plan, scripted immediately before 1947 by the luminaries of Indian industry, is a testament of this. Reforms in the final decades of twentieth century signaled that the big bourgeoisie have entered a brave new phase where they did not require the direct prop of the State. Polity of the country followed suit.

Elections in the Era of Neoliberalism

If representative democracy in India has a minimum degree of substance, anti-people neoliberal policies would produce electoral backlash. Narasimha Rao’s Congress government which formalized neoliberal policy regime was thrown out in 1996. ‘Reforms by stealth’ initiated by that government however became a permanent template of how to run the country. United Front government did not veer away from the template; it failed to come back electorally after Congress withdrew support. Lest we forget, Mr. Chidambaram was Finance Minister in the United Front government.

Intermittent BJP-led governments of 1996, 1998, 1999 proved to be more zealous reformers. The thirteen day Vajpayee government of 1996 could not accomplish much by the way of governance. But it found time to offer counter-guarantee to Enron. The 1999 NDA government will be remembered for selling off government-owned enterprises to private parties. Centaur hotel, Modern Foods Industries Limited, VSNL, BALCO, Maruti, Hindustan Zinc – the list is long. A number of these sales were controversial and censured by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG). The reform-minded government even had a ministry of disinvestment. The thread of the 2G spectrum scam goes all the way back to the NDA government.

In 2004 when it was unseated the honchos inside the BJP were living in the make believe world of ‘India Shinning’ – an expensive media campaign showcasing fruits of economic reforms. ‘Congress ka haath, Aam admi ka saath’ – the tagline of the Congress campaign with the symbol of the party, the hand, helpfully displayed, grabbed modest media space. But it struck a chord in a country experiencing high economic growth but where people went without jobs. Whittling down of government social services had hit the poor hard. When the election results came out it took both the victor and the vanquished by surprise. But before that, few words on a revanchist party embracing neoliberalism.

Hinudtva, the Religion of Neoliberal India

Anti-people policies need undemocratic brute force to ram them through. If there is some reflection of popular will through votes such ramming through may prove counter-productive. The backlash may not be fatal, as the survival of Congress and BJP amply testifies. However there could be short term reverses: people may vote out the ruling party. In the process it would vote in another equally pernicious government. But for the party in power such temporary loss should best be avoided.

An effective way to avoid the cost is to peddle fear. Fear plays on the insecurity of a certain group, thus rallying it around the party. Bigger the group more productive would be the strategy, as the support base would be that much wider. The group should best be defined in terms of some primal category – something one is born with and seldom altered. Something visceral, which had had a successful career in the subcontinent in fomenting trouble at the behest of the ruling power. Hindu communalism thus emerged as a useful tool since 1980s, the time when neoliberalism started having a pronounced bearing on State policies.

Rajiv Gandhi’s government at the centre and the Congress state government in UP allowed the gates of Babri Masjid to be opened in 1986 (they were closed since 1949, after Hindu zealots surreptitiously installed an idol of Ram inside the mosque and offer of prayers by Muslims was subsequently banned by the administration). The aim was to pick low hanging fruits of majoritarian Hindu votes. In 1989 Rajiv Gandhi started Congress election campaign from the same Ayodhya. He hedged bets by Shah Bano machinations. Similarly, Narasimha Rao’s government looked the other way as Babri Masjid was torn down in 1992.

The tearing down was done by a party which embodies two important features. First, the party politicizes Hinduism. Hindutva is the short hand of this project. In a general sense, all religions being important ingredients of the society, are political. BJP and its parent organization the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), formalize the link [1]. Second, political Hinduism is married with neoliberalism. The end product is an ideology closely resembling fascism [2]. It is intolerant towards other religions, especially those which have not originated from the subcontinent, the land of the Hindu, his lebensraum.

But who is a Hindu? In Hindutva (1923) V D Savarkar avers he is one,

…who looks upon the land that extends from Sindhu to Sindhu – from the Indus to the Seas – as the land of his forefathers – his Fatherland [Pitribhu], who inherits the blood of that race whose first discernible source could be traced to the Vedic Saptasindhus [Saptasindhus meant seven rivers presided by the river Sindhu; heavenly ordained land of the Aryans] and which on its onward march, assimilating much that was incorporated and ennobling much that was assimilated, has come to be known as the Hindu people, who has inherited and claims as his own the culture of that race as expressed chiefly in their common classical language Sanskrit and represented by a common history, a common literature, art and architecture, law and jurisprudence, rites and rituals, ceremonies and sacraments, fairs and festivals; and who above all, addresses this land, this Sindhusthan as his Holyland [Punyabhu], as the land of his prophets and seers, of his godmen and gurus, the land of piety and pilgrimage. These are the essentials of Hindutva – a common nation [Rashtra] a common race [Jati] and a common civilization [Sanskriti]

