‘The difficulties of governance now are dauntingly stupendous’

Geoffrey Hawthorn writes about the Indian General Election

  • India’s Economic Reforms 1991-2001 by Vijay Joshi and I.M.D. Little
    Oxford, 288 pp, £25.00, September 1996, ISBN 0 19 829078 0

Fifteen thousand candidates contested 545 seats in the Indian lower house, the Lok Sabha, in the May General Election. Four hundred million of the 590 million who were eligible to do so voted. It was the largest election in history. Yet it might have seemed odd. The Congress Government has been introducing far-reaching reforms. But the economy was not discussed. India has more than a third of the world’s poor. But poverty was not an issue. Congress’s secularism has been challenged by ‘Hindu fundamentalists’. But the Bharatiya Janata, the Party that’s been mounting the challenge, scarcely mentioned religion. The quarrels were more political than religious, and even where candidates from Congress itself were concerned, largely local and particular.

Congress did take 30 per cent of the votes. This was the largest percentage gained by any one party, but it was spread across most of the country, and under India’s first-past-the-post system, the Party gained disproportionately few seats – fewer than in any previous election. All the other contenders had a regional base. The BJP, who got fewer votes but a larger number of seats, was strong in six states in the north and west. The strength of the most successful party of those in the ‘social justice’ bloc, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), was concentrated in West Bengal, as it has been since its breakaway from the Communist Party of India in 1964. The other large party in the bloc, the Janata Dal, drew most of its support from Bihar in the north and Karnataka in the south. Others had even more localised support: eleven thousand of the fifteen thousand candidates simply stood as independents.

To some degree, Congress was merely incompetent. In the southern state of Tamil Nadu, for instance, the Prime Minister, P. V. Narasimha Rao, made an alliance with the Jayalalitha, the deeply disliked leader of one of the local Tamil parties. The Congress MPs there all defected to the other Tamil party. The Jayalalitha’s party went down, and 37 Congress seats went with her. The incompetence, however, goes deeper, and started thirty years ago. In 1966, the cynical old men who had come to run Congress made Mrs Gandhi its leader. They thought that Nehru’s daughter would give them grace and that they’d have nothing to fear from a woman whose political ambition had hitherto reached only to the portfolio for Information. She surprised them. Alarmed at the Party’s failure in the state elections in 1969, she divided it and left the old men and their provincial clients behind her. In the General Election in 1971, she appealed directly to the poor. (She even had subliminal clips of herself shouting her slogans inserted into the battle scenes of Bombay movies.) But she was unable to deliver. Having furiously declared a State of Emergency in the face of mounting opposition in 1975, she then in 1977 lost the General Election that she’d been told she could win at the end of it; so she and her younger son Sanjay proceeded to centralise the Party. They brought in people with no local base whose central and sufficient qualification was their loyalty to the Family. But Sanjay Gandhi was killed doing aerobatics over Delhi, and his mother, who’d gone on to win again in 1980, effectively caused her own murder through a grotesquely cynical mishandling of the opposition in the Punjab. Sanjay’s more pleasant but also more indolent elder brother, Rajiv, succeeded them, and his victory in 1984 was Congress’s most decisive.

It was also fleeting. The understandable if never well-founded fear of secession in Punjab subsided (the argument for a Khalistan was always more intense in Southall and Acton) and the Party’s support started once again to trickle away. Its local offices were abandoned to bats and owls and the occasional sad janitor, and after the General Election in 1989, Congress found itself once again with too few seats to form a government. The unlikely coalition that did, made up of the Janata Dal under V.P. Singh (Rajiv Gandhi’s former finance minister who’d resigned in disgust at what he claimed had become pervasive corruption at the top), the Bengal Marxists and the now lively and strikingly well-organised BJP, split within the year. The BJP could not accept the prospect of extended reservations in public employment for the lower castes and classes, and others in the Government found it increasingly difficult to accept the BJP. For a few months, the Janata Dal and the CPM continued with the tacit support of Congress until Rajiv himself was assassinated in the run-up to the election in the spring of 1991. His Italian wife (whom he’d met in Cambridge when working, intermittently, for his degree at Trinity) wisely rejected a request from the frightened old men of Congress to assume the leadership. They now had no choice but at last to leave the Family and elect one of themselves.

To a degree, Congress has been the victim of its own early success. It was seen to have brought India to self-rule. It embodied the new nation, secular, democratic and united, and was its central symbol. It also had support from abroad. The Americans were irritated by Nehru’s insistence that post-Revolutionary China should be allowed into the United Nations and by his more general non-alignment. But they could discount that. What worried them more was that China would succeed and present an irresistible model to the rest of the ex-colonial world. India had come fairly quietly to independence, and it was committed to democracy.

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[*] India in Transition: Freeing the Economy Jagdish Bhagwati (Oxford, 108 pp., £18.95, 10 June 1993, 0 19 828816 6).

[†] India: Macroeconomics and Political Economy 1964-91 by Vijay Joshi and I.M.D. Little (World Bank and Oxford India), 397 pp., £12.99, 21 December 1994, 0 8213 2652 X).