Enemies of Hindutva

Tariq Ali

  • Nehru: A Political Life by Judith Brown
    Yale, 407 pp, £25.00, September 2003, ISBN 0 300 09279 2
  • Nehru by Benjamin Zachariah
    Routledge, 336 pp, £10.99, April 2004, ISBN 0 415 25017 X

The pundits say that the Indian electorate does not cast votes, but votes castes. This is generally true but at key moments in its postcolonial history, the citizens of the world’s largest democracy – India’s population is just over a billion – have acted to punish the ruling elites. It is the subaltern’s revenge, unpredictable and unpredicted. Almost every Indian pollster forecast another BJP triumph before the election results were announced in May. Few believed that the Italian-born head of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty could lead the Congress-dominated alliance to victory. In the 1990s, threatened by a possible challenge from Mario Cuomo, the governor of New York, Bill Clinton declared that the American people would never elect a president whose surname ended with an ‘o’. In India, the BJP ideologues thought the electorate wouldn’t accept an Italian woman. Many others agreed. Several months ago, on a flight to New York, I met someone I had not seen for twenty years. A twig from a minor branch of the old Indian nobility, she said: ‘It’s a national disgrace that the Congress is being run by an Italian au pair.’ I pointed out that since an Englishman had founded the party, the transition to an Italian could be seen as progress and that Sonia Gandhi was surely preferable to the scoundrels in saffron. Conversation dried up. Her liberal days were long over and she was now sympathetic to the BJP: they were the saviours of India.

She must have been shocked to discover that the majority of voters did not share her prejudices. The people who voted for Sonia Gandhi’s Congress did so in the hope that she would be their next prime minister. They did not suspect that, in the extravagant language of one newspaper editor, ‘the jewel would turn down the crown.’ It was a shrewd move on her part, as was the choice of Manmohan Singh as prime minister, the first member of an ethnic minority to become the head of government.

The choice pleased secularists at home and capitalists everywhere were thrilled that such a seasoned ‘reformer’ (i.e. supporter of deregulation and privatisation) was in charge. Singh was the finance minister who inaugurated the ‘reform process’ in 1991 and became the financial magazines’ favourite politician. This time, slightly embarrassed perhaps, he was quick to announce that poverty had to be tackled and that he wanted ‘economic reforms with a human face’.

After the 370 million votes to elect 539 members had been counted, the Indian National Congress emerged as the largest single party in the new Parliament with 217 seats; the BJP came second with 185, while the Left Front, made up of the two Communist Parties (CPI and CPM) as well as some smaller independent left groupings, secured 61 seats, enabling Congress to resist the traditional haggling and blackmail from regional parties desperate to join a coalition. Within 24 hours of the Congress victory, the secular alliance had 322 seats. It was not an overwhelming victory but it was a famous one.

Basic roti-dal issues were the most obvious reason for the BJP’s defeat. In the words of Sawali Rai, a 34-year-old bank employee quoted in the New York Times: ‘it is the anger of the working class . . . privatisation, no government jobs, prices rising.’ ‘Shining India’, the BJP slogan, may have been popular with the monied diaspora in Britain and North America – the non-resident Indians who are provided with generous tax-breaks to invest in the Motherland – but neo-liberal economic policies weren’t so popular at home. There were 34,850,000 unemployed in 2002; by 2007 there are liable to be between 40 and 50 million. India has the largest pool of unemployed graduates in the world, despite its success in information technology. According to official statistics, in 2003 there were 740,000 applicants for 20,000 jobs in the lowest, Group D category in the Indian railway system, and many of them were overqualified engineers and accountants. A PhD may not be enough even to guarantee a job serving the European tourists who fly in to Delhi, travel on special luxury trains to Rajasthan for weekend shopping jaunts and then fly back to Paris or London.

The suicide rate in the countryside is rocketing; just under 40 per cent of the population live below the poverty line and 47 per cent of children suffer from malnutrition. There is no running water in Delhi’s slums, while the five-star giant hotels in the city consume 20,000 litres of mineral or purified water every day. The decline in living standards under the BJP is revealed by the UN Human Development Index, which showed India slipping from 115th place in 1999 to 127th in 2001.

Indian defenders of the ‘Washington consensus’ claim that with a growth rate of 10.4 per cent, GDP growing at 8 per cent and foreign exchange reserves in excess of $100 billion, the Indian economy has never had it so good. But they never ask who benefits. The growth is undeniable, but it has increased the gulf between rich and poor in both town and country, as well as widening the gap in living standards between urban and rural populations. The reason is that the growth has been mainly in information technology, manufacturing and the service sector, which doesn’t help the 65 per cent of the population that still live in the countryside. The increase in manufacturing has been concentrated on capital-intensive products – cars, washing-machines, dishwashers – rather than labour-intensive ones, and so urban unemployment has remained largely unaffected. Even the much celebrated beneficiaries of outsourcing who work long hours at call centres and try hard to develop American accents are little more than global ‘cyber-coolies’.

There are 800 million people living below the starvation line in the world (defined as consuming fewer than 1960 calories a day) and 223 million of them live in India, as compared to 183 million in the whole of Africa. Between 1990 and 2000, the world total fell, but this was thanks exclusively to improvements in China. In India the numbers stayed constant. If you wanted to be generous, you could argue that a third of the population benefited to some extent from the free market and deregulation, and the top 0.5 per cent of this third benefited hugely. Conditions for the remaining two-thirds worsened. In the brave new world of global finance, food subsidies are treated as a sign of weakness, which means that economic reforms tend to cause more deaths among the poor.

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