By the above criteria Muslims and Christians living in India do not belong to the Hindu nation stretching from Sindhu to Sindhu because,

…though Hindusthan to them is Fatherland as to any other Hindu yet is not to them a Holyland too. Their holyland is far off in Arabia or Palestine. Their mythology and Godmen, ideas and heroes are not the children of this soil. (Savarkar, 1923)

In short, majoritarian Hindu communalism is at the heart of the Hindutva project. For the Sangh communalism is programmatic. For the Congress it is a matter of pragmatic choice: communalism (both majoritarian and minoritarian) is a tactic to be deployed at opportune moments. Furthermore, the Sangh Parivar, the cluster of organisations headed by the RSS to which BJP belongs, shares a cozy relationship with big capital. This explains why the BJP is a more suitable party of governance in the era of neoliberalism than the Congress. As henchmen of the ruling class they wield a bigger stick. The simultaneous rise of neoliberalism and Hindutva is no coincidence.

Since 1980s incidents of riots in India have sharply increased. In a recent paper economists Debraj Ray and Anirban Mitra note [3],

Between 1950 and 1995, close to 1,200 separate riot episodes were reported, with over 7,000 individuals killed. Between 1950 and 1981, the average number of Hindu-Muslim riots in India was 16 per year. This same number for the period between 1982 and 1995 happens to exceed 48. Over these 14 years, a total of 674 riots were reported with close to 5000 deaths. Therefore, over half the reported riots between 1950 and 1995 (and around 2/3 of total deaths) occurred during a period that was less than one-third as long as the total period for which we have data.

Not only did communal violence rise, victims of riots have been predominantly Muslims. The same paper cites,

…of 526 Hindu-Muslim incidents that occurred from 1985 to 1987 in 10 major states, Muslims (12% of the population) accounted for 60% of the 443 deaths, 45% of the 2,667 injuries, and 73% of the property damage.

Which are the routes through which the dialectic of Hindu majoritarianism and neoliberalism operates? Neoliberalism launches severe assault on workers’ right to a dignified life. It shuts down large factories of the old economy – in both public and private sectors. When workers resist, communal ideologies are deployed to divide them. Communalism is a useful tool to the neoliberal project. Drying up of regular and secure employment is an important feature of neoliberal economy. Unconsolidated and atomized, left to fend for themselves in informal exploitative conditions, labourers become a ready target of communal ideology. Thus, not only does communalism help neoliberalism by dividing labour, it receives nourishment from the latter, for neoliberalism enfeebles and opens up labour for sectarian indoctrination. This symbiotic relationship has been at work at many former sites of vibrant labour movement, such as Mumbai, Ahmedabad.

In the vast agricultural sector of a developing country neoliberalism spawns another kind of churning. State support for farming is withdrawn. In seeds, fertilizer, rural credit market private capital is given opportunities to make windfall gains out of the helplessness of farmers. This renders most small farms unremunerative. The restless flow of migrant labourers that results from this contributes to the atomized, un-unionized, faceless labour force of the neoliberal economy – ripe for communal indoctrination.

In or out of power, BJP has consistently pushed its divisive agenda. Vajpayee’s 1998 government drummed up jingoist frenzy, first by setting off nuclear bombs and then during the Kargil war. Mr. Modi used to be a humourless spokesperson of BJP at its Delhi headquarters before he was parachuted in Gandhinagar in 2001. His job was not enviable. He was heading a faction ridden state unit a large part of which nursed old grudge against him. As is well known, the fire in Sabarmati Express proved to be a god-sent boon for Mr. Modi. Ghastly anti-Muslim pogrom went on for days as the state administration did precious little to abate. Mr. Modi advanced the state assembly elections, ran a communally charged campaign in the riot-scarred state and brought home sumptuous electoral harvest. The poison harvest kept gathering in a regular cycle of five years aided by fear mongering against Muslims and distribution of freebies to corporate – until the big boys with deep pockets got so impatient with their men in Delhi that they found in the rock solid 56 inch chest of Mr. Modi the right strength to help them multiply their billions. But we are getting ahead of the story. A few words on the UPA rule (2004-2014) are in order to understand the change of heart of the big business.

Thy Hand, Great Monarch

As has been remarked earlier an autocratic rule is the ideal foil for neoliberal economic regime. Where capitalism has matured and has encountered crises, a move toward social orthodoxy has proved helpful. Reigns of Reagan and Thatcher marked decisive breaks in the history of world capitalism. They started an era of greater repression of labour. Social agenda of these rules were exclusivist. Fear of godless commies, of Pakis and other convenient others kept the majoritarian flock close. Assault on labour continued apace. In a more dire strait capitalist societies have descended further to fascism. From social democracy to fascism stretches a whole spectrum of orgainising labour exploitation by owners of means of production. Each shade in the menu is resorted to according to the state of labour resistance and advancement of forces of production.

