Stability divided by three

May 3, 1996

As a nation plagued by a 'million mutinies' goes to the polls, Gurharpal Singh examines the three parties vying for power.

With India in the midst of general elections, the credentials of the world's largest developing democracy are increasingly under threat. Chronic political instability, the rise of the Hindu right, insurgency in the border regions and caste wars have become the staple diet of Indian politics.

Gone are the old certainties of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, replaced by what novelist V. S. Naipaul has called a "million mutinies" with every "vote bank" and disgruntled ethnic group making unmanageable claims on the political system. The elections, which began last Saturday and should yield results by the end of next week, are proving a stern test of the capacity of India's democracy to adapt to rapidly changing political agendas and new social conditions.

Rajiv Gandhi's assassination in 1991 briefly revived the flagging Congress, enabling it to establish a minority government under Narasimha Rao. Lacking the glamour of the "Gandhi dynasty", Rao has skilfully steered the Congress through troubled times, not least by forging a working majority that lasted a full term. One of the first policy decisions of the administration - faced with virtual bankruptcy - was to move towards economic liberalisation. Removed at a stroke was the licence-permit raj on which Nehru and the Indian National Congress had pinned their hopes of rapid industrialisation.

But if economic liberalisation in the early 1990s gave the Rao administration room for manoeuvre, it soon foundered in a familiar political mire. Rao himself narrowly avoided implication in the largest share scandal in Indian financial history. Many blamed the indecision of the prime minister for the destruction by Hindu rioters of the Muslim shrine, the Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya. Although he acted decisively after the event and dismissed the Hindu revivalist Bharatiya Janata Party governments in four states, the damage had been done. The promise to rebuild the mosque remains a promise.

True, Rao's fortunes have revived in the last few months with the revelations and prosecutions of the Hawala scandal - payments for favours to leading politicians - that have sent shock waves through the Indian political establishment. But the timing of the scandal and the targeting of Rao's opponents may yet rebound on the prime minister.

In the past two years the main threat to Congress, however, has come as its economic reforms have begun to bite. As inflation has risen and social subsidies have been slashed, the Congress has suffered humiliating reversals in state elections. In 1994-95 it failed to secure a victory in any of the more politically significant states. The party went into battle in this election controlling only one major state in the Hindi-belt.

These defeats led to a vertical split in the ruling party, with the dissidents around Arjun Singh forming a rival Congress. The dissidents have been hard at work to present themselves as the authentic heirs of Nehruvian values - secularism, socialism and economic development. But such a relaunch seems unlikely to salvage the Congress. The rot within the party is so deep that Rao himself has described it as a "divided house plagued by groupism and nepotism." Most serious estimates suggest that the Congress will be lucky to get more than 150 seats (out of 544) in the Lok Sabha (the lower house). A period in opposition looms for India's natural party of government.

If Congress is doomed, what of the alternatives? The Bharatiya Janata Party is the main beneficiary of Congress's decline. Its meteoric rise from two seats in 1984 to 120 in 1991 coincided with the Hindu revival, making it the main opposition grouping. The BJP's strategy has been based on the aggressive advocacy of Hindu state and cultural values to replace Nehruvian "pseudo-secularism" - "pseudo-secular" because it proclaimed western secularism for Hindus (83 per cent of the population) while consolidating minority religious identities among the Muslims, Sikhs and Christians. Genuine secularism, according to the BJP's double-speak, would avoid the western ideal and assert the primacy of Hinduism, a common shared value of "all Indians". Uncompromising ideological Hinduism is the BJP's remedy for preserving India's "cultural identity" which is threatened by the growing assimilationist pressures of economic liberalisation and globalisation.

Such policies were evident in the violent marches of the late 1980s, climaxing in the destruction of the Ayodhya mosque, which was followed by clashes between Hindus and Muslims. In Ayodhya, however, the BJP overplayed its hand, suffering the presidential dismissal of its prestigious state administrations. Since then the party has made economic liberalisation its main campaigning issue. Xenophobic economic nationalism has led it to take on American corporations and, though the victories have been symbolic, they hit a chord among voters. Indeed, in the 1994-95 state elections, the BJP not only recovered much of the ground lost after the Ayodhya setback but captured state power in Gujaratand Maharashtra, giving it a firm base in the Hindi-belt and western India.

The onward march of the BJP is most threatened by its infliction of self-imposed damage. Factional divisions have rocked the party's claims to be a cohesive force capable of providing stable government. Charges levelled against the "Congress culture" - corruption, factionalism and opportunism - have been thrown back into the BJP's face. The Hawala scandal decapitated the party's most senior leadership. Optimistic projections do not see it winning more than 200 seats. Even such an outcome would make the BJP a major force in any government, opening up the possibility of power through alliances with minor regional parties.

The National-Left Front is the emerging third force in Indian politics. A loose combination of anti-Congress national, regional and Communist parties, the National-Left Front is the direct successor of the two national experiments (1977-79, 1989-91) in non-Congress rule. Although these administrations ended in ignominy, the defining moment was August 1990 when V. P. Singh, the then prime minister, announced a massive increase in affirmative action programmes for backward castes. This single decision not only unleashed a caste war but clearly identified the National-Left Front's constituency. Since then the champions of backward castes have established a strong following in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, adding to the "controlled" mobilisation of the poor by the Communist party of India (Marxist) in West Bengal.

Personal rivalries have been the main undoing of National-Left Front combines in the past. Without a charismatic leader - V. P. Singh has declared himself a nonrunner - and sound party organisation, coordination will be difficult. With the three major contenders running neck-and-neck the most likely outcome is a stalemate with a BJP coalition or a National-Left Front combine tactically supported (as in 1989) by the BJP. A reconstruction of the Congress with factional support from the BJP or National-Left Front cannot be ruled out.

Whatever the outcome, a period of prolonged postelection horse trading seems certain. In this atmosphere enthusiasm for economic liberalisation is likely to be the main casualty while the domestic problems of governability (for example, Kashmir) seem certain to take the back seat. Yet unless India's democratic process succeeds in delivering effective government, reflects the cultural diversity of India society and corrects the growing voter disenchantment, especially of the poor, the BJP could be the main long-term beneficiary of continued instability. With the 50th anniversary of partition approaching, India may yet get the ideological Hindu state that its founding political leaders attempted so determinedly to avoid.

Gurharpal Singh is senior lecturer in politics, De Montfort University.


Congress Congress (Indira), successor of the Indian National Congress, led by Narashima Rao.

Congress (Tewari). Recent breakaway party led by prominent Congressites dissatisfied with Rao's leadership.

Bharatiya Janata Party Rightwing Hindu revivalist party supported by Hindu religious and paramilitary organisations and rightwing regional parties like Shiv Sena. Hindus make up 83 per cent of India's population.

National-Left Front A combine of centrist, regional and left parties that includes the Janata Dal, Samajwadi party, Communist party of India and Communist party of India (Marxist).

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