By no stretch of imagination however can the Congress be seen as a social democratic party. Traces of Nehruvian socialism – a very feeble version of social democracy – were being wiped out from the party during the last three decades. Formalization of neoliberal policies since 1991 was executed by the poor-friendly haath of Congress. In 2004 when BJP was voted out the Congress found itself in power not because of what it accomplished. But because the voters rejected the logical extension of the neoliberal model which the Congress itself had put in place. The dilemma for the party was palpable.

The Congress tried to resolve this through a two-pronged strategy. The government, headed by Mr. Manmohan Singh, would frame and implement the core neoliberal agenda. Singh would be ably assisted by Mr. Chidambaram (Finance Minister) and Mr. Montek Singh Ahluwalia (Vice Chairman, Planning Commission). They were the triumvirate – the dream team as it came to be called. The team had a dream run, too – notwithstanding the replacement of Chidambaram by Pranab Mukherjee for a brief period. Here are some samples. In 2005 product patent was legislated which raised price of medicines sharply. Special Economic Zone (SEZ) act was passed in 2005 – it exempted industrialists, real estate companies from many labour laws, tax obligations, environmental regulations. Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Act was passed in 2008 vesting the State with draconian powers to crush dissent. Price of petro-products was raised substantially and linked to international price preparing the ground for entry of private oil companies. 2G spectrum, coal blocks, natural gas blocks were distributed in an arbitrary manner to favoured companies showering benefits worth billions of rupees on them. Bar on foreign direct investment (FDI) in retail trade sector (both multi brand and single brand), insurance sector was raised. FDI was allowed in pension sector. To extract more surplus from agricultural sector Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India bill was introduced. An intimate relation was cultivated with the US, reflected in the signing of the nuclear agreement. This jeopardized support from the Left parties. But murky deals with regional parties ensured that the government headed by the impeccably honest prime minister survived.

This was the right arm implementing the core agenda. The left arm of the UPA was the National Advisory Council (NAC), headed by Ms. Sonia Gandhi. Select intellectuals, NGO activists, academicians close to the ruling coalition found place in the NAC. The purpose was to heal the scars which the neoliberal policies had inflicted during the NDA rule and which would continue to be inflicted during the UPA rule. The brief of the NAC was not to meddle with the structural, neoliberal refashioning of the economy executed by the PMO, Finance Ministry, Planning Commission. Thus the thinking behind the NAC is similar to those informing the functioning of NGOs. It is no wonder that leading lights of the NGO world were members of the NAC.

This does not mean that the NAC had a futile existence. A number of progressive policies passed by the UPA government were shaped and shepherded by the NAC: Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), Right to Information, Right to Food Acts, to name a few. Indeed, when the UPA returned back to power in 2009, the social security that the rural poor received through MGNREGA was cited as a reason. The second UPA term went horribly wrong. Not because the government did something radically different from what it had done in the first term. Seeds of the trouble were in fact sown in the first term.

Scams and scandals that were unearthed in the second term have two common features. First, most of them started in the first term, they came to light later (e.g., 2G, coal block allocation, Radia tapes, tenders of commonwealth games, S-band spectrum). Second, in all of them big corporate houses were the beneficiaries. Claim by Left parties that it was all honky dory in UPA I and that all hell broke loose in UPA II for it lacked Left watchdogs is patently disingenuous. UPA I set a time bomb which ruined UPA II.

However, scams and scandals do not directly affect the common people as price rise or joblessness does. There has been consistent high inflation since 2007. Specially, food inflation has been high and unstable (see table 2). General mishandling of the economy and a bleak global economic environment combining with the above factors cooked UPA’s goose [4]. As large scams kept on tumbling out, the government faced censure from CAG, the Supreme Court, the opposition parties, the media [5].

 

Year

Annual year-to-year inflation rate (food)

2012-13

11.65

2011-12

6.19

2010-11

10.23

2009-10

15.03

2008-09

12.50

2007-08

7.94

2006-07

9.11

2005-06

4.15

2004-05

2.22

2003-04

3.77

2002-03

2.36

2001-02

2.87

2000-01

1.57

1999-00

0.22

Table 2: Annual inflation rate calculated from consumer price index (annual average) for industrial workers (food). Source: Reserve Bank of India.

Corporate backers of the ruling party soon jumped the ship. To them the Congress proved to be too weak and inept to manipulate institutions so that unbridled accumulation could continue. Names of captains of industry were dragged in public sphere for unsavoury reasons – which was perhaps the most unkindest cut of all. One shuddered to think what awaited the party in power which stood by as likes of Ratan Tata (Radia tapes), Anil Ambani (2G), Kumarmangalam Birla (coal block allocation) were investigated. Understandably, big capital looked for an alternative. Someone with a proven track record of running autocratic, pro-corporate administration. Someone with a hat-full of Jehadi terrorists to be picked out at will. Someone also with battalions of experienced storm troopers to eliminate the Jehadis when situation demands. All this comes handy when scorching growth produces jealous troublemakers who need to be taught a lesson on national interest.

Not surprisingly, media and a large part of the liberal intelligentsia followed the wake of big money. In the meticulous-designed election campaign of 2014 a distinct focus was on the personality of Mr. Modi. This goes against RSS’s tenet of individual’s submission to the Sangh. But centralization of power in a person augers well with big business. Centralized financial powers loves to do business with centralized political, organizational power. This is perhaps another example of the Sangh’s flexibility to accommodate corporate interest.

In sum, the vote against the UPA in 2014 was not because the government was splurging money on the poor, as the media would like us to believe. Budget allocation under NREGA has been declining for instance (see table 3). Data of actual fund release is even more dismal. Other progressive acts were weak and stumbled upon implementation [6]. The UPA unraveled not because it went against, but because it followed, the 1991 template.

Year

Central Allocation (crores rupees)

2009-10

39,100

2010-2011

40,100

2011-2012

40,000

2012-2013

33,000

2013-2014

33,000

Table 3: Central budget allocation under MGNREGA. Source: MGNREGA Briefing Book, Budget Speech by the Finance Minister.

The Next Five Years: Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall

When a party with fascist tendencies assumes power with absolute majority and is headed by a man under whose watch one of the most horrific anti-Muslim pogroms of recent times took place, it is a time of grave concern. Discernible in the ruling dispensation is the coming together of big capital and majoritarian communalism. The new government can be relied upon to take the neoliberal model to an elevated level. This would reiterate a pattern delineated by the history of last 25 years: irrespective of the party in power, same neoliberal policies, with or without the NAC, have been followed. To the extent that there exists some democratic content in the elections, people have voted out the party in power. But that does not change the policy template, for the new party treads the same route. Political space in the neoliberal era has shrunk.

Re-engineering of the social sphere – greater marginalization of Muslim, dalit, liberal, Left, pro-green voices for example – is another certainty in the coming days.

Finally, the unprecedented amount of money invested by the big capital and the huge returns they obtained in terms of votes in the 2014 elections makes one apprehensive. Has the link between electoral investment and political mandate become very strong? In 2004 a substantial part of corporate backing was for the ruling party while popular sentiment went the other way, and the latter won. This time, they went in the same direction, so it is difficult to separate out individual effects. But if the answer to the above question is affirmative, we have witnessed the first elections where the causation between money and votes has been professionally managed with a great deal of success. After this, the possibility of unseating a neoliberal party through elections could disappear.

[The author is thankful to the Sanhati editorial team for insightful comments on an earlier draft.]

Endnotes:

[1] Guruji M S Golwalkar, the second chief of RSS in We Or Our Nationhood Defined (1939) on the relation between religion and politics:

Religion, in its essence is that which by regulating society in all its functions, makes room for all individual idiosyncracies, and provides suitable ways and means for all sorts of mental frames to adopt, and evolve, and which at the same time raises the whole society as such, from the material, through the moral to the spiritual plane…Such Religion – and nothing else deserves that name – cannot be ignored in individual or public life. It must have a place in proportion to its vast importance in politics as well.

[2] Savarkar and Golwalkar adored Hitler and Mussolini. On Hitler’s solution to the Jewish problem Savarkar remarked,

A Nation is formed by the majority living therein. What did the Jews do in Germany? They being in a minority were driven out from Germany.

The Sangh would try to replicate the solution through numerous riots. Guru Golwalkar famously sermoned in We Or Our Nationhood Defined,

To keep up the purity of the race and its culture, Germany shocked the world by her purging the country of the Semitic Races – the Jews. Race pride at its highest has been manifested here. Germany has also shown how impossible it is for races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindusthan to learn and profit by.

[3] “Implications of an Economic Theory of Conflict: Hindu-Muslim Violence in India”, National Bureau of Economic Research, 2013.

[4] Although both are deleterious, corruptions are a different category than anti-people policies. For example, when the government allows forward trading in food grain or raises diesel price, inflation may result in. This is an example of the latter. The government in this case is deliberately and openly acting to benefit certain groups. Corruption, on the other hand, is legally untenable. Notice, like policies corruption allots largesse to certain groups. In general the State fattens the ruling classes through both legal (via policies) and extra-legal (via corruption) ways. In the wake of neoliberalism both experienced a quantum leap.

[5] For the media greedy politicians were the villains, not the companies which were beneficiaries of the scams.

[6] Some conscientious members of the NAC resigned when they found that the advices were ignored by the government.

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